The Incredible Shrinking Man
Existentialism goes pop in this benchmark of atomic-age science fiction, a superlative adaptation of a novel by the legendary Richard Matheson that has awed and unnerved generations of viewers with the question, What is humanity’s place amid the infinity of the universe? Six months after being exposed to a mysterious radiation cloud, suburban everyman Scott Carey (Grant Williams) finds himself becoming smaller . . . and smaller . . . and smaller—until he’s left to fend for himself in a world in which ordinary cats, mousetraps, and spiders pose a mortal threat, all while grappling with a diminishing sense of himself. Directed by the prolific creature-feature impresario Jack Arnold with ingenious optical effects and a transcendent metaphysical ending, The Incredible Shrinking Man gazes with wonder and trepidation into the unknowable vastness of the cosmic void.
Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man receives a brand-new special edition Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection, presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition master comes from a 4K restoration performed by Universal.
The notes suggest that the scan comes solely from the 35mm original negative, though I’m pretty sure that’s not the case. Outside of scenes around the film’s many optical effects, which expectedly show shifts in quality and some rough edges (due to how these were all developed), a good portion of the film has a rather soft and dupey look to it. Grain is kind of clumpy, details are weak, there’s a soft edge to most things, and grayscale comes off a little flat and simple. It’s possible this is all related to the film stock that was used for filming, but oddly, once we get the basement setting the image becomes substantially sharper and cleaner. Grain is finer with the finer details found in the fun and elaborate sets looking far more distinct. You can also make out individual grains of sand and dirt scattered about the setting and even the optical shots around a giant spider (which is, in fact, a tarantula) deliver far more clarity, the “spider’s” hairs sticking out individually. Grayscale is also cleaner, with a wider range of grays between the whites and blacks. It’s a drastic and noticeable shift, and I’m not sure of the reason behind it: it's either large sections of the film are coming from a later generation print, with the stuff in the basement coming from the negative, or multiple film stocks were used during filming.
Neither of those are outside the realm of possibility but I can’t say what the answer is in the end. At the very least the digital presentation is up to snuff. Though grain is a bit messier during the earlier portions of the film, it at least still has a film texture to it. Noise is also never an issue, even during the portions of the film where grain is significantly finer than the earlier portions. The restoration has also cleaned up damage nicely, the only things really sticking out being those rough edges around the special effects.
Overall, I’d say I was pleased with the presentation, but the drastic shifts in quality can be a bit jarring.
The film’s PCM 1.0 monaural soundtrack manages to surprise a bit. The film has a very interesting score, not typical of the genre (as the special features go over), and it manages to offer surprising depth and fidelity. Dialogue is also crisp and clear, even as our hero’s voice gets lower thanks to his unfortunate affliction.
Criterion packs on quite a bit of material for this edition, pulling in many of the film’s admirers to share their thoughts and knowledge around the film and its surprise longevity, things starting out with a brand-new audio commentary from film historian Tom Weaver. So, I’ll start off by saying the track is very well researched and covers a wide variety of topics around the film, including details around Orangey the Cat, a topic Criterion asked him to specifcally cover, according to him anyways. He compares Richard Matheson’s novel and original script to the end results, which leads to discussion around Matheson’s reaction to the film and his script for a sequel before continuing on about the effects work, some of the interesting casting considerations that didn’t pan out (Dan O’Herlihy in the lead role!) and just the film’s lasting appeal. Horror-music expert David Schecter also pops up for around 12-minutes or so near the end of the film to talk about the music, in particular a song called “The Girl in a Lonely Room,” which ended up being sampled for the film’s title score.
I thought Weaver put together some great content, and just considering the meat of the track it’s pretty good. What may not work for some people, and pushed me to the edge of cringe constantly,is how it’s delivered. Weaver is trying to keep the track light and entertaining, which is all well and good, but attempts at humour (which are all clearly scripted, as is the track as a whole) more often fall flat than come anywhere near hitting a target, and I’m positive he throws in a “whomp-whomp” sound effect at one point. Weaver could be trying to make this all as eye-rollingly bad as possible, but I don't think so; I'm pretty sure he genuinely thinks this is "wit" and it makes the track far more obnxious than it needs to be.
