The Incredible Shrinking Man


Richard Matheson has done it all. His short stories and novels have been a massive influence on popular culture (the first time I read I Am Legend felt like a religious experience) and the numerous adaptations of his work has filled the rosters of numerous shows such as The Twight Zone and The Outer Limits. He’s even been something of an avid screenwriter too with his script for Duel giving Spielberg his start in movies, with other screenplays including such projects as Jaws 3… Ok, so maybe not all of his work has yielded the desired results, but one of his most accomplished works turned out to be one of his first forays into writing for Hollywood.
Based on his own story, The Shrinking Man, and helmed by none other than Jack Arnold, the director of the seminal Creature From The Black Lagoon, The Incredible Shrinking Man is somewhat atypical for a 50’s, sci-fi flick as it forgoes the usual alien invasion tropes in favour of something more loftier.


While chilling on vacation with his wife, Louise, Scott Carey, sunbathes on his brother’s boat while his spouse ducks below decks to get some frosty, ice-cold beers, but as he relaxes, a mysterious cloud passes over the boat, coating the holiday maker in a strange, silvery substance. Six months pass and Scott begins to grumpily notice that his clothes are suddenly too small for him as he seeks to not only have lost a significant about of weight, but he’s down a couple of inches off his height, too. Doctors initially scoff at the notion that Scott is shrinking, but soon have to eat their words with a slice of humble pie when it turns out that he really is getting smaller with every passing day.
Experiments are performed, tests are rigorously enforced and the consensus is all the same – Scott has not only shrunk like a sweater in the wash, but will continue to shrink as his condition worsens.
Time passes and soon Scott has had to sell his story to make ends meet as no one will hire a man the size of a small child and his demeanor towards his wife gets steadily more hostile as the grim reality continues to hound him. However, blowing up at the missus thanks to a rather unique case if short man’s disease is the least of his worries as soon he’s reduced to living in a doll’s house as his metabolic structure has reduced him to the size of an action figure.
Matters take a lethal turn when the couple’s house cat suddenly decides that Scott looks awfully tasty and as a result, our tiny trooper finds himself stranded in the basement with no way out. Soon complaints about his self worth are shelved when he has to take his survival into his own hands, foraging for food and building shelter for himself like some microscopic Robinson Crusoe, but will he find a way to miraculously reverse his fortunes before he’s picked apart by the humongous spider he shares the basement with?


A typical mistake that people make in regards to 50’s sci-fi is that it overdoes it on the general schlocky nature of the genre, usually relying on actresses with pointy bras swooning at the sight of a rubbery invader staggering across the Arizona flats – however, the best movies of the period take their hokey premises and primitive effects and do something truly remarkable with them.
At first glance, a story concerning a man shrinking by the day sounds like it could be ripe for comic interpretation, a route actually taken by its unofficial remake, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, during the 80’s. But when watching this unmitigated classic, you realise pretty quickly that its atypical approach is shooting for something far grander and meaningful than mere slapstick or even cheap thrills. This is highlighted by the fact that the movie is a story of two halves with the first treating Scott’s mysterious ailment almost like someone getting diagnosed with a brand new illness as it wears down his patience, self confidence and even his marriage. Becoming more withdrawn and bitter with every inch he steadily loses, he becomes convinced that the world is laughing at him and his ridiculous predicament (especially when he’s having a frustrated rant while the size of a toddler), but when he starts hitting doll-size, the tone and even the genre of the movie shifts to something more primal.


After a cat tries to make kibble of him and his breathless chase causes him to get stranded in the murky expanse of the basement, the movie takes a hard-edged flip into adventure territory as Scott becomes almost like a shipwrecked man, fashioning tools and weapons to survive as he constructs a makeshift shelter from a matchbox. Its strongly reminiscent of the final act of Predator as dialogue all but fades out completely (we still get a narration, however) and Scott worlds literally shrinks to the point that the only thing that matters is staying alive. Be it crossing a gap between crates that might as well be the Grand frickin’ Canyon or fighting to the death with a big old honking spider, Scott’s ordeals begin to connect him more spiritually with his predicament as the move leans into some lush, visual metaphors. Scott pulls a pin from a cushion like a knight drawning a sword while elsewhere his wedding ring symbolically drops off of his finger while Louise promises to stick by him and equally poignant is the scene where a despondent sparks up a temporary bond with a little person working at a circus.
The effects, revolutionary back in the 50’s, still actually manage to hold their own today despite the odd, visible matte line or slightly out of sync shot and the moments where Scott gets locked in mortal battle with a perilous pussy and a sinister spider are genuinely exciting, invoking a similar sense of tension Arnold managed with Black Lagoon’s attack sequences.
However, while the movie is superlative up to this point, what really pushes it over the top is the remarkably mature, surprisingly down-beat ending the film chooses to close with. With the spoiler klaxon wailing at full volume, the film ends with Scott triumphant over the spider and changed enough by his encounter to reassess his fate and even make peace with his fate, even though it means he’ll soon be going sub-atomic and beyond.


For a genre and a time period that usually ends with extraterrestrial foes vanquished and earth saved from some fantasy threat, its immensely refreshing and incredibly moving to find a movie that not only fails to solve the hero’s malady, but also puts a positive spin on it as Scott puts his life in the hands of the almighty as he essentially shrinks out of existence entirely.
Further establishing Matherson and Arnold at masters of their respective visions, The Incredible Shrinking Man does exactly what it says on the tin and then some as we work our way through a tall tale about a very small man facing gargantuan problems


One comment

  1. April Kent, pretty as her mother, was June Havoc’s daughter and Gypsy Rose Lee’s niece. This movie came along at the right time of the atomic age.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s