(3/10) The first American yeti film is brought to you by Z-movie specialist W. Lee Wilder, brother of Billy Wilder. Like his earlier sci-fi movies, The Snow Creature is ineptly filmed and scripted. The yeti gets honoured with one of the worst creature suits in the history of cinema, and so little material is filmed that most of the film consists of people walking on a snowy mountain and one and the same shot of the yeti being used on a dozen of instances, sometimes freeze-framed, sometimes in reverse. Still fairly entertaining if you like bad fifties movies. Features sci-fi stalwart William Phipps and Lock Martin of Gort fame, as well as Bond villain Mr. Osato.
The Snow Creature (1954, USA). Directed by W. Lee Wilder. Written by Myles Wilder. Starring: Paul Langton, Leslie Denison, Teru Shimada, Lock Martin, Rollin Moriyama, William Phipps. Produced by W. Lee Wilder for Planet Filmplays.
IMDb rating: 3.1/10. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.
I have pondered and deliberated much over whether to include bigfoot and yeti films on this blog, or rather: whether they should be considered science fiction or not, even in a very broad sense of the word. It is basically the same problem as with lost world films and movies like Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, review). Are they sci-fi or fantasy? I have included The Lost World (1925, review) and King Kong (1933, review), as well as the Creature films, and therefore see no sensible reason not to include yeti movies as well. I guess one must draw the line somewhere, however, and after some consideration I have come to the conclusion that the clincher should be whether there is an attempt to explain the creature’s existence in a scientific manner. The yeti and bigfoot are both cryptozoologic creatures, rather than magical fairy-tale creatures such as dragons or trolls, which fall firmly in the fantasy section. Thus: welcome snowmen.
Willie Wilder’s The Snow Creature is often considered the worst of the yeti films churned out during the short snowman-craze in the latter half of the fifties. However, it is generally given some credit for being the first. Sadly, I now must take even that credit away. The Snow Creature didn’t inspire the yeti craze that gave us films like Half Human (1955), Man Beast (1956) or The Abominable Snow Man (1957). Rather, filmmakers all over the world latched on to a general fascination with the yeti that peaked in he mid-fifties. This should be demonstrated well enough by the fact that the first yeti film ever made, as far as I can tell, was Pekka ja Pätkä lumimiehen jäljillä (review) a slapstick comedy featuring Finland’s answer to Laurel & Hardy. Translated as Pekka and the Stump on the snowman’s trail, it was released in July 1954, four months prior to The Snow Creature, although it never got a release outside of Finland. It is also highly unlikely that anyone at Toho studio in Japan would have seen Wilder’s no-budget film when they started making Ju jin yuki otoko (review), or Half Human, in 1955, since The Snow Creature never got a theatrical release outside of the US.
Now, in modern Western folklore, the Yeti and the Sasquatch (or Bigfoot) are really the same creature, set on differen continents – we are basically dealing with a large humanoid creature, mostly depicted as covered in fur and sometimes with ape-like characteristics. Today, in the theories of cryptozoolgy, both are (often) considered to be remnants of some prehistoric humanoid species or an evolutionary anomaly. Both creatures are basically concentrates of giant mythological creatures found in folklore pretty much all over the world. Native Americans have several different legends about different bigfoots (bigfeet?), Australian Aboriginals have similar legends that have amalgamated into the Yowie and similarly Chinese folklore has given rise to the myth of the Yeren. Likewise Nepali legends have had different names and characterisations of what we now commonly refer to as the Yeti. While these have traditionally had more magical and mythological explanations, the yeti stories brought back by mountaineers from the Himalayas in the early fifties inspired serious scientific investigations of such creatures, giving rise to the field of cryptozoology.
