It's not bad at all. I liked it. It's not one of 1950s SF's masterpieces, unlike for instance Invasion of the Body Snatchers
, but it's an intriguing if simplistic film that still stands up surprisingly well today.
The story is that Grant Williams is shrinking. Simple enough. At first he just thinks he's been given someone else's trousers, but before long he's seeing doctors about it. As the weeks pass, he becomes smaller than his wife, then smaller than their pet cat. In the end he's using pins and sewing thread in a fight to the death with household spiders... and even then he hasn't stopped shrinking.
This is cool. Obviously it's insane, but it's also kind of Kafka-esque and as far as I know no one had done it before, even though interestingly 1950s cinema is heaving with the opposite phenomenon, i.e. things growing into giant monsters. Examples of that include Them! (1954), The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), Beginning of the End (1957), Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), etc. What we have here is an idea that's freaky, simple and attention-grabbing, yet hasn't since been mined to death and so today still feels fresh. The nearest equivalent I can think of is in Doctor Who and even that's a fundamentally different kind of story. It's hard to think of similar movies. There's a 1981 comedy remake starring Lily Tomlin as The Incredible Shrinking Woman, but after that we're already scraping the barrel, e.g. Fantastic Voyage or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.
However this makes for an unusual plot structure. The character interaction's all in the first half. After that Williams gets so small that he can't communicate with other humans and they don't even know he's there in the first place. The film's final act is "man against the elements". He's practically a caveman. He's stuck in his basement and having to build improvised grappling hooks to climb up a step. All he's interested in now is food, water and not being eaten. He probably doesn't have long left, but that doesn't mean he's just going to lie down and wait for the end.
The most important thing about the film, almost uniquely, is its special effects. You won't often hear me say that, but for once it's true. It's not dated! To my surprise, they make it work with the technology of the time. The matting is occasionally a little clumsy, but it does its job and you'll be blown away by their split screens and scale-model sets. Even the cat and spider fights look convincing. Okay, maybe they're pushing it a bit with the cat, but even in today's CGI era, their version of the Incredible Shrinking Man still stands up. It's not just watchable, but good. The only real flub is an extended shot in which Randy Stuart's eyeline is wrong.
Grant Williams is disappointing, though. It's a thin, one-note performance without much range and I'm not at all surprised to see that he was originally a singer and never had much success with his acting career. Admittedly there's textual justification for his performance. The character knows he's letting his condition overwhelm him emotionally, making him cold and demanding towards his wife, while even in that first scene on the boat he's trying to order his wife around. I think that was supposed to be charming banter, but Williams doesn't really have enough range for that and so it's poor Randy Stuart who's got to provide all the chemistry for both of them. She doesn't do too badly, actually.
However despite my criticisms, Williams is more or less sufficient in the role. He's good at looking worried, while I have no complaints about him in the final act. Caveman Williams works very well and if you could only focus on one area, that's the one you'd choose.
I suspect the book's better, though. I haven't read it, but I've heard a fair amount about it and I like Richard Matheson. As it happens he adapted his own novel, but that doesn't mean he didn't have to simplify it and stay within the Hollywood Production Code. In the book, they have a five-year-old daughter, for instance. The film also can't deal openly with sex, but instead must trust us to read between the lines. We can see why Williams is attracted to that pretty midget from the carnival freak show, but because sexuality has been left implicit, I was left disliking our hero for leaving things hanging with his wife while he's off chasing his new girlfriend. You can tell that the film's aware of this side of things, starting with Randy Stuart's breasts in the opening scene, but there was no way in the world that a mainstream 1957 Hollywood film could include the novel's paedophile subplot, for instance.
Unusually I'd also be interested in seeing a modern remake, although for preference not the one in early development with Eddie Murphy. There are things they couldn't do in 1957, over and above cake that doesn't look like expanded polystyrene. Imagine water and flames done properly to scale, for instance. (Water is scary when you're small, as we saw in A Bug's Life.)
I'd recommend this one. It's an interesting curiosity, from a writer and director who are both highly regarded. (Matheson was also the writer of I Am Legend, Spielberg's Duel, What Dreams May Come and Bid Time Return, while Jack Arnold is a key figure in sci-fi cinema of this era, also directing It Came From Outer Space
, Tarantula and Creature from the Black Lagoon
.) I also suspect that this film will take a death lock on certain children's imaginations, if they have muster the attention span to make it through Williams being a bit of a twat in the first half. The second half has genuine tension, for instance with the paint stick and the spider. The mousetrap was even scarier, but there the film loses points for making Williams stupid enough not to use the nail immediately. He could have been splattered.
FOOTNOTE: I've since learned that I might be right about this film's appeal to children. My reasoning, for what it's worth, was that children are small people who want to become big and hence more strong, influential, attractive, etc. That's their defining feature. They're children. The Incredible Shrinking Man, on the other hand, is doing that in reverse. He starts out with everything that adults have, then gradually loses it all as he becomes child-sized... and then keeps shrinking yet further, taking the whole thing into realms of horror that even a toddler could imagine and identify with.
Admittedly to children the ending might look bleak, but as an adult I think it comes across differently. It doesn't end with him getting better. That's a given. However he's spent the whole film in an unhealthy place psychologically, going through self-imposed mental tortures and being cruel to his wife. The ending, though, gives him an epiphany, which as it happens wasn't Matheson's but instead was added by Arnold. He finds optimism and a philosophical view of his condition. I'd almost call it uplifting.
"To God, there is no zero. I still exist."