English botanist Dr. John Rollason is on an expedition in the Himalayas, staying at the monastery of Rong-buk with his wife, Helen, and assistant, Peter "Foxy" Fox. While he's studying an unknown type of plant provided to him by the Lama, he's asked of another expedition party that's six days overdue and of their intentions, which the Lama feels aren't entirely scientific. Helen then learns of her husband's intention to join these other men on a trek up the mountains, in spite of having had an accident while on a climb years ago, and realizes that it has to do with his interest in the legendary "Yeti" or "Abominable Snowman." The other party, led by American Tom Friend, arrives, and Rollason is introduced to the members: Ed Shelley, Andrew "Jacques" McNee, and their Sherpa guide, Kusang. Friend makes no secret of his intent to track down and find the Yeti, offering up a cylinder containing a large tooth as proof of its existence. When the tooth, which had been stolen from the monastery, is presented to the Lama, he claims that it's carved and that the Yeti doesn't exist, but the team, including Rollason, are determined to go along with the expedition; Rollason is given a cryptic warning from the Lama before they leave the next morning. After an exhausting, day-long climb to a hut full of supplies high up in the mountains, Friend reveals that the Lama was right about their intentions not being scientific: Shelley is a trapper and they plan to capture one of the creatures, alive if possible, and bring it back to the civilized world. Rollason is not at all happy about this but continues to go along with the expedition, determined to be as scientific as he can be about it. The next day, the party arrives at a glacier where a campsite has been set up and McNee accidentally steps into a spring trap set by Shelley, severely injuring his foot. After they free him, Rollason is told that they've caught a small Yeti... but, despite Kusang's insistence, it turns out to be a species of Himalayan monkey. Upon hearing on the radio that a blizzard will be hitting their area in 24 hours, Friend decides to head back down and tout the monkey as a Yeti regardless. Soon, however, he doesn't have to, as Shelley manages to shoot and kill a real one that wandered into their campground. The expedition may have proven the creatures' existence, but they soon realize that the others plan to reclaim the body and seem to have supernatural powers with which to do so. But, are the men are in danger from the creatures or themselves? And how much does the mysterious Lama know of what's happening?
For me, an icy and snow environment is the perfect setting for any type of suspenseful movie, be it horror, science fiction, or just a straight-up thriller, because of the inherent sense of isolation and claustrophobia it creates and this film uses it very well. While it doesn't negate the beauty of the Himalayas, as there are plenty of lovely, panning shots of the snow-covered mountains (in actuality, they're the French Pyrenees), and the film as a whole does look nice in the combination of the black-and-white and the widescreen format it was filmed in, once the expedition party makes it very high up to the hut and the glacier where the bulk of the story is set, you get a sense of how they're out in the middle of nowhere and are pretty much stuck there due to the conditions. Props have to be given to the production design, as these sets really do look like snowy, barren plateaus that are miles and miles away from any civilization, and in the scenes where they call for each other and the only thing hear are their voices echoing, it feels like they are completely alone. In addition, a lot of the dialogue scenes take place in the cramped interiors of the aforementioned hut, their tent, and the cave where they store the body of the dead Yeti, and the feeling of claustrophobia is apparent even before things start going very wrong. The nighttime scenes are particularly eerie, such as when they wander outside the hut into the dark and quiet, searching for the source of a sound McNee claims to have heard, or later when the only sounds are the cries of the other Yetis after they've killed the one. Of course, matters become much more dire when McNee's leg is injured by the trap Shelley set and Rollason can't be sure if the treatment he gave it is enough, saying that he should be in a hospital, and then the blizzard comes through and strands them there. Even though Rollason feels otherwise about them, they now have to deal with the Yetis with a raging snowstorm outside that obscures their vision and makes the situation even more frightening, especially for Shelley when he's waiting for them in the cave. And top of that, the poor quality of the air in those high elevations makes them ill-tempered and irritable, as quarrels break out very easily, and they have to be careful about avalanches, which is what kills Friend.
The monastery, which itself is quite isolated being high up in the mountains, is also portrayed as being alien and unsettling, mostly because of the notion of being strangers in a strange land. You have the situation of being unable to speak much of the native language, combined with how unusual and eerie the customs and, again giving credit to the art department, the architecture can be (a prime example being when Helen goes looking for what happened to Kusang and wanders around a creepy, dimly-lit hallway until someone jumps her), along with the isolation and claustrophobia and it can make for an uncomfortable experience. As if that weren't enough, there's the added notion of the Lama being a very mysterious person, with powers of perception that seem quite supernatural, and his clearly knowing more than what he's letting on, such as what did happen to Kusang and what's happening to the party up in the mountains. Like I said earlier, that scene of him in deep meditation or whatever it is he's doing, with that bizarre, zoned out expression on his face and the camerawork that suggests he's connected to the events occurring up in the mountains, is enough to let you know that there is something very strange and potentially otherworldly going on. It's small wonder why Helen decided to mountain a party to go searching for the others; above her worrying about Rollason, I think she also wanted to get away from that creepy place.
