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Director: Jack Arnold
Starring: Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, April Kent, Paul Langton, Billy Curtis
Science had been going wrong in cinema for quite some time, but rarely had it ever had such tragic consequences as The Incredible Shrinking Man.
Save for the unidentified boffins who created and released the glowing mist we see at the start of the film (assuring it wasn’t natural), there’s no real villains to speak of here. There’s no grand plans, evil geniuses of hubristic scientists, just a man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time who’s life is about to change and keep on changing.
It’s funny then, that such a film would be so affecting, with the eponymous central character’s awful predicament infinitely more upsetting than any bug-eyed monster could hope to engender. It’s the familiarity of it all that really brings it home. A normal man, cursed with an incurable affliction that slowly makes him invisible from even his loved ones, where even his own home becomes a hostile, alien environment.
It’s the stuff of nightmares.
Scott Carey (Williams) is on holiday with his wife Louise (April Kent), when a weird, glowing mist covers his skin. Months later, he notices that his clothes are too big and realises that he is shrinking.
At first it seems to have been caught in time and though Carey’s height cannot be restored, the antidote means he can live a semblance of a normal life. He becomes a national celebrity but grows to despise his fame and his relationship with Louise suffers.
When visiting a local carnival, he is buoyed by a carnival midget named Clarice and resumes writing his abandoned autobiography, but his happiness is fleeting.
The antidote has stopped working and soon he has shrunk to the size of a small doll. Worse, every day he seems to get smaller and smaller with no hope of salvation…
Based on the novel by Richard Matheson, The Incredible Shrinking Man is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Scott and Louise feel like a living, breathing couple and watching the slow deterioration of their marriage, never mind his height, is horribly upsetting. She’s a strong, independent woman who would clearly do anything for her husband, but the bleak reality of his situation begins driving a wedge through them almost from the off.
It’s almost from the off that the nightmare begins too. As soon as the silvery, sparking mist coats Scott, it’s a matter of minutes (movie time) before he’s shrinking and not much longer after that until it’s very serious indeed. It’s a brilliant conceit and Jack Arnold is to be commended on not teasing us with it when the severity and horror of what is occurring is much more effective when it hits you like a series of one-two punches. The film is barely 15 minutes into its brisk run-time when he’s already the size of a child.
It’s horrible, but there is much, much worse to come.
By the time he is living in a dollhouse, you’re left wondering how he’s still sane. It never feels like an adventure, or that there’s any wonder in this bizarre life, it’s a living hell and Arnold sells that throughout.
Watching Carey fight for his life against first a household cat then what is supposedly a regular house spider (in actual fact a particularly horrific Tarantula) are gripping scenes of life and death, where only the man’s ingenuity spares him from a grisly demise. Arnold shoots these action scenes like the giant epics they are when your hero is inches tall and they are utterly gripping, while the effects, basic as they are, work magnificently.
There’s the odd moment of happiness or triumph in there, but they’re always short-lived. His initial recognition of his tiny prison and his following resolve to dominate that world is not a moment of resolve, for example. It looks and sounds like a heroic moment, but it’s immediately proven to be a bleak folly as he gets trapped in a spider web spun by a real ruler of his new environment. It’s grim stuff.
Equally, watching him completely helpless as his wife leaves him thinking him cat food is awful to witness. She’s not abandoning him, he’s just too small to even notice any more. Invisible and helpless in his own home. There’s not many fates worse.
It all ends in a kind of high note, with Carey pledging to make the most of his ever-decreasing stature. Shrinking down and down into the microverse, he declares he’ll be doing it with his head high. It sounds good, but we’ve already seen where that attitude takes him. The man is doomed, it’s just more in a cosmic way by the end.
The Incredible Shrinking Man is a stone-cold classic and one of the greatest sci-fi horrors ever made. It’s that rare beast that gets every single moment absolutely perfect and leaves you stunned into silence by the finale.
Bleak, thrilling and powerful, it’s flawless. Absolutely flawless.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy