Thursday, February 9, 2012

Honey, I Got Incredibly Shrunk

Well before a miniature Lily Tomlin played with gorillas, some time before a man became amazingly colossal and eons before two pairs of teenage neighbors pitted a lovable ant against an oddly California-based scorpion, Richard Matheson adapted his own tale of small-en-ing for Jack Arnold’s gloriously black and white suburban universe. While The Incredible Shrinking Man himself may not be a villain per say, his plight has inspired so much in cinema history that we can’t ignore his story here at the 2nd Annual Doll’s House Celebration of the Vertically Challenged any longer.

Quick Plot: Scott Carey (Grant Williams) is a successful man of the ‘50s: he has a pretty wife, a nice home, prestigious job and handsome physique worthy of all of the above. While out on his brother’s boat on a seemingly normal summer cruise, Scott spots a mysterious fog that leaves his skin misty. Some time later, Scott starts to notice significant weight loss and far more disturbing, shrinkage.

Not Seinfeldian shrinkage, or at least, not so outspokenly so. Scott measures himself a full four inches shorter than his driver’s license height and despite early doctors’ comments that such fluctuations are normal, Scott knows better. When his wife no longer needs to stand on her tiptoes to peck his cheek, Scott digs deeper to learn that the peaceful ocean trip has exposed him to a dangerous chemical solution that science can’t stop from making him tiny.

What to do when faced with such a future? Unable to drive or work, Scott sells his story only to then suffer the effects of tabloid fame. Meanwhile, his increasing littleness makes it harder and harder to connect with his wife, leading Scott into a warm friendship with a carnival midget (back when that was the correct term) before even her three foot stature becomes too high. 

Sentenced to live in a dollhouse and battle the family cat, Scott is mistaken for dead and imprisoned in the basement, where Shelobian spiders prowl and food is scarce.

The Incredible Shrinking Man is one of the 1950s’ best sci-fi films, up there in its own way with Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Them! Based on a novel by future Twilight Zone contributor Richard Matheson (who also wrote the screenplay), it’s on a much smaller scale than some of the more celebrated monster tales, but emerges quite well because of it. Scott—played with appropriate frustration by Williams--is essentially alone in his struggle and the film rightly captures that with its style. Long stretches contain no dialogue but are served well by a hard-working score, while most of the actual speaking is his own thoughtful (sometimes too much so) narration.

There’s an easy horror film or goofy comedy to be made out of Scott’s plight, and many a lesser filmmaker has tried (see Bert I. Gordon’s inferior Attack of the Puppet People or 1981’s flop The Incredible Shrinking Woman). It’s a ripe concept for any genre, making Arnold and Matheson’s approach all the more interesting.

This is a film that takes itself seriously. While such a decision can occasionally kill a film’s potential for fun (oh hai Firestarter) it works here because of its simplicity. Much has been written about the deeper themes of Scott’s condition—in losing his stature, he loses his manhood until he recovers it by stabbing a spider with his penis/pin, blah blah blah—and it’s easy to see why. In his daily shrinking, Scott loses every piece of his former identity, from a loving wife to bank account to dapper clothes. It’s his ultimate decision to embrace the future that makes The Incredible Shrinking Man something for philosophy class.

High Points
55 years later, the amplified sound of a fuzzy legged spider scurrying towards a defenseless man? Still scary

I’m not overly familiar with the career of Grant Williams, but he gives a superb performance here, believably transforming from a ‘50s superman to angry and powerless husband to desperate survivalist. Considering he’s mostly alone onscreen for the film’s latter half, it’s all the more impressive

Low Points
Look, I love me an oversized tarantula battle as much as any arachnophobe, but are we just supposed to ignore the fact that Scott’s fuzzy nemesis is…you know, a TARANTULA? Perhaps the unlikely inclusion of a scorpion in the Honey I Shrunk the Kids’ backyard isn’t so far-fetched after all…

Lessons Learned
Since The Children clearly hasn’t taught us this hard enough, never assume fog can’t hurt you

People just don’t get shorter! (unless they’re sprayed with nuclear goo)
Always leave some Twinkies or other long-term snack in an easy-to-reach spot in the basement. You just never know

Small Wonder…
As a cat owner, watching a film like The Incredible Shrinking Man takes on a whole new level of fear. Were I to shrink to levels of GI Joe, I LIKE to believe Mookie and Joplin would still recognize my smell and voice well enough to not bat me around like a yarn mouse. I’d LIKE to believe that…

Long unavailable on DVD, The Incredible Shrinking Man is now on a disc with another decent (if less noteworthy) sci-fi flick The Monolith Monsters. This is a film that would have benefited more from a Criterion-ish DVD treatment, but it remains worthy of a cheap buy or rental even with nary an extra in sight. Sci-fi or ‘50s fans will find plenty to savor, and those who enjoy smarter than they seem genre films can’t go wrong with checking it out. Plus, tarantulas! 


  1. OH, GRANT Williams, playing Scott CAREY! I thought that Cary Grant was the star of this movie! haha!

    Also, there's something else about this movie that means I'm REALLY stupid! At the end, when he's narrating, I though he said that he MET somebody while shrinking even tinier, but he actually said that he MEANT something! To think that for years, I've always disliked the movie's ending because I thought it sounded so shoehorned in for a 50's audience that couldn't take a downer ending! haha!

  2. Chris, I assume they were cousins.

    Ha, I like the idea that there was a deleted scene where he met another shrinker or maybe just a talkative moth. It wouldn't fit the tone at all, but it could be CUTE!

  3. Also, I may have failed the shortening!

  4. Stupid mean little computer gremlins! And to think, they should be supporting you in this venture!

  5. I saw this years ago as a kid one day I played hooky from school--great film when you're a kid. Wanna rewatch it to see how it holds up.

  6. My first experience with The Incredible Shrinking Man was seeing a few minutes of it in It Came From Hollywood, where it was lumped in with a lot of other '50s sci-fi flicks and treated as campy. I didn't see the whole movie until maybe a year or so ago when it was shown by Chicago's local horror host, Svengoolie. I was taken aback by how serious and downbeat it was -- not really campy at all and certainly not what I was expecting. It's a philosophical drama with sci-fi elements and it ends as a rumination on human existence in a vast, overwhelming universe. The ending really got to me. I was shaken by it. I agree that it's in the top tier of '50s sci-fi films.

    Lily Tomlin later did a remake called The Incredible Shrinking Woman, which also had quite an effect on me. I saw it as a small child, and there is a scene in which Lily falls into a garbage disposal. I had a phobia of garbage disposals as a kid, and this struck me as the worst fate imaginable. I had nightmares about Lily Tomlin in the garbage disposal for YEARS. No lie.

  7. Do it Kangas! I think you'll be surprised how strong it still is.

    Wayne: Like THEM!, it doesn't belong in the camp of campy 50s sci-fi. It's just miles better. I guess a good deal of that comes from it being written by Richard Matheson. It's so much less a monster movie than sort of, as you say, philosophical horror. I've wanted to read the book for a long time. Need to reup that search.

    I saw The Incredible Shrinking Woman when I was a kid, but all I can remember about it was a bright yellow kitchen telephone and a lot of colors. I know that was considered a fairly infamous flop, but I'd be curious to revisit it. And as for garbage disposals, I've never had one. On one hand, the idea of them is positively amazing. You mean I can just scrape off my plate and NEVER have to deal with the gross drain smell? But then I think of every movie that ever had one ever--say for example, the horrifying Final Destination 2 or the light-hearted but turtle killing My Blue Heaven--and realize no, no no no, I will never ever never live in a home that has one. For that shall be my death.

  8. The effects in this were awesome, gimme practical over CG anyday!

  9. Right? They somehow did it better 50 years ago. Sigh. Embrace the past filmmakers!