Written by: Richard Matheson
Directed by: Jack Arnold
Starring: Grant Williams, Randy Stuart, and April Kent
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"So close - the infinitesimal and the infinite."
With the dawn of the Atomic Age came a contradictory set of perils: having unlocked some of the universe’s largest, most terrifying secrets through some of its smallest particles, mankind couldn’t help but feel both superior and altogether infinitesimal all at once. The more we learned about the world, the scarier it seemed to become, especially when the world stood at the precipice of doom, frozen in terror by the potential splitting of an atom. How dominant could we be in the face of such incredible, almost incomprehensible oblivion? Perhaps this explains why so many films from this era magnified our anxieties, whether it be in the form of giant bugs or enormous prehistoric creatures resurrected to put us in our place.
A reversal of course for this period, The Incredible Shrinking Man obviously goes in the opposite direction: rather than capture the horror of being dwarfed by nature, it literally captures the anxieties of suddenly confronting one’s wilting stature in an increasingly uncertain world, one that still seemed to hoard unfathomable secrets with every new discovery.
No wonder, then, that the source of its terror is inexplicable and without origin, arriving in the form of a radioactive wave that wafts over Scott Carey (Grant Williams) during a boating trip with his wife (Randy Stuart). After shrugging off the incident, he returns home, only to discover six months later that his clothes suddenly hang off of him; a visit to the doctor reveals that he’s lost ten pounds and two inches, the latter of which is most disconcerting. Even this is explained away as a possible discrepancy from various measurements through the years, at least until he continues to grow shorter.
Director Jack Arnold captures the unnerving process in agonizing detail, building suspense with escalating cues: a loose-fitting shirt yields to forced perspective camera tricks to simulate Scott’s shrinking. What should be an astonishing effect is instead an unnerving horror show that forces viewers to watch a man slowly decay. While Scott’s body may technically remain intact, his essence and dignity deteriorate as he slowly shrinks away. Each successive reveal of his latest size arrives with musical stingers to elicit terror at the sight of his own home dwarfing him, yet the physical shock pales in comparison to the existential nightmare he endures. Body horror often hones in on the former, but the true triumphs of that sub-genre transform bodily decay into a soul-rending ordeal.
The intimate, existential dread of The Incredible Shrinking Man is a reflection of 50s anxieties writ large (er, small). Here we see a man reduced to a shade of himself within the confines of his own home; no longer did horror movies need to scour the globe and send characters off to some remote corners of the earth to meet with doom. Rather, so many films of this era imported fear, and few did so more intimately than this film. A uniquely domestic nightmare, The Incredible Shrinking Man finds dread in every corner of the house, going so far as to double-down on such imagery when it has Scott move into a dollhouse once he’s become too small to live in his normal home. Forget feeling insignificant within the realm of the universe—what happens when we suddenly feel inconsequential within the confines of our own homes?
Arnold and screenwriter Richard Matheson continue to explore this quite literally, as the last half of the film flings Scott into his basement, where every small moment becomes a horrifying odyssey. Often lensed from Scott’s ant’s eye point-of-view, mundane surroundings become an impossibly vast abyss: an ordinary box might as well be an overwhelming mountain, the space between stairs a canyon of despair. Once Scott’s resourcefulness kicks in, the film takes on a bit more of a swinging, adventurous tone as he attempts to surmount the obstacles in his path, but Arnold rarely forgets the sheer anxiety of the emptiness threatening to swallow him—and this is to speak nothing of the spider that eventually emerges from within the walls. Disaster falls nearly every promising development, leaving Scott and viewers with a sense of utter helplessness at having been tossed into a merciless world that sends him swirling down the drain of existence.
That The Incredible Shrinking Man captures specifically masculine angst adds another layer of intrigue. From the outset, the film seems out to emasculate Scott: within a couple of minutes, he and his wife banter about who should fetch beers and cook dinner, a playful argument that anticipates later marital anxieties: one of the first, most alarming signs of Scott’s shrinking sees his wedding ring slip right off his finger, an ominous precursor to the humiliating reversals that upheave his life. Suddenly, his wife no longer needs to stand on her toes to kiss him, and the only way to provide for her financially is to exploit himself at the behest of his own brother.
When his insecurities overwhelm him, he pointedly seeks the company of another woman, a carnival performer about his height until he shrinks even further. With his home life spiraling completely out of his hands (and into his brother’s), his dollhouse becomes more akin to a prison of emasculation: surely, the image of Scott tending his own house sent a shiver down the spine of many contemporary male audience members, here watching generations of privilege crumble before their eyes.
By the end of the film, Matheson’s screenplay turns from manhood to mankind with an oddly spiritual turn that has Scott surveying the void that is his backyard and reckoning with his place in the cosmos. His voiceover narration—which has been something of a comfort throughout, as it implies he’s lived through his ordeal to tell his story—turns to the stars, and the uncertainty surrounding the universe is suddenly reconfigured into an encouraging suggestion that a divine plan governs the chaos after all. In this moment, “the unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast” meet: Scott, having now grown to such an insignificant physical size paradoxically expands in consciousness, stretching out over the vastness and becoming another of the universe’s secrets, watched over by a caring God. Such an abrupt shift almost feels forced, yet it suggests so much about this era’s mindset: perhaps the only way to overcome our anxieties of the unknown is to embrace them and accept the mystery, as it were.
When Scott emerges from his basement in tattered rags and robes, he resembles a Biblical prophet: haggard, weary, supplicant. Perhaps this is man’s place, humbled back into submission to a universe tired of seeing its secrets unlocked and misappropriated. After smiting Scott with a curse, it welcomes him back its the fold—but only after he assents to his own insignificant standing. To become a "man of the future," he has to first assume the position of a man of the past.
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