Warning: major plot spoilers ahead.
High-flying entrepreneur Morgan Hunnicut (Eddie Faye) visits a palaeontologist friend, Professor Henry Waterman (John Stacy), to ask for his help with a “humane expedition” in northern Canada. Though Waterman has been taken for a ride by his friend in the past, he reluctantly agrees. Hunnicut’s mute grandson, Herbie (Jim Sullivan), has discovered a large creature preserved in ice, which Hunnicut Sr wants to thaw and use as publicity for his business. On inspection of the animal, Waterman decides that it must be a yeti that was trapped in an avalanche millions of years ago.
In an attempt to revive the yeti, he’s put in a transparent cage, winched under a helicopter and flown to 10,000 feet, the height of his prehistoric, Himalayan habitat. He eventually awakes and, after almost causing the ‘copter to crash, is given a sedative gas and brought back to earth. The effects of the gas quickly wear off, and he breaks free from his cage, causing panic – until he befriends Herbie and his older sister, Jane (Phoenix Grant), whom he sees as his kin. With the yeti calmed, Hunnicut puts him on display in Toronto, but he quickly breaks loose, his reputation – and fate – now in the hands of Jane and Herbie.
A largely forgotten title, due in part to its unavailability on DVD, 1977’s Yeti – The Giant Of The 20th Century is an Italian production, directed by Gianfranco Parolini under the pseudonym Frank Kramer, that, like The Mighty Peking Man, A*P*E and Queen Kong, was released as an ‘accompaniment’ to the 1976 version of King Kong.
It’s a curious hybrid of child-friendly, Disney-style fantasy and something much darker. The basic story – two teenagers do their best to look after a furry giant from another time while bad guys try to either exploit it or destroy it – suggests a heartstring-plucking drama for all the family, but there are elements that push it closer to exploitation.
Blood from a head wound pools on the floor next to a dead body. A man has his neck crushed between the yeti’s toes, as bones crunch and crack on the soundtrack. Herbie’s pet dog, Indio, is stabbed and blood shown trailing from its chest wound as it lies inert on the floor.
Jane, our young hero, is punched in the face by a man, thrown around like a rag doll and held down on a bed in what looks like the beginnings of an attempted sexual assault, while her brother looks on helplessly and silently. When she manages to break free, she’s instantly caught and tossed between two men, before being strangled half to death. If there were crash zooms into the terrified victim’s eyes, it would be tempting to start drawing parallels with the work of Lucio Fulci.
Fulci – who, to give you the flavour of his most well-known films, once said that “violence is Italian art” – went on to cast Phoenix Grant (under her real name, Antonella Interlenghi) in City Of The Living Dead (1980). In certain respects, Yeti, Grant’s debut movie, provided good grounding, which is a bizarre observation to make about a film in which a hairy, doe-eyed giant mistakes a normal teenage girl for his ‘wife’ because the jacket she’s wearing when they meet has a fur-lined hood – though even this delicate moment is pooped on with the observation, from Hunnicut’s security chief, that “she might have some duties to fulfil if she stays overnight”.
Ew. This sort of thing doesn’t happen in Digby, The Biggest Dog In The World.
If the thought of a night-time tryst between a defrosted prehistoric beast and a teenage girl has you re-tasting your breakfast, be warned: at one point, when Jane is sitting in the big guy’s hand, she reaches out for his nipple, which grows erect in glorious close-up. The surprised/pleased look on the yeti’s face suggests that his libido is thawing nicely. The furry codpiece that he’s wearing suddenly looks quite threatening.
The yeti – played by Mimmo Crao, who the same year appeared in Franco Zeffirelli’s Jesus Of Nazareth, probably in the same make-up – is half man, half beast and, half the time, only half there. His transparency varies from scene to scene – on a miniature set, he’s solid, but in composite shots the background can often be seen through his body.