In depicting the Abominable Snowmen themselves, Val Guest decided to go with the "less is more" approach and keep them almost entirely offscreen until the very end, save for a few glimpses here and there and signs of their presence (which is another thing this movie has in common with The Thing from Another World). That was a good move, not only for how effective that technique is but also because, when you finally do get a dimly lit, full-body shot of a couple of them near the end (the image in the paragraph below), you can tell that they're just men wearing fur parkas and showing them out in the open could've turned this into the lowest rent type of monster movie. Their presence is already in the air when the expedition reaches the hut about halfway up the mountain and McNee claims to have heard some type of cry outside while Rollason and Friend were arguing. While they don't find anything when they go out to investigate, it succeeds in giving you the feeling that they are out there, one that is confirmed once they reach the glacier higher up and pitch camp. During another argument between Rollason and Friend, one where they end up accidentally damaging the radio, they hear something outside and find the door of the cage where they were keeping the monkey they'd caught ripped off, with enormous footprints in the snow next to it. While that's going on, we get out first physical look at a Yeti when one's hand reaches into the tent from underneath it, fumbling around as it grabs at stuff, and it's pretty unsettling-looking: covered in hair and with long, dull fingernails. When Kusang sees it and screams in terror, the others are able to see something by the tent but don't get a glimpse of the creature itself, although they do find that Shelley's traps have been smashed up. That's when you first see the affect that the Yetis' presence has on McNee, as he goes into a trance-like state when they're nearby, which is followed by Shelley shooting and killing one outside. They hear it let out a low, human-like yell and when they follow a trail of blood to its body, they see that it's much bigger than they expected it to be, while Rollason is taken more by the face than anything else (we don't see it). They then realize that the others Yetis know what they've done, as they can be heard mournfully crying in the distance, a sound that continues sporadically throughout the rest of the film. Their continued presence compels McNee to follow the sounds of their cries, which leads to him climbing up a cliff and falling from it to his death, and when they try to retrieve the body of their fallen comrade from the cave and get caught up in the net, you only see their struggling shadows on Shelley as they try to get free and he ultimately dies of fright.
Nigel Kneale disagreed with Guest's decision to keep the Yetis hidden in the shadows, as he felt that they should be shown entirely in order to make it clear that they're not evil monsters and that mankind are the savages. As much as I can understand why Guest took the approach that he did, Kneale may have had a point, since the "less is more" approach is often used for creatures in movies that are meant to be sinister and frightening, like the shark in Jaws, Michael Myers in Halloween, and the xenomorph in Alien. Plus, the vagueness behind the deaths and their possibility having a hand in them could be seen as harmful to the point of the story, although I look at it as the Yetis simply defending themselves, as the deaths don't start until one of their own is killed. They may actually be gentle creatures but, when Shelley killed the one, all bets were off and they had to get rid of these men who were threatening. In fact, it's possible that McNee's death was unintentional and a simple result of his being affected by them, while those of Shelley and Friend were because they knew how dangerous they were to them. Or another way to look at it, seeing as how they may have known about Shelley's harmless gun but not the net, is that their powers do have limits and they didn't know which of them were dangerous, so they decided to get rid of them all. That could explain why they menacingly approach Rollason in the cave at first but don't harm him when they get close enough to look at him because they can tell by looking at him that he's different from the others, which is also why they help him make it back down (you see their footprints leading away from him when Helen finds him, so you know they had a hand in it). But, even then, you could say that they took extra steps to ensure no one else would come searching for them and wiped Rollason's memory, meaning that when he's saying at the end that the Yeti doesn't exist, it's because he's forgotten everything that's happened and the Lama is simply reinforcing it. My reason for thinking this is because of how Rollason's POV shot of the one Yeti's face blurs as it stares at him, as if it's taking control of his mind, and the way they just left him standing there, half-frozen, when Helen finds him. Guest said that for the revealing shot of that Yeti's face, he used actor Fred Johnson, whose eyes he described as being of "worldly understanding," to convey that they're benevolent creatures, but, like everything else, I'm not sure what I'm seeing in its expression. Because you only see it from the nose up, you could read almost anything into that stare, be it benevolence, understanding, indifference, whatever. All I know for sure is that it's definitely a memorable image, with how ancient it looks, and, as I said in my introduction, one I never forgot since I was a kid (although, I was very thrown since it looked nothing like the ape-like drawings of the creature that I'd seen depicted in various sources, too young to understand that was the point).
It's interesting that this film was released in the year 1957 because, while Nigel Kneale may have been inspired to write the original television program by the first major reports of Yeti footprints from Eric Shipton and Sir Edmund Hillary's explorations of the Himalayas in the early 50's (the former of which is mentioned in the movie), it would end up being a major year in the history of the creature. This was the year when Tom Slick, a Texas oil tycoon, mounted the first of several expeditions to search for the Yeti, the most notable incident of which was the discovery of a supposed mummified hand of one of the creatures at a monastery in the small village of Pangboche (which also had a supposed scalp). What's really interesting is that in 1959, one of the members of Slick's expeditions took bone fragments from the hand, smuggled them to India, and had help smuggling them out of the country and into England from, of all people, Jimmy Stewart, who was a friend of Slick's, where they were examined and said to be a close match to a Neanderthal. Does this scenario not sound like the plotpoint in the film where Tom Friend brings back a supposed Yeti tooth that was stolen from the monastery? Since it happened two years after the film, it's a real case of life imitating art, and would become even more so in the 1990's when the entire Pangboche hand was stolen from the monastery (unlike in the movie, the hand has never been returned).
Whenever I think of this movie's music score by Humphrey Searle (his only work for Hammer and one of a small handful of film scores he did altogether, with the most notable being The Haunting), what immediately comes to mind is a hollow, rhythmic, bell-like donging that you hear prominently during the opening and closing credits. It immediately sets a mood, as it sounds like what you'd expect to hear in a Himalayan monastery such as the one here, and there are many other bits of the score that have that distinctive, ancient Asian flavor to the way they sound, particularly in the shot of the Yeti's face at the end. Plus, during many of the sequences that take place in the monastery, including the first one after the opening credits, you can hear deep chanting from the monks which, like the donging, gets across the idea that you're in a foreign and mysterious place, one where it's not so farfetched for a creature like the Yeti to exist.