Revisiting The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

The Incredible Shrinking Man is one of those rare films from Universal’s 1950s era. It takes what seems like a rather simple premise in the beginning and turns it into a much more important story about the value of a human life. The 81-minute journey is an interesting one that is highlighted by the main character’s adventures in the basement of his home and the ever-lurking tarantula, who is clearly hungry for its’ next meal. However, a whole other story unfolds before we ever reach that basement.

The movie begins with our two main characters, Scott and Louise Carey (Grant Williams, The Monolith Monsters, and Randy Stuart) enjoying a lazy vacation on a small boat. After Scott coaxes Louise to get him a beer from down below, he sees a large mist headed towards the boat. After it passes, it leaves a sparkly residue on his body with no apparent side effects. Flash forward six months later and Scott is beginning to notice his clothes are just a little too big on him. He eventually visits his doctor to discover he is indeed shrinking and losing weight. After Dr. Bransom (played by the ever-present character actor William Schallert) initially thinks nothing of the symptoms, another visit and an x-ray later proves he is indeed shrinking. It’s determined that the mist had some type of chemical reaction with a pesticide Scott was exposed to that impacted his molecular structure.

Naturally, Scott does not take this news well and this is where his character begins to go through some rather dramatic changes that may make it harder for some to cheer him on as the hero of the story. For starters, after initially telling Louise she could leave him since she certainly didn’t count on this strange occurrence when they got married, he begins to treat her rather coldly. In fact, he begins to displace his anger towards his situation on to her and, sadly, we never really get any type of resolution with their story. Even though the doctors find a cure to his continued shrinking, there is no possibility of a reversal. Scott’s desire to leave his home and explore the outside world again results in his sneaking out of the house one night. It is here that he meets a dwarf named Clarice (April Kent) and the two begin a questionable relationship. After she inspires him to continue work on a book about his story, their fling quickly ends as Scott realizes he is once again starting to shrink.

The pacing of the first part of the film is on track but it does seem like one rather long prologue to the sequence most monsters kids really want to see. After Louise leaves to run an errand, Scott has an encounter with a cat that results in his becoming trapped in the basement. When Louise returns to find a bloodied shirt and the cat licking its’ paws, Scott is presumed dead. His brother Charlie (Paul Langton, It! The Terror from Beyond Space) encourages Louise to leave and start a new life for herself somewhere else. However, Scott is very much alive but is now in a strange subterranean world that is home to a tarantula, his new nemesis of gigantic proportions. Now, to be fair, The Incredible Shrinking Man doesn’t have any giant spiders but to Scott, the tarantula is very much a giant and, quite honestly, it’s much more menacing than other films featuring giant spiders or bugs. In those films, the creatures are in our world and we possess the power to destroy them, usually after a series of trial and error attempts. However, in Scott’s basement, he’s now a stranger in a strange land, residing in the domain of the spider with nothing more than the tattered rags on his body and his own ingenuity.

This is where the film truly shines. The gigantic props, such as the scissors, nails, matches or needles, are his weapons of choice. Their size is challenging, forcing him to come to terms with his size like never before. His wife is no longer there to help him and he must defend himself with whatever he can find. Once we are introduced to the tarantula, we see just how terrifying it can be. The sound effects for its legs and feet are something I don’t remember other giant bug movies addressing. In the original novel, it was actually a black widow, which is scientifically more accurate than finding a tarantula. The web that plays a key part in one scene is also more in line with what a black widow would spin, but tarantulas are obviously much easier to work with and, a lot more menacing on the big screen. These really are only minor deterrents for those with a scientific brain. If you focus more on the action, it’s a lot more enjoyable. In fact, the tension builds to an amazing crescendo as Scott’s battle with the tarantula is epic and even a little grotesque. Scott’s adventures in the basement and ensuing spider battle are worth the price of admission alone.

ISM-3.jpg

The film’s ending is rather controversial as it fails to wrap up everything nicely as was the usual pattern for films of the time period. Scott never reunites with his wife nor is there an eleventh hour miracle cure. Instead, the film chooses to go down a more philosophical path with Scott coming to terms with his size and his own purpose in this new shrunken universe. With the prospect that Scott will continue to shrink, the concept that all life is important, that “there is no zero” in the eyes of God, is a rather deep ending to what seemed like a rather whimsical small man versus giant spider film. The ending may have been ahead of its’ time as test audiences wanted a happy ending. Universal did too but director Jack Arnold had a little clout at that time and he preferred the ending as it was. With Creature from the Black Lagoon on his list of credits, Universal chose to trust in him and the results still speak for themselves.

The film’s screenplay was written by Richard Matheson and Richard Alan Simmons, and is based on Matheson’s own novel, The Shrinking Man, published two years earlier in 1956. While the movie generally follows the same storyline as the book, there are several key differences besides that of the spider breed. First, the book doesn’t follow the traditional linear storytelling format, opting instead for a series of flashbacks propelling the reader back and forth in time. That doesn’t always transition well to the big screen, so the film chooses an easier to follow pattern, which also allows for suspense to build towards the basement sequence, rather than rushing to it as the book does. Secondly, Scott has other more adult adventures outside of the home, such as peeking in on a teenage babysitter, something that the censors never would have approved of in 1957. Finally, Scott’s relationship with Clarice is much more personal, another theme that never made it to the big screen. In the end, these additions would have made the film much more adult than the usual Universal sci-fi or monster fare of the time. Ultimately, the movie works better without going down those darker paths.

The Incredible Shrinking Man never had a sequel, despite plans for a possible film that would have focused on Scott’s wife Louise. There was a rather loose remake in 1981 with The Incredible Shrinking Woman, a comedy starring Lily Tomlin. Talks of a modern-day version have been floating around Hollywood for at least a decade. It might be interesting to see what elements of the original novel are used for a contemporary presentation and the CGI special effects of today could result in a visual feast for the eyes. But nothing will ever compare to the sound of the tarantula lurking and searching for its’ prey as we saw and heard in the 1957 original. It stands the test of time and is well worth adding to anyone’s personal celluloid journey.

The Incredible Shrinking Man has previously been released on various formats of home media but has just had its definitive release. It’s now available on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection and includes such extras as an audio commentary from author and historian Tom Weaver, a 1983 interview with director Jack Arnold, an 8 mm home-cinema version from 1969, and much more. With the usual 50% off November Criterion sale now happening, it’s a perfect time to treat yourself to an early Christmas gift.

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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