When he’s carrying Jane and Herbie in his hand, they too develop a ghostly quality. At the film’s climax, when the yeti uproots a tree and soil rains over him, he almost disappears completely; it’s as if the Abominable Snowman is melting. Abominably. Still, his reluctance to be shown in the same frame as other characters unless it’s absolutely necessary proves that he is kind – to the struggling effects team, at least.
It’s a bit of a shame, as the sound design for the yeti is very effective, his powerful roar a mix of animals that brings to mind some of the dino sounds we’d hear 16 years later in Jurassic Park. It’s synced pretty well with Crao’s facial movements, and the continual sound of the yeti’s heavy breath, as well as the thud of his feet, adds literal weight to the actor’s performance.
Unfortunately, as with many vintage creature features, the film can’t make its minds up about how tall its titular beast is. Hanging in the sky in a clear cage, he’s not much bigger than the helicopter he’s attached to. When he touches down, he immediately doubles in size. He later bursts out of a large warehouse, which he towers over, even though a few moments before he was standing upright inside the building with acres of headroom to spare.
This inattention to detail adds an unintentional comic layer to the film’s already uneven tone – that’s in addition to the hokey dialogue (our hairy hero is framed for murder with the line: “The yeti was the one – he just went wild”), bumbling background characters (a security guard runs into the warehouse, stops and waits for his cue, before making his stumbled entrance and glancing directly to camera – twice) and yeti disco song, a track extolling the virtues of yetidom that plays as the animal arrives in Toronto and again during the end credits. Naturally, the song is performed by a band called the Yetians. Sadly, they don’t appear on screen.
Yeti’s score, by Sante Maria Romitelli, is big and bombastic, with a couple of highly memorable themes. The keen-eared might spot similarities between parts of the score and one of the movements of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Some scenes seem over-scored but, in general, the music is this film’s pulse – remove it and the story would likely fall pancake flat, its visual flaws the only reason to keep watching. As it stands, the film has an epic sweep that lifts it above many of its peers in the library of shoddily assembled monster movies.
Ultimately, though, Yeti fails to make the most of its sonic goodness, sending the creature off into the wilderness at the end with nary a goodbye, instead of gunning him down and handing the audience tissues. If anyone does pull out a hankie, they’re more likely to use it as a white flag.
That the yeti understands what Jane is saying is just about believable, given the obvious empathy he has for the woman (and she does use words of one syllable). Less believable is the miraculous resurrection of the pet dog, last seen on a warehouse floor in a pool of its own blood. As it comes bounding towards Herbie, and Herbie bounds back (it takes a full 40 seconds for the pair to meet), it’s as if the film suddenly decides to put its hands in the air and declare, once and for all, that it really, truly wasn’t trying to be serious – though I’m not quite sure that I believe it.
And what of Herbie’s story? At the beginning of the film, Jane goes to some embarrassingly expositional length to explain why her brother can’t speak: he witnessed his parents’ deaths. The plot gives the young lad many opportunities to cry out, in either joy or anger, but it ends without him saying a word and the viewer wondering why the yeti’s presence in his life doesn’t, you know, fix him up, like it would in the Disney movie they were expecting. With no resolution to this subplot, the audience is left wondering whether this young actor really couldn’t speak. Does the longer Italian cut of the film (which runs at 118 minutes, compared to the UK’s 96) gives Herbie his voice back? Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to track it down to find out.
A confusing and seemingly confused film (in its shorter form, at least), Yeti – The Giant Of The 20th Century is a true cult curio. It’s a film that’s easy to overlook when skimming the giant-ape genre, which would be a mistake given its obvious debt to King Kong (1976).
With its strident music and scenes of beast/girl bonding, it clearly strives to hit similar emotional beats to John Guillermin’s movie, though ultimately it doesn’t share its heart, coming off instead as a bit creepy due to its more exotic elements – elements that, ironically, bolster its credentials as a movie that you have to see, though sightings of this particular yeti are quite rare.