Insomniac Cult Movie Theater: The Incredible Shrinking Man

GhostAndy 3

♫ Another Sleepless Night and I’m staring at the TV.

I got some movies from the library.

Now how I wish I could catch a couple winks, please.

The Morning’s gonna to be scary. ♫

Indeed, as it’s never really terrible when I’m actually sitting up at 2am watching some black & white obscure classic that I’m going to eventually blog about for my fans at GotS. It’s always the next morning when I realize I’m a father of two young rambunctious kids and I gotta get them off to summer camp for the day  on like 3 hours of sleep. Half dozing as smear peanut butter & jelly on my hand instead of the bread in making them their lunch or realizing I put their swim trunks on over their clothes instead of under them.

Most stay at home Dads could then take a nap, but not this cowboy. I’m not a Stay at Home Dad, I’m a Work from Home Dad, so I actually have a full time job to then do, on top of finding time to write these blogs.

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Long story short, I think the above play on the famous Sam Cooke song “Another Saturday Night” is very fitting given the desperation of my plight. I may not be struggling to find a “honey to help me spend my money” but the struggle with just functioning as a human being with limited sleep is real for sure.

Oh well, you didn’t show up this morning to hear me belly ache. You want me to deliver the goods. Another movie review in that quirky, unique way that only GhostAndy can deliver. So let’s not mince words, here comes the latest Insomniac Cult Movie Theater entry covering the 1957 classic sci-fi story of big troubles in a tiny body: The Incredible Shrinking Man!

The Incredible Shrinking Man

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The Incredible Shrinking Man is a 1957 B&W sci-fi/suspense movie produced by Unverisal Pictures and directed by 50s Monster movie legend, Jack Arnold.  Just to recap, some of other fantastic movies Jack directed during this time include It Came from Outer Space, Tarantula, and another movie I covered on this blog earlier, Creature of the Black Lagoon.

The movie was written by Richard Matheson which was actually adapted from his own novel of a similar name in “The Shrinking Man”. Richard is most well known among sci fi buffs as being the author of the famous book “I Am Legend“, which was adapted several times for movies including Vincent Price’s “The Last Man on Earth”, Charlton Heston’s “Omega Man”, and most recently, the Will Smith version in 2007. As an interesting side note, Mr. Matheson also penned the famous Twilight Zone episode ” Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” featuring William Shatner’s battle with “a man on the wing of the plane!”

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Going along with common themes from “I Am Legend”, The Incredible Shrinking Man deals once again with a man’s struggle for survival against horrors that modern science has wrought against him. Additionally, like Legend, the Shrinking Man must battle these forces on his own, as his condition has cut him off from the rest of humanity and thus the added effects of crushing isolation and lack of social support also weigh heavily on his shoulders.

The victim of freak exposure to both a radioactive mist cloud while boating one day and then later microbes from an insecticide spray, Robert Scott Carey’s body begins to irreversibly shrink in size daily, leaving him gripped in both terror and self loathing as he diminishes before both the eyes of his wife and eventually the world, as he becomes the latest media frenzy as titular “Incredible Shrinking Man”. Scientists initially give him a false reprieve in an anti toxin which temporarily stops his shrinking at 3 ft tall, which gives him hope that he can carry on a normal life with a beautiful 3 ft tall woman he meets one day at a circus sideshow. However, the shrinking commences again and soon he is living in a doll house, a prisoner of both his size and his increasing hostile attitude, as he lashes out at his long suffering wife while contemplating suicide.

All this changes though as one day his doll house is attacked by the family house cat, who attempts to eat him as it would a mouse. He manages to escape to the basement, but he is trapped there, given he is not physically able to climb the stairs back to the top. Worse of all, his wife returns and believes him to be tragically killed by the cat when she finds some blood stained clothing of his. This leads her to eventually abandon the house in her grief over the loss, leaving Scott to fend for himself in harsh wilderness of the basement, as he struggles daily for food from mouse traps, water from a leaky heater, and a giant deadly spider which is hell bent on making him his lunch.

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In the end though, Scott continues to shrink and shrink until he’s small enough to fit through the tiny holes in one of the mesh screens of the basement windows, at which, accepting his fate to grow ever smaller, he wonders what strange things await him in his journey to the microscopic level.

Boasting some absolutely ground breaking practical special effects work including sets with giant pencils, paint sticks, matches, etc. as well as black velvet trick photography and rear projection, the Incredible Shrinking Man was one of the highest grossing science fiction movies of the 1950s and was selected to be historically preserved by the National Film Registry in 2009.

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There was going to be a sequel to this movie called “The Fantastic Little Girl” in which Scott’s wife returns to the house, starts shrinking herself and eventually joins Scott in a strange sub atomic world filled with “eel like creatures”. However, this didn’t get passed the initial planning stages, and sat in developmental hell until Jane Wagner revived the project in 1981 as a vehicle for her comedian wife, Lily Tomlin, with the “The Incredible Shrinking Woman”. This movie is seen more of a parody or variation than a true sequel though, similar the proposed Eddie Murphy remake in 2003 which was going to be played strictly for laughs.

2am Thoughts and Reflections:

Like all good science fiction stories in my opinion, at the heart of “The Incredible Shrinking Man” beats a very relatable and basic idea, despite all the fanciful and far out window dressing that’s put up around it. Simply put, this movie is about the “5 Stages of Grief” and one man’s journey through those stages after being dealt with a personal tragedy. Although fantastical and all together unrealistic shrinking is the tragedy in this story, it’s just a metaphor or stand in for any number of other real life situations that people suffer through in life that ultimately make them feel diminished as human beings.

Whether it’s loss of a job, being diagnosed with a life changing and debilitating illness, or just simply growing old, the real issue in this movie is that Scott has had something terrible befall him personally, something that makes him feel less of a person than who he was before, and the anger, frustration, and depression that results from that. And like any modern psychologist today worth his or her salt, what normally happens in the aftermath, is the same thing that happened here in that this is Scott’s journey to acceptance of his new “normal” and the letting go of his past self.

And like all of these personal journeys, there’s a lot of self exploration and evaluation that happens. Unfortunately for us the viewers, the whole ordeal originally shows some pretty ugly sides of our protagonist, Scott. Mainly he’s a pretty terrible husband, emotionally and psychologically pushing around his wife, being argumentative and condemning, self absorbed with the “struggles” he is going through, without any empathy for what impact this is having on his wife.

Through the initial denial and anger phases of his early shrinking, all he can focus on is how he is “less of a man” now and how he passive aggressively hates his wife for having to shoulder all of the burdens. He can’t interact with her sexually any more and she has to take care of him like a child, adding to his sense of emasculation.

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And his jerk ways even get worse from there as after being “cured” of the shrinking temporarily and again feeling sorry for himself, he meets this beautiful 3 foot high blonde bombshell who works for this traveling circus. And immediately, just because she comments that he is taller than her, he becomes “energized” to finish his memoirs which he immediately shares with her on one of their several “dates”. This is someways the “bargining phase” as it represents Scott attempting to avoid the reality of his situation by taking advantage of the first pretty girl that happens to be shorter than him, despite the consequences. It’s also this phase which paints him in the worst light.

Yes, folks, the incredible shrinking man is not only an jerk, but an adulterer as well, ready to dump his suffering and compassionate wife for his pretty young thing that makes him feel “tall” aka “manly” aka “chauvinistic”. But then he starts shrinking again, and runs away from her too in self disgust, horrified that he is less of a man to her as well. Again, this guy acts like a real sleazeball and in face of adversity his morals crumble like a house of cards.

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It’s actually not until his brush with death in his battle against the house cat and the subsequent marooning in the desolate wasteland which is the basement, that this character really starts to redeem himself. Before all that happened, while he was living in the dollhouse, he was admittedly severely depressed aka the 4th stage. He isolated himself from his wife, became increasing hostile and thought about killing himself.

However, during his life in the basement, he has to progressively rely only on himself and with that comes a begrudging acceptance of his condition. Sure, there are moments when he backpedals like his tiny pleas for help  when he gets caught in the flood that results from the water heater breaking and his brother and wife come to investigate. But that bargaining goes on deaf ears, and soon he is left with a “new found power” and determination, as he decides to kill the giant spider that roams the basement like an angel of death so that he can live without fear.

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This is later followed up with his true acceptance in an proverbial “Come to Jesus” moment where he slips through the mesh window and into the cool peace of the night knowing that he will never stop shrinking but that to God ‘There is no zero”,  so regardless of how small he gets, he still has value as a person and will persevere.

Yes, by the end, Scott has traveled his hero’s journey. He has slain his dragon and he has come out the other side a much better person than he ever was fully grown. He’s become focused through his baptism of fire, and with that focus comes clarity of purpose and a overwhelming sense of peace with the universe and his fate.

Although Universal Pictures was unhappy with the ending and wanted Scott to regain his former size, I think the ending we are given works so much better as it gives the audience that full circle journey to acceptance that we can all relate to. And in gaining that acceptance we are given such a much more interesting and nuanced protagonist that one that is saved falsely from his fate by some Deus Ex Machina of science.

Final Grade: A-

I feel like this movie is one that a lot of people have heard about, but very few of them have actually watched. And now that I have, I have a greater appreciation for the film from a story perspective more than just a ton of great little special effect set pieces. I mean, I’m not going to sugar coat this for my readers. There’s not much here from the actual plot of the story. The movie just seems to meander from one place to the next, without really an apparent goal in mind.

It’s almost like just a documentary of Robert Scott Carey’s journey both in decreasing size but also in self actualization. Sure there are roadblocks and obstacles put in Scott’s way such as escaping from the cat, his harrowing climb up the paint crate to reach a piece of cake, or most of all his death struggle with the Spider God. But all of these obstacles are just fleeting. They take on grave urgency and importance for the few moments while the action is going on, but are soon forgotten about in the grand scheme of Scott’s personal growth. They are just brief mileposts along that road, and that can as a viewer, take some getting used to.

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I mean, I won’t lie that the movie builds up the confrontation between Scott and the Spider for like the entire second half of the movie, and as soon as Scott is victorious, he just passes out before he can claim his “just desserts” in the forgotten cake. And after he wakes up, he just leaves the basement and everything he had just fought for. That ending, although powerful, was also somewhat “WTF?” in that I was expecting more. I’m not sure what that “more” was, but I originally was sort of annoyingly miffed at what seemed to be a short changing of me, the viewer, in getting a more satisfying conclusion.

Again, I didn’t want a happy ending in which he grows back in size. In fact, I didn’t know what I wanted but it just seemed initially that the stakes of the movie mattered for nothing, and that irked me.

But then as I grew to see the movie’s bigger picture as really a story of one man’s personal growth even as he shrank in size, I reevaluated my own position to one of acceptance as well.

If I don’t give this a perfect “A”, it’s because the actual character of Scott for a lot of this movie is somewhat of whiny self absorbed jerkface, and that’s hard to watch in terms of a protagonist without wanting to throw popcorn at the screen. But I will say it’s well worth it from a redemptive perspective by the end, and leaves you with a true sense that this is much more than just a simple science fiction tale. It’s universally relatable for anyone that’s been going through something difficult in their lives, and I feel that makes it worth it for anyone reading this article to go check out themselves.

Oh…and again that cat chase. Cats are vicious creatures. Don’t be fooled by those playfully cut whiskers. They are tigers, people. They will eat you if given half a chance.

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