And it was exactly these events that inspired filmmakers all over the world to start making snowman movies. In 1951 British explorer Eric Shipton brought home photographs of large humanoid-looking footprints in the snow on Mount Everest, which sparked a sensation in the press. In 1953 Edmund Hillary and sherpa Tenzing Norgay also reported having seen large footprints on their way up to the summit of Mount Everest. As the two men became international superstars after having conquered the highest peak in the world, their reports of ”yeti” footprints naturally also gave rise to a insatiable interest in the mythical snowman. While Hillary remained highly sceptical of the existence of the yeti, the press lapped up Tenzing’s stories of eyewitness accounts, including that of his children, of the yeti.
To put this in a cinematic perspective, one should remember that in 1952 King Kong was re-released in cinemas and mopped the floor with all other movies at the US box office. This gave rise to a flood of monster movies, many of which depicted giant apes or prehistoric (real or fictional) creatures. As this coincided with the international interest in the yeti, it’s no surprise that a number of snowman films suddenly appeared in cinemas; first in Finland, then the US, Japan and Britain.
W. Lee Wilder’s movie The Snow Creature pretty much follows the basic basic plot of a King Kong-inspired monster film. A research team sets out to a remote location, they deal with some internal strife in order to pad out the film and add drama, capture the creature and bring it back to the US, where it escapes and wreaks havoc (although this film is fairly low on havoc), is captured and alternatively killed or near-mortally wounded. Jack Arnold did a very good job with the theme in Creature from the Black Lagoon, but alas, Willie Wilder was no Jack Arnold, and is more commonly compared to Ed Wood.
Wilder’s Himalayan research team consists of botanist Frank Parrish (Paul Langton) and photo journalist Peter Wells (Leslie Denison). We meet them on their way up the mountain, aided by a team of sherpas led by a man named Subra (Teru Shimada). Tragedy strikes when Subra’s brother Leva (Rollin Moriyama) joins them with news that the yeti has kidnapped Subra’s wife. Subra and Leva want to break off Parrish’s search for rare plants and go save the woman, but Parrish simply laughs in Subra’s face, ridiculing him for believing such children’s stories, and basically that telling Subra that missing his wife isn’t Parrish’s problem. In the next scene Parrish – in one of his many annoying voice-overs – says that because of his decision to prioritise flowers over Subra’s kidnapped wife, Subra seemed to treat him with ”resentment and disliking”. Why, I can’t imagine.
Subra stages a mutiny, forcing Wells and Parrish to join the yeti hunt at gunpoint. However, the tension between them lessens when the Americans themselves catch a glimpse of the yeti, and finally manage to track down and capture the creature. However, Wells isn’t happy with Parrish’s decision to simply hand over the creature to the Corey Foundation, the financiers of the expedition, as he instead wants to sell it to the highest bidder. But Parrish will have none of this, so Wells leaves for the US in anger.
The yeti is confined to a refrigerated phone booth for transportation to the US, but when it and Parrish arrive, they are met by trouble in the form of immigration services. It seems Wells has published his story in newspapers, calling the creature a ”snow-man”, which gets the authorities alarm bells ringing. You see, if the creature would be a animal, there would be no problem in bringing it into the US. If it is, however, an actual ”man”, then it can’t simply be taken into the country in a box without proper documents like visa, passport, etc. So a scientist is called in to verify what species of being this snow-man actually is. But until he arrives, the creature is placed in the customs’ warehouse. Unfortunately the refrigerator it is placed in isn’t very sturdy. The creature rocks the phone booth, tipping it over, and in the process breaks the lock. And off he goes, after knocking out a security guard.
With the creature on the loose, a mild panic breaks out in Los Angeles, and reportedly a woman is killed, but this happens off-screen. The most we actually see of the snow-man is a silhouette sneaking around dark corners. A police lieutenant by the name of Dunbar (William Phipps) is called in to aid Parrish in the hunt for Mr. Yeti, and they figure out that the creature has taken refuge in the coolness of the storm drains, and the hunt is on, and goes approximately the way you’d expect.