To his credit, other touches mostly work at least, including reenactments of interviews with those involved with the film, which includes Matheson, O’Herlihy, and actor Randy Stuart. I also liked that Schecter has been a given a decent sized section of the track to talk about the film's music. Again, and I really want to stress this aspect, he’s structured a good, informative track, I’m just not sure how well the delivery is going to work for most.
Moving on to video material, Criterion first includes the 2013 documentary Auteur on the Campus: Jack Arnold at Universal! (Director’s Cut), running 50-minutes and featuring Weaver (as narrator), Schecter, C. Courtney Joyner, and more. The documentary is pretty straight-forward, covering Arnold’s career in a very step-by-step process as it works its way through the director’s filmography, but it does take the time to address what made his work, in a sea of sci-fi and monster movies (and even westerns!) at Universal, stand out as special and important.
As a bit of an accompaniment to that Criterion also includes 27-minutes’ worth of excerpts from an interview with director Jack Arnold, filmed in 1983 by German journalist Roland Johannes. The excerpts focus exclusively on The Incredible Shrinking Man (one of his favourite films), Arnold talking about script development and the fight over the ending, but I was most intrigued by his discussion around the film’s storyboards, which he designed himself, and talking about the planning and work that went behind the film’s special effects. There’s also mention of a planned sequel he wanted nothing to do with, also mentioned in Weaver's commentary. The segment is well put together, incorporating that interview footage with clips from the film, production photos, and storyboards.
Following that are some newer interviews, including one from 2016 with Richard Matheson’s son, Richard Christian Matheson, talking about the origins of the story and how it reflected his father’s existential crisis around becoming a new father, which led to him feeling as though his place in the world was being diminished. Criterion also includes a new interview with visual and sound effects experts Craig Barron and Ben Burtt. As usual the two talk about and explain the film’s effects work, Burtt on the audio effects and Barron on the visuals. While explaining the visual side of things the featurette offers onscreen examples to better explain how the optical tricks were pulled off. Admittedly there’s nothing all that surprising here but I still enjoy their contributions to these types of releases, and this is another well done segment.
Criterion has also recorded a new interview between director Joe Dante and writer Dana Gould, the two sharing their appreciation for the film. It’s fun listening to Dante explain how this film (and others like it) have heavily influenced his own work, right down to casting; many will more than likely recognize that actor William Schallert plays a role similar to his role in this film in Dante’s own “shrinking man” film, Innerspace (which desparately needs a decent special edition itself). The two also talk about Matheson, who Dante worked with on The Twilight Zone Movie, and the two get into a lengthy conversation on whether Arnold was what one could consider an auteur or a journeyman. It’s a terrific conversation around the film and Arnold’s other work, making for a very breezy 23-minutes.
Going the route of several of Indicator’s Blu-ray releases, Criterion has included two home 8mm versions of the film (a sort of pre-cursor to home video), running just over 8-minutes each. To be fair they’re the same cut, the difference between the two being the first is presented with sound while the other is silent with subtitles. The edit is interesting, basically jumping right into things, our hero Scott Carey (Grant Williams) immediately exposed to the radioactive dust (or whatever it is) which instantly causes the shrinking. The film then mixes moments of the climax with the film’s mid-section before ending at an incredibly bizarre point. I always like these and I’m hoping Criterion might see fit to include more things like this where appropriate.
The disc then includes a trailer and teaser (featuring narration by Orson Welles!) along with a radio play from 1950 featuring a similar type of story. David Schecter, who provided a small section in the commentary around the film’s music, then provides his own video essay around the same subject called The Lost Music of “The Incredibly Shrinking Man.” Running 17-minutes, he gets into a bit more detail around the song “The Girl in the Lonely Room” (which we get to hear in full here) before going over the extended cues from the film, playing the full versions before they were edited down (played over a scene from the film with black spaces where the music was cut) or before any narration or dialogue has been synched over. It’s a really good essay, especially worth going through if you have a fascination with film scores.
Geoffrey O’Brien then provides a loving essay around the film in the included insert, nicely closing things off. Questionable (though well researched!) commentary aside, Criterion has really put together an impressive set of features that seem hellbent on pleasing fans of the film and I get the feeling they accomplished just that.
Though hampered a bit by source materials, Criterion’s loaded special edition will please fans of the film and 50’s sci-fi in general.