Jack Arnold and Richard Matheson shrinking classic gets a Criterion expansion
The thing that stands out the most about The Incredible Shrinking Man is that this movie, released nearly 70 years ago, is its timelessness. Sure, the effects are charmingly dated, but extremely effective (seeing our protagonist battle a spider is one of the creepiest things I’ve watched this spooky season). But it’s the film’s deconstruction of masculinity and humanity that stands out as its calling card. In a movie with a delightfully unnerving premise and countless indelible images, it’s the screenplay’s laser focus on its themes that lingers longest after the fade to black.
The opening scene of the movie is a masterclass of craft and establishing every key element of the movie. It starts with a shot of a boat in the middle of the ocean, looking miniscule in comparison to the never-ending vastness of the sea. Cut to Scott Carey (Grant Williams) and Louise Carey (Randy Stuart), sunbathing on the boat and looking immaculate. Tanned and toned, seeing the two there luxuriating on the open waters, they could be stock photo for an advertisement and I’d be sold. Scott tells Louise to get him a beer. Louise rightly tells him to get it himself, with Scott lamenting, “I’m on vacation.” To which she replies, “so am I.” The conversation takes a playful turn, but tells us everything we need to know about Scott, Louise, and the time they’re living in. A moment later, Scott is on the deck by himself and he watches as a large cloud of mist approaches and passes by him, the black and white photography highlighting the glittery sheen left on Scott.
It’s a great opening to a film, and it only gets better as it goes. Back at home, Scott starts getting smaller and smaller and the effects on his psyche are as obvious as his physical diminishment. Williams taps into something primal as Scott grapples with his situation. On one hand, it’s pretty funny to see a grown man sitting in a chair like a toddler, or struggling to look out a window. Less funny is Scott’s resentment at becoming smaller than the wife he used to loom over. Stuart plays the situation completely straight, and that sincerity makes Louise’s situation harrowing in its own right. Scott holds onto the desperate hope that he can return to his normal size and stature, while Louise is faster to accept and adjust to the new circumstances.
From there, Matheson’s script puts Scott through the ringer as he gets smaller, which gives room for the special effects to come to the fore. The set pieces are thrilling. The first key sequence finds Scott, now living in a dollhouse, trying to outrun their cat. Scott eventually gets away, but gets himself stuck in the basement. That leaves Louise to assume Scott became cat food, so now Scott has lost his life, again, so to speak. Meanwhile, Scott is now living in the basement where he comes face to face with a spider bigger than him. It’s a bravura sequence that holds up incredibly well, pure nightmare fuel.
This was my first time watching The Incredible Shrinking Man and it was something of a revelation. From the opening shot to Scott’s closing monologue about man’s place in the universe, I was bowled over. The spectacle of the film is matched, and surpassed, by the depths of its existential exploration. Truly a great experience and one I’d recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen it.
The movie’s Criterion Collection Blu-ray release offers all the robust features and technical TLC one would expect from the company. The technical aspects are as sharp as ever, with Criterion delivering a 4K restoration with uncompressed monoaural sound.
There are a litany of featurettes that spotlight director Jack Arnold, writer Richard Matheson, and the film’s production. Among the highlights are “Let’s Get Small,” a 20 minute conversation between Joe Dante and Dana Gould, and “Terror at Every Turn!,” which looks at the film’s special effects. The commentary track by genre historian Tom Weaver is absolutely packed to the gills with information. Weaver has so much information to share that the track sometimes comes off as a lecture, but he’s a lively speaker, so the commentary lacks in pure entertainment it makes up for with the sheer amount of knowledge he’s sharing.
The Incredible Shrinking Man is now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection