Saturday, January 3, 2009

YETI (2007) d. Paul Ziller

Reviewed by Rick Trottier

From their very beginnings, “creature features” have been plagued or one might also say saved by the strange dichotomy of being both occasionally creepy and most commonly cheesy. Creating a degree of threat and menace was easier in the early days of “monster films” during the 1930s, 40s and 50s before thematic audience saturation, higher levels of production quality and lower thresholds of sleaziness made it so that “cheese” began to outrageously overshadow “creeps”. Of all the “creature features”, none was more ludicrous both as a story and visually than Bigfoot/Sasquatch/Abominable Snowman/Yeti films no matter how serious the attempt to create a sincere horror or action movie. Perhaps it is the unconquered cynic in us that truly understands that no such creature can exist in today’s world, but be that as it may, giant man-ape flicks are still being made, have actually seen a renaissance over the past ten years, and they can still be entertaining. Likely, it is the still unresolved fear man retains in some of the most primitive corners of his brain that continues to recoil over “hominid” competition, something that was once the case more than 100,000 years ago. Whatever the reason for their unrelenting success, YETI is another installment in a long line of illustrious and/or infamous “Bigfoot” motion pictures and by borrowing from its cousins and a few other distant cinematic relatives, it becomes the newest addition to the “Maneater” Series to hold up its head with pride at being an enjoyable viewing experience.

YETI is the story of the “State College Grizzlies” football team, traveling by jet to Japan for the first-ever Bowl Game in that country. An electrical storm over the Himalayas causes the plane to lose altitude and then it crashes into the side of a mountain, stranding a number of survivors in the most inhospitable of environments. Forced to battle the elements and growing hunger, “sportos and bimbos” struggle to find a way to cope with challenges, not the least of which is working together in a race against time before they either freeze or starve. To make matters worse, it becomes increasingly obvious that “something is out there”, dragging off the corpses to its lair. Once the supply of dead meat is exhausted, the “creature” turns its attention to live prey and the last survivors of the plane crash are forced to dodge the teeth and claws of a ferocious yeti, or end up another gnawed set of bones adorning the floor of a dank mountain cave.

Anyone going into a film called YETI sporting a tag line “It kills in Cold Blood” has to know what they may be getting themselves into, and this movie is no PHILADELPHIA STORY or CHARADE for that matter. However, it does openly sample two older and classic storylines and then heavily makes use of another entire genre, all of which helps YETI to be proficient and occasionally absorbing. Much of the most intense drama is created by using the basic premise of the film SURVIVE (1976), based on the 1972 book ALIVE, both dealing with the topic of a men’s soccer team’s plane crash in the Andes mountains and the survivors having to come to grips with the grim realities of starvation. Added to that is the age-old tale of castaways having to battle among themselves and with their inner demons, all the while struggling with the taxing nature of their surroundings, something akin to LORD OF THE FLIES. When you add to that the elementary foundation of “creature feature” films like SNOW CREATURE (1954) or SNOWBEAST (1977), you’ve got a recipe for a surprisingly engaging narrative. What is somewhat of a bolt from the blue is that the greatest degree of conflict derives from the misfortunes and melodrama produced by character interplay and the emotional trauma therein. Each major character is an archetype that has been used in similar cinematic circumstances before, but they are none the worse for wear, and in this case their tussles, squabbles, skirmishes and all-out battles are far more compelling as story drama than anything else. The Yeti itself is not a great source of terror and exists more as a vehicle for creating shock, which it does nicely. For being a TV Movie, there is a surprising amount of gore in this flick, some of it gruesome and some of it quite comedic. There are burned bodies and bloody stumps galore in YETI, but there is also a scene where a character uses a severed arm as a splint for a broken leg, and in another scene the Yeti beats a man with his own leg that had just been torn off. In the end, we get a real “creepy” story when it comes to the character’s fight for survival and a real “cheesy” story when the coeds battle the Yeti to keep from becoming just another snack.

None of the actors are the next Lawrence Olivier or Olivia De Havilland, but they don’t have to be. All that is required of these thespians is that their performances match the roles that were scripted and that is done very competently. Whether it is “the leader”, “the troublemaker”, “the moralist” or any other character standard, inexperienced or fairly experienced the actors of YETI are able to provide workman-like portrayals that do this film proud. In fact, despite the youth of the roles and the performers, many of the characters of YETI were appealing and could be related to; while those who weren’t likable were written in such a way that they weren’t suppose to be. What isn’t something to be as proud of was the use of the monster itself in the story and in visual terms. One of the qualities of most “Bigfoot” films is that you either see little or nothing of the creature and what little you see isn’t revealed until late in the movie. In YETI, it isn’t long after the airliner crash that we see the beast in all its albino glory and while the monster makeup isn’t half bad, by seeing the snow ape so soon much of the potential suspense and menace is immediately erased. Then the primary hirsute antagonist is rendered even less frightening by pretty bad CGI that is fortunately not used too often, but it is applied just enough to spread an extra thick layer of “cheese” onto a film that was going to be pretty campy anyway. To make matters worse, the Yeti can leap tall larches at a single bound and is more powerful that a speeding avalanche. While not utterly derailing YETI, it was far more “frightening” or maybe “endearing” is the right word when a viewer could see a man in a Yeti suit lumbering or half-jogging across the snowy landscape instead of doing an anthropoidal imitation of the Six Million Dollar Man. Fortunately, the rest of YETI was “by the book” TV Movie charm. The sets and locations looked convincing and gave off a “snowbound wilderness” feel. The accompanying and incidental music was very “old school” in its orchestral feel, which was a great revelation. Since this was a film about 20-somethings, I fully expected a lethal dose of modern musical cacophony that would have added an irritating element to a film that would not be able to sustain any major detracting characteristics. Luckily, such was not the case.

While not having a true “extras menu”, YETI does have a few more crumbs than your average “Maneater” series DVD. An autoplay “Maneater” promo comes up before the main menu, followed by four other Genius Products trailers, all of which I’ve seen and three of which I can vouch for as being reasonably good experiences. The actual film trailer for YETI is included on this disc and while not a true “bonus”, it is more than I’ve seen for most of the “Maneater” series. Possibly this is the first foray into real extras on future discs? That is probably not likely as the inspirational seeds for other “Maneater” films must have just about all been sown, but who’s to say? Perhaps there is some awe-inspiring bonus feature waiting in the wings in the future that will leave me shell-shocked by its fascinating beneficence.

YETI is not the finest of the “Maneater” series and it isn’t even close to the best of the “Bigfoot” sub-genre, but it is enjoyable, you have characters to hate and others to root for. There is gore aplenty if that floats your boat and you’ll feel like you’re sitting down with an old friend you’ve missed since the general story-line should be pretty familiar. I’d say that YETI could be perfect fare for a gloomy February afternoon with the wind howling outside, snow drifts piling up and the mercury dropping fast. Make a few grilled cheese sandwiches, brew a mug of hot cocoa, pull a few blankets onto the sofa and then curl up with a film that really does feel like it is the cousin of so many other Saturday afternoon monster movie offerings on independent UHF TV from long ago. Go in knowing you are not getting award-winning cinema, but know that you might get a few laughs and a few groans (for a variety of reasons) and know that you could do a lot worse. In fact, it’s pretty hard to do better in a lot of cases nowadays.

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