In our weekly examination of ‘good-bad’ movies, there’s been one constant… the ‘bad’. So many of these film, for one reason or another has something present which pegs it (wether deservingly or not) as ‘bad’. However, as I sat down to watch The Incredible Shrinking Man, I found myself with a conundrum… I’m not sure this science fiction classic quite fits into this category. Could this be a ‘good-good’ movie?
The Incredible Shrinking Man follows Scott Carey (Grant Williams). One day, while he’s on a relaxing boating vacation with his wife Louise (Randy Stuart), he’s exposed to an atomic cloud from a nearby weapons test. It doesn’t take long (after some convenient exposure to a certain insecticide) for him to begin shrinking at an alarming rate. We’re not talking just a few inches here. Jack Arnold directs The Incredible Shrinking Man from a script by legendary science fiction author Richard Matheson.
Going through Jack Arnold’s filmography, I was surprised to learn the director stands as one of the go-to figures in the field of 1950s and 1960s sci-fi and horror (usually of the drive-in variety). He’s credited with some truly fun movies, including: Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula and It Came from Outer Space (to name a few).
Arnold captures something special in his work on The Incredible Shrinking Man. As I sat down to watch this one, I was actually surprised at just how compelling I found it to be. This is particularly true in the effects shots. Sure, there are moments which struggle due to the advances we’ve seen come to technology in the more than sixty years since this film hit theaters. There are certainly going to be entertaining and chuckle inducing scenes in movies like this. It’s just going to happen. However, even watching this through the jaded and cynical eyes of a critic, I found myself on the edge of my seat as Scott does battle with his (normally harmless) surroundings. Arnold is an absolute pro at finding the tension in the mundane of this story.
Meanwhile, Grant Williams had been around the industry for only a handful of years prior to The Incredible Shrinking Man. His highest billing (and mainstream break-out) had come just a year before in the film Written on the Wind. By 1960, he would land the role which cemented his reputation as a household name, playing Greg Mackenzie in the private eye spin-off, Hawaiian Eye. The show would go on to run three seasons on ABC.
Grant Williams takes alot onto his shoulders stepping into the role of Scott. It’s a challenging part with nowhere for the young actor to hide. By the middle of the second act, he’s completely on his own in not only the narrative work, but the special effects as well. That being said, I struggled with Williams’ portrayal especially early into the second act. He’s perfectly cast to personify the image of polished and idealized 1950s masculinity. He’s the very image of the young ‘Man in the Gray Flannel Suit’ so commonly seen during this period. As the narrative takes shape and the inevitable happens, his character morphs and he lashes out at his wife with an almost petulant hostility.
Ultimately, his reaction isn’t out of character for what is going on with the young man. His frustration comes across abundantly and there is more than a hint to his struggles with being out of control. He’s the man and he’s the provider. And as such, as he shrinks, there is one thing he learns he can’t do: provide for his wife (and he hates it).
Perhaps it is a testament to not only Williams, but Stuart’s performance as well, that this hard shift in his character didn’t work for me. The strength of the relationship between this couple comes across on-screen vividly, particularly in the early acts as they’re trying to figure out just what is happening. There’s a certain emotional response which settles in as the later acts take shape: “You’re more likable than this!? What are you doing! You’ll get through this! Figure it out.” I found that as I watched, I was so invested in these characters that… they frustrated me.
**Spoilers After the Break**
As a film, The Incredible Shrinking Man walks its own narrative path and seemingly ducks and dives under every single pre-conceived notion of Hollywood cinema. The story isn’t afraid to go really dark.
As I watched, I found myself waiting for the inevitable Hollywood happy ending and was surprised when it never came. The choice to have Scott never recover is a gutsy one from the creative team. As the film reaches its inevitable conclusion, the narrative tone is fascinating. There’s a sense of uneasy and decidedly melancholy acceptance to the events happening on-screen. It’s not a happy ending and in that, it is a brave choice.
A look over writer Richard Matheson’s credits immediately shines a light on the intricacies of The Incredible Shrinking Man‘s narrative. Matheson was a prolific and versatile writer for not only the big and small screen, but also novels and short stories like: I am Legend, A Stir of Echoes, The Comedy of Terrors, Hell House and What Dreams May Come. Fans of the genre will undoubtedly know exactly the tone to which I’m referring. So ultimately, while a part of me felt let down by this ending, I felt as though I was watching something different and truthfully, in the time since I finished The Incredible Shrinking Man, I’ve grown more impressed with it.
As the final credits rolled, it’s difficult to know quite what to say about The Incredible Shrinking Man. Contemporary culture has seen the 1957 science-fiction work defined as part of the always delightful MST3K, ‘good-bad’ movie culture. This is, in truth, a drastic over-simplification of this fascinating film. Sure, there are moments where the special effects feel enjoyably dated; however, in the hands of seasoned journeyman director Jack Arnold, it finds a surprising tension in Richard Matheson’s melancholy script. This is an enjoyable cinematic experiment and is certainly worth a watch.
The Incredible Shrinking Man is available as a rental through a number of streaming websites, including Amazon Prime, Vudu and YouTube. You can buy it on DVD here. The film airs Saturday April 10th on MeTV as part of Svengoolie.
Podcaster, film historian, and general lover of all things classic film and television. Studying the contributions of women behind the camera in classic television.
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