Director William Wilder was the older brother of the accomplished Austrian (or Austro-Hungarian, to be precise) writer-director Billy Wilder, who had made a number of high-profile films in Hollywood in the forties and fifties. In 1945 Willie Wilder took some of the money he had made as a successful handbag manufacturer in New York and set himself up as a film producer in Los Angeles. He produced two rather well-regarded low-budget film noirs, and then decided to hone his directorial skills with a dozen short films. In 1950 he directed his first full-length feature, the noir Once a Thief, starring Latin heartthrob Cesar Romero. Phantom from Space (1953, review) was his third full-length film, and the first of his early fifties sci-fi trilogy, the others being Killers from Space (1954, review) and The Snow Creature. These three have become his most lasting legacy, and are often considered among the worst of all the inane science fiction cheapos made in the decade. He directed eight more films in the fifties and sixties, including more noirs, retro-horrors, like the sci-fi tinged The Man Without a Body (1957) and a last science fiction movie called The Omegans (1968). There are a few out there who consider him an overlooked treasure, hampered only by low production values, although most consider him a director more on par with Ed Wood and Bert I. Gordon.
Many of Wilder’s films of the fifties were penned by the duo Myles Wilder and William Raynor. Myles was Willie’s son, and was barely twenty when he and his friend, 31-year old Raynor wrote Phantom from Space, and then went on to Killers from Space, however Raynor parted ways with him after that, and Myles wrote the script for The Snow Creature solo. Raynor and Wilder found each other again in 1960, and became quite successful TV writers, writing many episodes for McHale’s Navy and the lion’s part of The Dukes of Hazzard. When watching their early work in Willie’s films, it is difficult to comprehend how they achieved such competence later in their careers.
This said, I would argue that The Snow Creature is the most competent of W. Lee Wilder’s science fiction films, although the general opinion seems to be split on the subject. Some like the more low-key Phantom from Space, others the pure madness of Killers from Space, complete with aliens in jumpsuits and ping-pong eyes (actually, egg trays, not ping-pong balls). When I write ”most competent” I mean that it is something closely resembling a professionally made film.
It is easy to point out the flaws of the movie, so let’s start with what is at least not terrible. The script is actually coherent, if not very well written. But the film does follow a rather clear logic from point A to point B to point C, be it that the characters themselves don’t behave in a very logical manner all the time. The acting is decent for the most part. Paul Langton does his best with what is basically a pretty obnoxious lead character, and it isn’t his fault that the voice-overs he has to deliver are awful. Langton was a steady stock player, but is best known for his recurring role as Leslie Harrington on the popular TV series Peyton Place (1964-1968). Sci-fi fans probably know him best for his supporting role in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). He also had supporting roles in It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958) and Invisible Invaders (1959).
The best performance in the film is given by our old friend William Phipps. The film suddenly springs to life when he enters as Lt. Dunbar, and I can’t understand why they didn’t stick him in the lead. Phipps was one of the first US actors to specialise in science fiction. He played one of his very few leads in Arch Oboler’s post-apocalyptic Five (1951, review), and appeared in The War of the Worlds (1953, review), Invaders from Mars 1953, review), The Twonky (1953, review), and guested a number of science fiction TV shows from the fifties to the eighties. All in all, he appeared in over 220 films or series in a career that spanned five decades. As of January 2016, he is still around at 94 years old.
The rest of the cast consists of rather anonymous stock players, who show up to say their lines. For our purposes the most interesting is perhaps Robert Bice, who appeared in bit-parts in a number of sci-fi films, including Invasion, U.S.A. (1952, review), Port Sinister (1952), Space Master X-7 (1958) and It! The Terror from Beyond Space.
One of the really troubling aspects of the movie is the script’s attitude towards the sherpas. Granted, it is sometimes hard to tell whether it’s the film’s attitudes or simply the main characters’ attitudes it mirrors. Parrish at one point refers to them as ”human mules”, and warns Wells not to drink alcohol in front of the natives. He simply laughs away the kidnapping of Subra’s wife and generally treats the Nepalese people who are carrying all his gear more like pack mules than fellow explorers – certainly nothing here reflects the deep respect and admiration that for example Edmund Hillary felt towards the sherpas, and in particular his life-long friend Tenzing. Back from the expedition, he tells the Nepalese police officers that he doesn’t want to press charges against his sherpas for their mutiny. We as the audience are supposed to regard it as an act of kindness that he doesn’t want to punish the sherpas for getting outraged over the fact that he abandoned Subra’s wife to die in order to collect his flowers, and generally treated them like shit throughout the whole trip.
