To my dismay, the DVD said it was a "Camp classic." I'm sorry, no. For one thing, it has the Voice of God's endorsement:
This is not camp.It’s a very good movie, at least in the 50s radioactive-movie genre.
The story is simple: man encounters sparkly cloud while he’s out on a boat, and starts to shrink. That’s it. No explanation why, really - some medical technobabble, but it all comes down to the most indispensable supporting player in 50s movies, Radioactivity. First he goes to see Dr. William Schallert:
This gets our obligatory Star Trek connection out of the way, since Schallert was in the “Trouble with Tribbles” episode. Eventually he goes to a specialist, Dr. Drysdale:
Always interesting to see Mr. Drysdale from “The Beverly Hillbillies” in a straight role; reminds you of his range. He was so good and bug-eyed nervous avarice you’re pleased to see how well he plays a serious doctor who has no idea what’s happening and has no good news to tell.
As the ISM shrinks, it takes a toll on his home life.
It’s quite convincing. Few special effects shots; it’s mostly done with sets and camera angles, which sets it apart from the movies of its time. You know he’s not really shrinking, but it looks perfect.
And here we see the metaphors that run through the whole film: the incredible shrinking modern man, reduced to a pet, a tiny household object, lost in a suburban landscape that doesn’t reflect his nature or his needs.
That's the obvious interpretation - if you want to interpret the movie, that is - but I’m sure there are others. Man, threatened by the rise of Strong Women! Man, diminished in a world that rewards brains more than brawn! Man, getting small while rockets open up the great expanse of space! I’ve no idea if it was intended as a metaphor, but it’s obvious - the writer must have known it straight away. (He was Richard Matheson, by the way - author of many other venerable sci-fi works, including the book on which “The Omega Man” and “I Am Legend” were based.)
When ICM stops shrinking, he has a respite from doom, and decides to get out of the house. There’s momentary happiness in a dalliance with a small girl from a circus freak show, and this is amusing:
. . . because people actually have coffee cups that size today. I’ve seen them for sale. In the end, though, it’s pointless; he shrinks again, battles a cat, and ends up abandoned in the basement of the house, where the tone shifts entirely. Now he’s in a state of nature, his only tools the items he discarded in a careless moment years ago.
The ending is downbeat but uplifting - no one invents a serum, no one invents an unshrinkerator machine, it’s not a dream. He finds his manhood renewed by stabbing a spider to death, eats food in a mousetrap, then contemplates the future while looking out a window screen he will soon be able to pass through. There’s the standard 50s religious metaphysics; movies name-checked God with confident ease in those days. It ends with the infinity of the stars, or the infinity of atoms. Credits.
When I finished the movie I thought it’s the sort of thing they’ll try to remake soon, but they’ll miss everything that made it work. They’ll make it funny. They’ll sex it up with sniggery innuendo, pile on the FX, crank up the soundtrack, and ruin everything that made it bleak, stark, and effective. Hell, they’ll put Eddie Murphy in the starring role.
Seriously. That’s what I thought. Well.