The Incredible Shrinking Man
The Most Incredible Film Ever Made
By Randolph Thanos
“I felt my body dwindling, melting, and becoming nothing. My fears melted away and in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation it had to mean something and then I meant something too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something too. To God, there is no zero, I still exist!”
And those were the final words of The Incredible Shrinking Man in Jack Arnold’s incredibly stunning and visually breathtaking film of the same name.
Released in 1957 with a screenplay by Richard Matheson*, THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN(Universal) tells the story of Scott Carey, an average guy who is exposed to a mysterious cloud while on a boat at sea. Scott’s skin is covered with a glittering substance that he cannot explain. Scott returns home and he begins shrinking and the only medical explanation is that he has become a victim of atomic fallout. Scott soon shrinks so far down in size that his clothes no longer fit him, he is reduced to living in a doll house and he has to fight off a house cat and spider much larger than himself. Now living as a 3 inch tall man, Scott has now become the hunted and has to fight for his survival in a world that he once towered over.
I first watched this incredible film in 1972 when I was 9 years old. I wanted to stay up late to watch The Big Show of the Week and the film that was being featured that night was The Incredible Shrinking Man. The Big Show of the Week was normally off limits to this young television viewer so I had to sneak down stairs, sit in the adjoining hallway and watch the film through the living room mirror opposite the television. My parents could not see me so they were oblivious to my special seat and therefore could not refuse me admission.
It was nothing like my eyes had ever seen before. At the Canadian National Exhibition, I watched a beautiful woman turn into a gorilla that year, I witnessed a horrific car accident and the monster from hell, my French teacher who was really really mean but nothing prepared me for the horrors that would face The Incredible Shrinking Man.
In one scene, he has to fight off his house cat who now is clawing him down in terror, a once normal sized cat who now towers above him in height and that fight with the spider in the basement is one of the greatest fight for survival scenes in the history of cinema. All I could think about was what it must feel like to shrink so far down in size that one’s life didn’t matter anymore, that one’s life had no more meaning?
As a child growing up around adults who were much larger than me, I could identify with the discomfort and fears that The Incredible Shrinking Man was feeling, feelings of insignificance and anxiety at the vastness of the world before me. The Incredible Shrinking Man didn’t just terrify me, it made me really think about my own place in the world and since then I must have watched it over a hundred times and each time I am amazed by its cinematic wonder.
I especially love The Incredible Shrinking Man because the hero of the story never gives up. Sure he is depressed (wouldn’t you be if you were smaller than a house spider?) but for all his bleakness he proves that big things like a heroic spirit, perseverance and fighting strength comes in a small package, a very small package. The other reason I love this film is because it is a humanity tale of how ones stature in life can become diminished and all hope can be abandoned but one can still plot ones future. Things in the world of The Incredible Shrinking Man do not always turn out the way he has planned but this does not mean that life is not worth living and fighting for.
Another reason, I love this film is that it depicts the age old lesson that when life deals you lemons, you make lemonade. If you cannot live in a dollhouse, move to a match box as the hero in the story ends up doing. No matter how large or small we become, the universe is always going to be bigger than us and at some point we must face how insignificant we are in comparison but we can still remember that like The Incredible Shrinking Man, we still exist and it is our existence that gives our life meaning.
The Incredible Shrinking Man is not only ripe with philosophical and metaphysical meaning; it is full of amazing special effects for its time. Director Jack Arnold, who made other fantastic science fiction films like, It Came from Outer Space (Universal 1953 ), Creature from the Black Lagoon(Universal 1954 ) and Tarantula (Universal 1955 ), spent almost a million dollars to make The Incredible Shrinking Man. The special effects were not cheap and technicians worked for almost a year on the photography for the special effects alone. Prior to the days of green screen and CGI, the special effects for this time were created by the film makers incorporating a pain staking process of creating and inventing props and camera manipulation to help the audience accept that what they were watching was real. Giant props were incorporated into filming key scenes to make it appear that actor Grant Williams had really shrunk down in size. Many of the props used were actually constructed just for these incredible scenes such as a gigantic 15 foot mousetrap and a sewing needle over 12 feet long and a match box which towered over Williams. These gigantic props were 40 times larger than normal size. A pair of scissors that weighed 40 pounds, a pencil that was 21 feet long was used in the flooded cellar scene was among the incredible props.
One of the pivotal scenes involves an exhausting battle between The Incredible Shrinking Man and a spider. The spider used in the film was an actual tarantula named Tamara and was the same spider used in the film Tarantula. Other fun (?) facts about The Incredible Shrinking Man are that Grant Williams almost died during the shooting from key scenes like the flooded basement where he almost drowned and on another scene he almost faced electrocution. And the remember the scene of the water heater exploding, the giant drops you see falling over the Incredible Shrinking Man were created by filling up condoms with water to create the perfect water drops falling in perfect unison.
Many films I have seen as a 9 year old that have special effects have not really held the test of time, many of these effects now appear cartoonish but the special effects in The Incredible Shrinking Man have held up over the past 50 years because of the painstaking effort that went into them to create such memorable movie scenes not to mention the films central themes of isolation, existentialism, survival and loss that are prevalent in today’s world.
The magic of The Incredible Shrinking Man comes from not only these philosophical and metaphysical themes and the special effects but from the power that the Incredible Shrinking Man is a humanity tale for all times, it is a fantasy yet the viewer is left with the question: What If? What if we did become smaller and had to carefully orchestrate our way through the world that we had once taken for granted? Would we find our meaning in life or just let ourselves shrink away into nothingness? That is the real horror we must not only confront in the world of The Incredible Shrinking Man and that we must confront in our reality today. This is why The Incredible Shrinking Man still fascinates and terrifies me today, more than 50 years after its release. The Incredible Shrinking Man is the most incredible film ever made.