Speaking of the sherpas, the film is supposed to take place in Nepal, but all the sherpas are played by Japanese-American actors, and they actually speak Japanese in the film. All the three actors who play the main sherpas were regular stock actors, and appeared in dozens of films. Teru Shimada will win no acting awards for his portrayal of Subra, but he isn’t helped by the script either, as it puts a rather nasty racial slant on the role. Shimada had a tiny role in The War of the Worlds. Robert Kino (what a name for the screen!), playing the Nepalese police chief, showed up in The Night the World Exploded (1957), Ghost Warrior (1984) and Night of the Creeps (1986). However, he will go down in the history books for his role as the Bond villain Mr. Osato in You Only Live Twice (1967).
One of the worst things about the movie is the title character. The snow creature doesn’t really do much in the film, nor do we ever get a good look at him. When we see him, it is either very far away, completely obscured by shadows, or as a silhouette behind a frosted glass in the refrigerator. The reason for this is that the costume is utter crap. We never get a good look at the creature’s face, probably because the actor isn’t wearing any makeup or mask. There wasn’t even a makeup artist attached to the film. What we do see in a few obscured close-ups looks like a man wearing a winter cap with ear flaps. There’s one single scene – when the creature breaks out of his box – where we do get a pretty good look at the costume from behind. It is instantly clear that that the costumes consists of two parts – a top and a pair of pants, as you can clearly see the pant-line.
Furthermore, this is supposed to be a menace leaping across the mountains – but the actor can barely keep his balance when standing on a flat ledge, and when we see him climb, it looks like he has immense trouble simply getting down from a rock. Overall the snow creature looks quite docile and even fragile, and the small amount of action it takes part in is rather unimpressive. The one thing it has going for it is that it is incredibly tall.
There’s been some speculation over who actually played the creature. Some claim it was Richard ”Dick” Sands, who played the muscular alien in Phantom from Space. However, there is a testimony from actor Lock Martin’s granddaughter who claims that her Martin had spoken about having played the abominable snowman at one point. At the time she thought he meant Hammer’s The Abominable Snowman, but that was filmed in Britain, so it is closer at hand that he played the creature in The Snow Creature. It is almost certainly not Dick Sands. Sands was not nearly as tall as the snow creature, and was an apt athlete and had a body-builder-like physique, and would probably have infused the character with more energy and aggression. Plus, he was too broad-shouldered for the lanky creature. Lock Martin, on the other hand, was one of America’s tallest men at the time, and he was also very frail due to his gigantism, as has been noted in the many articles about his memorable role as the alien robot Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review). Furthermore, we can actually see Martin’s face peeking out of the creature suit in the photograph on the right.
There’s been much speculation over the years over whether the yeti suit was a re-used alien suit from Invaders from Mars. It would make certain sense, since Lock Martin also played one of the aliens in that film. However, those suits were one-piece jumpsuits, while the yeti suit was a two-piece, and the picture featured here clearly shows that it was a patchwork of actual animal furs. And as film historian Bill Warren points out in the always well-informed Monster Kids Classic Horror Forum, it would have been a lot more arduous to pimp the alien suit than to make the yeti suit from scratch. So it seems fairly confirmed that it wasn’t the same suit used in the earlier film.
The one thing that stands out surprisingly well in the movie is the music, composed by Manuel Compinsky. A renowned violinist, conductor and music teacher, like many musicians in Los Angeles, he contributed to the film industry, although mostly as a musician. He composed music for three of W. Lee Wilder’s movies, though: Killers from Space, The Snow Creature and The Big Bluff (1955). At times, it does feel like the music is made for the wrong film, as its soaring melodies bring to mind adventure films set in exotic harems or Egyptian sand dunes. It has that Eastern touch, perhaps added by Compinsky as the movie is partly set in Asia, but it sort of conjures up the wrong image of Asia. But it’s a fine piece of music nonetheless.
The filming is, as is often the case with Wilder, inept. The editing even worse. Wilder knows how to set up basic shots, but does nothing more than this. The shots are static and boring, and often feel cramped. Most of the movie is filmed in static wide shots and uninteresting medium shots. It feels like half of the films shots are re-used at least once for padding and lack of material, and in the case of the snow creature they are re-used sometimes a dozen times. Most of the shots of the creature is actually the one and same over and over and over again. It is a shot of Lock Martin stepping out from complete darkness into (sort of) light, and it is used both for the Himalayan sequences and Los Angeles sequences. Sometimes it’s freeze-framed, sometimes played in reverse. You get the feeling that the editor (Jodie Copelan) realised that there wasn’t nearly enough material in the can to tell an effective story at 70 minutes, so he just had to copy and paste from what Wilder had filmed and hope that no-one would notice.
There’s perhaps 30 minutes of effective film in this movie, much of the rest just feels like padding. Most of the film consists of people walking. There’s very little dialogue of any intelligence in the first half of the movie, which feels like it consists mostly of people trudging up and down the mountain. It doesn’t help that Myles Wilder insists on telling us everything that happens in voice-overs instead of actually having people act out what’s going on. There’s less voice-over in Los Angeles, but there’s also endless stretches of people walking around. If it isn’t the creature lurking about, its is Parrish and Dunlop walking around looking for the creature, sometimes taking breaks in conference rooms to deliver some exposition. The film feels a lot longer than its 70 minutes. The final scene is just bizarre. They have just killed an invaluable specimen of snow creature, perhaps the last of its species. But instead of perhaps delivering some musings on this, the script throws in a policeman telling Lt. Dunlop that his wife has just given birth, and Dunlop jokes that he might name the boy Frank, after the main character Frank Parrish. The end. What?! What has that got to do with anything? It seems like Wilder & Wilder didn’t know what to do with the film after the yeti was killed, but wanted it to end on a happy note. Hey, what’s more happy than a birth? Stick it in there!
The film is slow-moving and rather boring at some stretches, but in my opinion it doesn’t have nearly the same sort of paralyzing effect as Phantom from Space. Killers from Space might have had a slightly better story, but that film was hopelessly ruined by its bizarrely amateurish alien outfits and the loooong stretch of Peter Graves escaping rear-projected lizards and bugs. Here the story does hold up from beginning to end, even though there is way too little of it in terms of dialogue and plot. But is also shares a characteristic with the two other Wilder films I have reviewed, namely the fact that it contains within it some very interesting idea that could have made the basis for an excellent film, but is just left by the wayside. In this case the discussion over whether the snow-man is in fact human or not. Clearly this was an idea that Myles Wilder felt was intriguing, as he puts it in the script. But then he just seems to forget about it, and after some short dialogue seems to have completely forgotten that he wrote it. All in all, I would say that The Snow Creature is a fairly entertaining film, even if it is ineptly made and badly written.
The Snow Creature (1954, USA). Directed by W. Lee Wilder. Written by Myles Wilder. Starring: Paul Langton, Leslie Denison, Teru Shimada, Lock Martin, Rollin Moriyama, Robert Kino, Robert Hinton, Darlene Fields, George Douglas, Robert Bice. Keith Richards, Rudolph Anders, William Phipps, Jack Daly, Rusty Wescoatt. Music: Manuel Compinsky. Cinematography: Floyd Crosby. Editing: Jodie Copelan. Art direction: Frank Paul Sylos. Sound recorder: Robert Roderick. Special effects: Lee Zavitz. Produced by W. Lee Wilder for Planet Filmplays.