By Marilyn Ferdinand
The line between science fiction and horror is often breached because humanity’s fear of the unknown has proven fertile soil for the fevered imaginations of scifi writers and filmmakers. The 1950s, of course, produced a slew of Atomic Age nightmares, as the science fact of massively destructive weapons merged with the paranoias of the time. Some forget that this period in human and movie history also was awash in psychoanalysis—the science of the mind—with Freudian theories all the rage in films of all types.
The 1957 scifi/horror classic The Incredible Shrinking Man from director Jack Arnold is firmly rooted in these socioscientific concerns. The plot is propelled by environmental horrors. A radioactive cloud floats toward the boat where the title character, Scott Carey (Grant Williams), and his wife Louise (Randy Stuart) are relaxing and coats him with a stardust sheen. Scott doesn’t start shrinking, however, until he is exposed to insecticide after they return home. While there is plenty of frightening action ahead, it is in the aftermath of these initial events that the film takes on more psychological and philosophical shading, and makes a pointed critique of a society slipping a straitjacket of conformity and wholesomeness over its citizens following the chaos and lingering malaise of World War II.
Scott asserts his privilege as a white man in a white-male-dominated society in the very first scene by ordering his wife to go below deck to get him a beer: “To the galley, wench.
Fetch me a flagon of beer,” he jests. Unwittingly, he did the manly thing by saving her from getting dusted, but because his rescue was unintentional and unconscious, we know we are in Freud’s realm of the uncanny. Freud said, “The uncanny is anything we experience in adulthood that reminds us of earlier psychic stages, of aspects of our unconscious life, or of the primitive experience of the human species.”
In Scott’s case, his body becomes one of a child, reduced to dependence and an infantile relationship with his wife. When he shrinks to the size of a doll, he takes up residence in a dollhouse, a feminizing situation, with his wife’s face looming over him like the overbearing mother’s in Woody Allen’s segment of New York Stories (1989). When he becomes even smaller, he must rely on primitive instincts and strategies to survive in a once-familiar but now alien and threatening environment.
Based on Richard Matheson’s book The Shrinking Man, The Incredible Shrinking Manoffers the usual thrills of a Jack Arnold film and a sexual tension that can be found in many of his works—most notably, The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)—and present in this one by the changing dynamic between Scott and Louise and Scott’s abortive attempt to return to a normal heterosexual relationship with Clarice (April Kent), a midget he befriends and from whom he flees when he discovers he is still shrinking. Voiceover narration by Scott somewhat preserves Matheson’s fractured timeline, though the film proceeds chronologically.
Arnold’s brilliant use of oversize furniture and props, as well as optical printing to put Scott in the same frame as the enormous beings who surround and threaten him, create a convincing world through which we can empathize with Scott’s struggle. I was particularly taken with the gentle cat for which the Careys show obvious affection, and its transformation into a dangerous beast chasing its own master seems the perfect metaphor for the destructive force of nature human beings unleashed upon themselves. With global warming filling our skies with the moisture of melting glaciers that cause mammoth hurricanes and biblical floods, the timeliness of The Incredible Shrinking Man cannot be overstated.
Arnold preserves some hope for humanity’s survival as we watch Scott improvise a house from a matchbox, a grappling hook from a pin, and a flaming arrow from a match. Arnold takes his time filming Scott in the cellar of his house trying to scrounge for food. Scott’s attempt to grab a piece of cheese from a mouse trap, as well as to reach some bread crumbs on a high ledge now guarded by a spider in its web are both painstakingly tedious and fraught with tension. His duel with the spider taps into the arachnophobia many people feel, providing audiences with a genuine fright.
It is in these final scenes that Scott’s attempts to reclaim his life and his privacy from the legions of curious people and probing reporters when he was, if small, still human-sized, completely fall away and move him—and us—into a contemplation of existence. It’s not entirely clear, but it appears that Scott will keep shrinking to the size of an atom, the perhaps logical end for exposure to atomic radiation, or disappear altogether to join the cosmic dust from which the universe sprang. Arnold ends his film with a vision of our galaxy, the alpha and omega of humanity. Don’t we all feel small in the face of that!