Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Halloween 2013: October 8

The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

Richard Matheson was one of the best idea men Hollywood ever had. A man alone on a planet full of vampires, a time traveling romance, a gremlin on the wing of the plane, boxing robots, these all sound like hacky, high-concept Hollywood ideas. In Matheson’s hands, they became irresistible premises. Matheson had a gift for rooting the most far-out ideas in Earthly humanity. One of the best works among his impressive resume of screenplays is “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” a premise so high-concept that the story is right there in the title.

Matheson doesn’t waste time on an elaborate origin story. Scott Carey, while out on a boat trip with his wife, passes through a strange, glowing crowd. Afterwards, he begins to shrink. At first, it’s barely noticeable, his clothes fitting a little loosely. Soon, he’s four feet tall. Not long after that, Scott’s home becomes a death trap and a simple climb up the basement stairs becomes an epic struggle for survival.

The special effects in “The Incredible Shrinking Man” have aged incredibility well. Scott's constantly decreasing height is created through oversized props, sets, and simple camera tricks. Scenes of a three foot tall Scott talking across a room with doctors or his wife are pulled off seamlessly. Common, household objects becomes massive, a pin cushion a sword, a matchbox a shelter. The movie’s most squirm-inducing special effect is the climatic battle with the spider. Unlike “Tarantula,” Robert appears to be in the same frame with the spider, the beast as big as he is. Maybe technology had advanced that much in only a year or maybe this film simply had more money. Only a few effects, whenever the Shrinking Man interacts with other people directly, have aged badly.

I debated covering this film for October at all. “The Incredible Shrinking Man” is widely regarded as a landmark science fiction film, not a horror movie. Yet, how can’t this be a horror movie? The film mines everyday objects for edge-of-your-seat thrills. The sequence where a house cat becomes a fearsome predator has always gotten to me. Maybe it’s the reversal of a beloved pet becoming the biggest threat. Maybe the claustrophobic elements of the doll house being invaded is what effects me. Either way, that scene stands out. The final battle with the spider is similarly squirm-inducing. Archophobes might want to fast-forward through that one. 

Even without those visceral thrills, “The Incredible Shrinking Man” explores some existential horror. The film can be separated neatly into two halves. The first half explores the dread and depression Scott feels as his life slowly falls apart. He drifts apart from his wife, her unable to cope with the changes. This is even more tragic when the two are so warm, so clearly in love, in the early moments of the story. Grant Williams and Randy Stuart have fine chemistry in that regard. The marriage is further stressed by the influx of media attention, endless phone calls, and paparazzi outside their windows. In the second half, after falling into the basement, the film becomes the strangest survivalist story you’re ever likely to see. Scott has to fashion tools from everyday items while a gap in a crate lid or a leaking water heater become life or death situations.

The movie isn’t without bumps. A brief subplot in which Scott seems to be forming a relationship with a circus dwarf doesn’t go much of anywhere, even if April Kent does fine in the part. Grant Williams’ best attribute as an actor is his physicality. He has no problem playing off the other actors around him but is at his best when fashioning grappling hooks and climbing walls. The script’s biggest problem is Williams’ sometimes overbearing voice-over narration. The monologues, describing the character’s thoughts as he goes about his action, where obviously there to fill-in otherwise silent scenes. I wish they had been left silent, the actions speaking for themselves, the audiences left to fill in their own head space.

But then again, without the voice-over, we’d miss out on that incredible final scene. Matheson shouldn’t get all the credit for “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” Jack Arnold, long established as Unviersal’s sci-fi filmmaker of choice, reportedly wrote that final monologue himself. In most sci-fi films of the era, the hero's predicament would be undone at the last minute, his condition reversed. “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” instead, follows it premise through to the logical conclusion. Instead of resolving with a broad deus ex machina, it explores metaphysical concepts, man’s place in the universe, and the idea of infinity. The film ends on an ambiguous note, easily interpreted as either hopeful or final. “The Incredible Shrinking Man” was one of the Eisenhower era’s most ambitious science fiction film, finding the epic in the very small, thrilling and thought provoking. [8/10]

So Weird: “Strangeling

“Strangling” is an episode of “So Weird” with a goofy premise that works entirely because of the cast. Molly visits with her step-sister, an actress currently performing in a production of “MacBeth.” Fiona’s two twin cousins love her, follow her website, and have a similar enthusiasm for the supernatural. While playing with an apparently authentic spell book prop, the three girls summon a real life, actual dragon. Meanwhile, Jack and Clu dress up in knight costumes and mess around. This is a plot point.

The dragon is about as convincing a special effect as you’d expect from a low budget TV show. It’s created by combing a hand puppet and small model, with some “Predator”-style monster-o-vision thrown in for good measure. It’s a good thing for Fiona that the monster neither flies nor breaths fire. The way the dragon is contained and defeated is far too easy. The boys dressing up as knights is another goofy element, with the both of them acting a little childish for kids their age. So why did I end up liking the episode anyway? Cara DeLizia has great chemistry with the two young actresses playing her cousin. The three appear to be having genuine fun together. Susan Bain has a wonderful small role as Aunt Melinda. The old theater setting is used fairly well. The episode provides a smidge of mythology building, as we learn Fiona’s dad might have been into witchcraft himself… Not a great episode by any means but, as a fan, I found some things to like about it anyway. [6/10]

Tales from the Crypt: “Three’s a Crowd

“Three’s a Crowd” is an unusually somber episode of “Tales.” Most episodes are content to be campy, trashy exercise in comic book horror. Ghoulishness with a wink and a smile. “Three’s a Crowd,” meanwhile, actually sets out to scare viewers. The story is traditional “Crypt,” a husband convinced his wife is cheating on him with his best friend, ending in murder. The approach is completely different though. The focus is on husband Richard’s deteriorating mental health. He has an alcoholic streak and is suspicious of his wife’s activity from the beginning. It’s clear he’s gong to snap, and soon. However, Richard is also sympathetic, emotionally dependent on his wife. The exceptionally ugly Gavan O’Herlihy, the physical cross between Gary and Jake Busey’s least attractive features, probably goes way over the top in the part. Either way, his sweaty, scratchy demeanor makes his inevitable psychosis awfully convincing.

When O’Herlihy’s breakdown comes, some actual tension is built. Pre-death taunting, “Shining”-style door breaking, and dramatic window leaping add to the effect. The violence isn’t fun, like “Crypt” usually is. Instead, there’s a focus on suffering. This show usually ends with the bad people punished, the moral certainties reestablished. Not “Three’s a Crowd.” Instead, the ending is cruelly ironic, putting a particularly nasty bow on an already nasty package. (Of course, the whole thing could have been avoided if the characters had just talked to each other.) Eighties soundtrack superstar Jan Hammer’s score is full of throbbing electronics. David Burton Morris’ direction walks a fine line between thrilling and melodramatic. The whole episode does. It’s bleak enough that the Crypt Keeper’s (genuinely amusing) one-liners almost feel mean-spirited. I’m not sure if “Three’s a Crowd” is actually good, as it’s borderline overheated and silly, but it’s the only “Crypt” episode to genuinely surprise me. That’s worth something. [7/10]

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