Written by Richard Matheson
Based on The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson
Directed by Jack Arnold
Starring Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, Paul Langton
US Release April, 1957
Home Video Universal Studios Home Entertainment (DVD)
Classic Horrors rating = 8 (out of 10)
Warning: the following contains plot spoilers.
What I remember from first watching The Incredible Shrinking Man is Scott Carey (Grant Williams) running from a cat that is now larger than he is and battling a giant spider that has become his mortal enemy. What I didn’t remember after watching it recently is the emotional roller coaster he rode or the relationship with his wife, Louise (Randy Stuart) that is the heart of the movie.
As the movie begins, Scott and Louise are relaxing on a boat provided by his brother, Charlie (Paul Langton). The two have a playful rapport, teasing each other lovingly. He tells her that although they’ve been married for six years, “it seems like six minutes.” However, what happens next will change both their lives forever. While she’s down below getting him another beer, a strange mist floats towards him, sprinkling radioactive glitter on his bare chest.
Six months later, Scott’s pants are too big and he asks Louise if she’s sure she got the right ones back from the cleaners. “You’re probably just losing weight,” she says. “It’s very becoming.” During a visit with Doctor Arthur Bramson (William Schallert), Scott learns he’s lost not only 10 pounds, but also two inches from his height. A week later, he’s lost four more pounds and his wife doesn’t have to stand on her toes to kiss him. “We’ll go back to the doctor tomorrow. I’m sure he’s got a pill for it.”
The doctor finally admits that Scott is getting smaller. Since there’s no medical precedent for what’s happening to him, he’s sent to the California Medical Research Institute. “If there’s an explanation, they’ll find it.” Following “endless” tests, it’s determined that there’s been a rearrangement of the molecular structure of the cells in Scott’s body, likely due to the combined effect of a germ spray or insecticide that entered his body, then became “something else” after his exposure to the mist.
Needless to say, Scott is a little depressed about his situation and wants to immediately discuss with Louise what might eventually happen to their marriage. As he begins talking, his wedding ring, now too large for his finger, slips off onto the floor of the car. His depression soon turns to anger. Selling his story to the press, he becomes famous. However, when his house is surrounded by reporters, he snaps at Louise, mad that he’s “become a joke for the world to laugh at. I’m a child that looks like a man!”
He tries to turn that frown upside down by writing a book. On October 17, he’s 36 ½” tall and weighs 52 pounds, when he gets a call that an antitoxin has been found. A week later, there’s been no further shrinkage, but future growth is uncertain. Scott’s anger turns to self-loathing. “Relationships with everyone in the world ceased except my wife. I felt puny and absurd… a ludicrous midget. I loathed myself. I had to get out. I had to get away.”
After a glimpse of the Acres of Fun carnival sideshow sends him running, Scott meets Clarice Bruce (April Kent) in a diner. In Clarice, who was born small, he finds a kindred spirit. “That night I got a grip on my life again. With the telling [of his story], it became easier.” He begins to believe that he’s normal and it’s the rest of the world that isn’t. Two weeks later, though, he’s suddenly shorter than Clarice, who they used to joke was smaller than Scott.
He now lives in a doll house where “everyday it was worse.” He becomes “more tyrannical and monstrous in his domination of Louise.” After she leaves the front door open for a moment and the cat runs inside, The Incredible Shrinking Man that I remember begins. When he falls down the basement stairs into a box, Louise thinks the cat got him and the news reports the death of the man who suffered “the most fantastic ailment in the annals of medicine.”
Interestingly, Scott still hasn’t transformed into a warrior battling for his life against creatures in the vast expanse of his basement. His instinct is to escape… to reach Louise in order to survive. Meanwhile, Louise believes that he needed her and she wasn’t there. There’s a great scene where she asks Charlie to get a trunk for her from the basement. As he goes down the stairs and she stands at the top, tiny Scott shouts to them from beneath the bottom step. Of course, neither one can hear him.
I’ve spoiled enough of the movie, so I won’t elaborate about Scott’s adventures in the basement. After spending a commendable part of its running time actually developing the characters, this is when the action and suspense of The Incredible Shrinking Man truly begin. Weak and faint, Scott knows he has to eat in order to survive. Then when he reaches a summit that allows him to see “the gray, friendless area of space and time” outside, he makes a decision to take control of his destiny.
“I resolved as man had dominated the world of the sun, so I would dominate my world.” Eventually triumphant, the movie doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending. We know Scott doesn’t die because he’s narrating the movie; however, he speaks of continuing to shrink. “…to become what, the infinitesimal? Or was I the man of the future? So close, the infinitesimal and the infinite!” Now able to fit through the window screen, he proclaims, “To god there is no zero. I still exist!”
Hot off the success of the Creature from the Black Lagoon movies, director Jack Arnold was able to convince Universal-International executives to keep the story’s ambiguous finale. He was at the top of his game with The Incredible Shrinking Man, manipulating the thrills with effective camerawork. During a surprising shot in the early part of the movie, the camera pans slowly to reveal Scott’s newly reduced size as he sits in a chair that is now way too big for him. Later, when Scott goes to the diner, we see only his small hand and arm as it reaches up from behind the cash register.
These shots are a simple way to highlight the idea that Scott is shrinking. However, the “real” special effects are terrific, too. I think it helps that the movie was filmed in black and white. I’d love to have helped create props for it! Match boxes become shelters, nails are too heavy to lift, and sewing supplies are weapons of survival. It’s surprisingly realistic and believable in the movie, both coming from the 1950s and watching today, that ordinary house cats and spiders are giant monsters hunting their tiny prey.
Sometimes big things come in small packages. The Incredible Shrinking Man is a larger than life adventure for tiny Scott Carey as well as for those who watch the movie. It stands tall among most other 1950s B-movie and sci-fi fare. This one crosses over, though, for viewers interested only in the genre to those interested in classic movies in general. You’ve probably seen it at some point, but it might be time for you to watch it again.