Never feared before, now a household cat and a cellar spider become threatening monsters to an unfortunate man who discovers he’s slowly becoming smaller and smaller and smaller. . . .
On the surface, it doesn’t seem to have much to offer. The Incredible Shrinking Man has no big-name stars, few of them known today. Its top-billed actor, Grant Williams, hardly a “star” in the remotest sense of the word, received his checks for generally B pictures and a much longer career in television. All this without much distinction or recognition, though this film is his claim to fame, however tenuous.
The Incredible Shrinking Man came toward the end of the monster-creature-mutant-spacemen flicks, that “fabulous” time—depending upon one’s viewpoint!—of the 1950s, and yet the film is somehow in a class all its own. If not strictly a part of them, it is among the best of the general type represented by alien spacemen (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951), radioactively enlarged insects (Them!,1954) and devil monsters (Curse of the Demon, 1957).
No monster or alien being arrives to devastate humankind and crumble skyscrapers in The Incredible Shrinking Man. This is, rather, the plight of a single man, previously isolated in his complacent world, who is gradually reduced in size, shrinking so small that common things—a domestic cat, a spider, even water or cellar stairs—become his monsters and obstacles.
Along with the special effects, advanced and impressive in their day, a definite plus is the source novel by Richard Matheson and his resulting screenplay, shared with the uncredited Richard Alan Simmons. This explains why the story-line and writing make the movie so convincing. Matheson was one of Rod Serling’s chief supporting writers, along with Charles Beaumont, in the Twilight Zone TV series (1959-64).
Horror writer Stephen King was impressed by the way Matheson wrote: “He was the first guy I ever read who seemed to be doing something that Lovecraft [horror writer of The Rats in the Wall, The Call of Cthulhu, etc.] wasn’t doing. . . . [T]he horror could be in the Seven-Eleven store down the block . . . [and] that was a revelation that was extremely exciting. He was putting the horror in places that I could relate to.”
Which is exactly what Matheson does with The Incredible Shrinking Man: he brings terror and fear directly into the suburban home, where, to paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock, it belongs.
He and his wife Louise (Randy Stuart) are lounging in their swim suits on his brother’s (Paul Langton) sailboat. While she is below deck, a peculiar mist rises unexpectedly and when she returns the cloud has passed. Her husband’s chest is covered in a strange, glittering powder.
(Except for its five-second ominous opening, the main title music has been non-threatening, with a lyrical trumpet solo, quite different from the usual noisy apprehension that opens most ’50s horror films. Two of the quartet of composite score composers are mainstays of the B movie horror genre, Hans J. Salter and Herman Stein. The neutral music that has continued into the film abruptly changes to disturbed harmonies with this strange mist, telling the audience . . . this isn’t good.)
Before long, Scott notices that his trousers are too big, his shirt sleeves too long and that he’s lost weight. Dr. Bramson (William Schallert, In the Heat of the Night, 1967) isn’t particularly worried, but sends him to a research institute. Dr. Silver (Raymond Bailey, Mr. Drysdale in The Beverley Hillbillies, 1962-71) discovers an unusual chemical in Scott’s body. Possibly his contact with insecticides years ago and this recent radioactive mist have, together, rearranged the molecular structure of his cells.
Before long, Scott has shrunk to three feet high. Even when Dr. Silver gives him an anti-toxin that arrests the shrinking but cannot return him to normal, Scott becomes more depressed. He wanders into a carnival of dwarfs and meets Clarice (April Kent), who assists him in writing an autobiography.
Before long, he realizes he’s become even shorter than Clarice—the anti-toxin no longer works—and, weeks later, he has diminished to only a few inches high. He now lives in a dollhouse.
One day when Louise goes to the store and forgets about the family cat (Orangey, This Island Earth, 1955, The Comedy of Terrors, 1963), the animal batters the dollhouse and Scott flees, falling into a sewing basket at the foot of the cellar stairs.
He is able to climb out of the basket and adjusts as best he can to this new basement world: “The cellar stretched before me like some vast primeval plain, empty of life, littered with the relics of a vanished race.”
(Whenever Williams’ narration is absent, the film is then supported only by the music score, which matches well the desperate man’s struggles.)
Scott drinks from a dripping pipe and lives in an empty matchbox. When the basement floods from a broken pipe, he avoids being swept into a drain by clinging to a pencil. After his efforts to free a fragment of cheese from a mousetrap are foiled, he retrieves a piece of bread from a seemingly inaccessible ledge, only to have to flee from a spider.
Thinking Scott dead, Louise leaves the house with the help of Charlie. They cannot hear his shouts for help, his voice a whisper (Williams’ narrative voice continues throughout unchanged, despite the enormous shortening of his vocal chords; other physiological changes/impossibilities are also shown incorrectly).
After a few successes in his new world, including killing the spider, Scott is encouraged and resolves “ . . . as man had dominated the world of the sun, so I would dominate my world.”
Small enough now to pass through a ventilation screen, he steps outside and stands studying the sky: “I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away and in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too.”
This existential ending, a much longer monologue than the portion quoted, and supposedly added by director Jack Arnold, was not a traditional Hollywood “happy” ending at the time. The studio executives wanted it changed. Arnold (It Came from Outer Space, 1953, Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954) refused, and had enough clout that it remained.
It isn’t the acting that makes the film unique among its horror and science fiction contemporaries: it’s the creative special effects, the crux of that genre, which make The Incredible Shrinking Man exceptional and worth watching all these decades after it was made.