Mildly Controversial Blus: The Abominable Snowman

Here's a recent release that I resisted purchasing at first because I'd already read about its issues.  But as I dwelled on it, I thought it'd be ideal to cover on this site, and after all, the government sent us all those checks with the specific intent that we use it to stimulate the economy.  So I ordered Scream Factory's new release of the 1957 Hammer chiller The Abominable Snowman on blu-ray - 'twas my patriotic duty!
If you know me well, you know this Hammer flick's of particular interest to me because it's written by Nigel Kneale.  It's a remake of his BBC teleplay The Creature, which to my great dismay as been completely lost - no known recording exists.  But unlike a couple of Hammer's most famous Kneale remakes, The Creature wasn't much longer than their film, so not much material was lost.  The original Quatermass stories were serials, which had to be drastically cut down into a single feature-length screenplay.  And in the case of the original Quatermass, it was also unnecessarily dumbed down... SPOILERS FOR QUATERMASS, the story of the world's first men into space returning with a virus which turns out to be be a parasite that turns them into a destructive monster: when the monster became so indestructibly large it consumes Westminster Abbey, Prof Quatermass walks into the alien itself and addresses the remaining humanity of his fellow scientists it had absorbed.  He convinces them that the toll of life is too great and the creature takes its own life.  Whereas in the film, he goes, "maybe electricity is its weakness!"  And so some soldiers zaps it, causing it to die.  ...I don't hate the movie, but it's definitely a lesser work. /END OF SPOILERS
Here, while some passages have been lost and changes were made (most of which Kneale has expressed approval of), it's largely faithful to the original screenplay.  They've even kept the original star, Peter Cushing, who had already worked with Kneale in their excellent adaptation of 1984.  You may recall Kneale had some rather famous objections to the actor they had play Quatermass as well, so it's great to see everyone on the same page here, and consequently, this work feels much smoother and more cohesive.  Forrest Tucker replaces Stanley Baker as Cushing's co-star because they needed an American, and I wish, wish, wish we could see somehow Baker's original performance, but Tucker's a professional who knows how to portray his brash explorer.
Don't let the lurid posters fool you; this is more a work of science fiction than horror.  Yes, there are some suspenseful moments where the creature is lurking outside of the explorers' camp.  But at the end of the day, this film is more interested in the philosophical exploration of ideas than thrills or kills.  That said, though, the production values are surprisingly high.  Obviously most of this was shot on a sound-stage, but the sets are first class and there was a lot of real, original mountain climbing footage created for this film, as opposed to the generic stock inserts you'd expect from its B-movie peers.  These guys really went out and filmed in remote snowy mountain ranges, seriously elevating the production.  And apart from one obviously rubber glove moment, the creature itself looks pretty great, too.
Anchor Bay gave this film its American debut on DVD back in 2000 as part of their Hammer Collection.  They repackaged it once or twice, but that's been it for this film until December 2019, when Scream Factory got a hold of it and put it out on blu.  There were a few import editions in between, including a Japanese blu (Happinet, 2014), but for the most part, it's been just these two discs.
1) 2000 AB DVD; 2) 2019 SF BD (short cut); 3) 2019 SF BD (long cut).
This is a really attractive transfer.  It's a big leap forward from the DVD, which was already quite good, especially for such an old release.  The ratio is roughly the same, shifting from 2.32:1 to 2.34:1, partially because the DVD is very slightly windowboxed, though the blu also pulls out to reveal slightly more around all four sides.  Besides the standard compression you can't avoid with SD, the DVD does feature some edge enhancement that the BD handsomely cleans up.  It also has a broader range... you can see how around the lamp and the areas of brightest snow where it's flared out on the DVD, but more natural detail on the blu.  And the film grain is clear and distinct.  There are some flecks and other signs of light film damage throughout, but overall it's a beautiful restoration.

All versions here feature the original mono track, in DTS-HD on the blu.  The complete version also includes optional English subtitles, which the short cut and DVD omit.

...But wait a minute.  What's going on with that second shot?  It's in SD on the extended blu-ray cut, but in HD on the shorter cut?
Well, their official release page tells us that, "usable film elements of the complete film no longer exist; approximately five minutes of the film have been upconverted to high definition from a standard definition source."  Okay.  A composite cut in and of itself isn't what makes this release particularly controversial.  Of course, ideally, we'd all love have the complete uncut version of the film in perfect HD quality, but if it can't be helped, a composite cut is the next best thing.  And Scream Factory have also included the shorter version, without the inserts, for those who can't abide the shifts in quality (although I think you're crazy, personally, if you prioritize that over seeing the absolute complete work).  The controversy mostly stems in a find I can't take credit for, but seems to have been initially discovered by user jimqk on the forums.  The longer cut is 1:30:05, and the shorter cut is 1:25:05.  So ((beep, bleep, beep))... that would mean the extended cut has exactly five minutes of SD footage, right?  Well, not exactly, which is the issue.  Also, for a brief second or two (at 1:02:09), the short version even includes a brief moment of SD footage.  But it's the use of SD footage in the extended cut that's the off-putting part.

To be fair, it's not an uncommon practice to leave a little extra SD footage even where a bit more HD footage is available to cover the jump.  In other words, only switching footage on a cut so you don't see the obvious shift in quality right in the middle of a standing shot.  Some people might prefer it the other way around, but it's a judgement call, and you can at least see the reasoning either way.  But that's not what happens here.  The entire, lengthy scene plays all the way through in the shorter cut, from the beginning of the shot to the end; and yet for some reason they swap it out for the SD composite footage in the longer cut anyway.  Is their some obscure reason they made that decision, or is it just a mistake because they were rushing through this edit?  I don't know, but it's a full minute-long stretch we're talking about here that was apparently available in HD, but we got in SD anyway.
Anyway, if you can get past that, the special features should cheer you back up.  Starting with the DVD, we get a terrific audio commentary by director Val Guest and Nigel Kneale.  They were recorded separately and edited together, but still offer a treasure trove of exciting insight for fans.  Also included is a vintage episode of The World of Hammer, focusing on Peter Cushing.  It's basically just a clip show of all of Cushing's Hammer roles, and they like to show the films' climaxes, so beware spoilers abound!  There's actually no original footage to it at all, but they do score a few points by getting Oliver Reed to narrate.  The DVD also has the original theatrical trailer and an insert.

Scream Factory carries all of that over (except the insert), and also adds some exciting stuff of their own.  A new expert audio commentary and on-camera interview are both quite good, but unfortunately, they tell almost all the same facts and details in nearly the exact same way.  So I wouldn't bother watching both.  Personally, I'd opt for the interview, just because it's more efficient, but it's nice to have the choice.  They also add the Trailers From Hell episode, done by Joe Dante himself, and a stills gallery.
So ultimately, I'm not too fussed over the issues with this disc (hence the "mildly" of the title), though it is curious.  Oh, and that Japanese blu?  It's just the shorter cut, plus it's interlaced and barebones, so that's really not a viable contender.  If you want the complete version of the film on blu, this is it.  But even if Indicator or another label does wind up releasing this cut with that stretch of HD footage instead of the SD, I don't think I'd bother replacing just for that.  Watching this on TV, yes, you definitely do see the shifts in quality, but it's not much more distracting than the other flashes of film damage.  And barring discovery of the lost film, The Abominable Snowman's always going to be a composite cut no matter who releases it.  Scream's put together a pretty sweet package, with an attractive transfer and some great extras.  I'm happy with mine.

No comments:

Post a Comment