Monsters and Matinees: Tiny Terrors Bring Big Thrills
Have you ever felt a weird sensation on your leg and reached down to bat it away? Or thought you saw something on the floor and jerked your leg thinking it was a spider – or worse?
Me too. A lot.
As much as I am fascinated by movies with oversized bugs, I also am intrigued by the opposite – films with living beings the size of a doll.
Because of the inherent cuteness of tiny people/animals, they often are used in kid-friendly fantasy films like Gulliver’s Travels, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1957) and Mothra (1961) which introduced us to the unforgettable singing twins called The Shobijin.
More recently, tiny people were played for laughs in Honey I Shrunk the Kids (1989), Night at the Museum (2006) and Ant-Man (2015).
But there’s a sinister side to the small wonders theme and it comes in two ways: tiny things that terrorize people and small people who are terrorized. For example, in the wonderfully taut Twilight Zone episode The Invaders, Agnes Moorehead was pursued by minuscule aliens. But in The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), it’s the tiny person who is in danger as the family cat threatens his shrunken master.
My favorite example of a tiny terror is in Tod Browning’s 1936 The Devil-Doll where a wrongly imprisoned man sets miniaturized people loose to exact vengeance on those who framed him. The film is an intriguing mix of horror and pathos and though the scenes of a tiny person attacking a full-sized human seem silly, they are tense.
If you expand this subgenre beyond people, I don’t think anyone would argue that the voodoo doll from Trilogy of Terror holds the top spot in the Tiny Terrors Hall of Fame. (Is it the creepiest thing ever on film? I think so.)
Still, I am more freaked out by films where the tiny people are the ones being terrorized. In some weird, unrealistic way, I relate to them and wonder what I would do if I was in their tiny shoes. (I do the same thing watching a giant creature feature.)
Whether you’re a regular-sized human running from a giant menace or a mini person cornered by an average-sized insect, you are much smaller than the danger you are facing.
Let’s use the tarantula as an example. In my favorite large creature film, creatively titled Tarantula, the spider grows to a size that eventually dwarfs buildings. In The Incredible Shrinking Man, however, the tarantula is normal in size but is giant compared to the tiny man. Does it really matter, then, who is “normal” in size? When you’re looking up at a creature much larger than you, the terror is the same.
Even the title character in Dr. Cyclops (1940) – a crazed scientist who has developed a way to shrink people – understands this. “Perhaps you are not small at all – perhaps everything else is big,” he tells one of his miniaturized victims.
Another fascinating aspect of films with mini-people is the inherent danger they face from practically any common object because of their minuscule size. (Look out for that falling cookie – it’s about to crush you!)
And there’s no one to help them – the only full-sized humans who know of their plight usually put them in the predicament in the first place. Screaming won’t do anything – their voice takes on the sound of a buzzing insect.
Trying to escape with those little legs is almost as pointless, a problem broached by both Dr. Cyclops (“You will find the world far away for legs as short as yours.”) and in Attack of the Puppet People (two escaped miniatures calculate it will now take them six times as long to walk a mile to safety).
No one hears them, no one sees them. These tiny people are on their own and must devise clever ways to survive. It always makes me wonder: Would I be up to such a big task?
Suggested movies to watch
Here are four of my favorite films featuring miniaturized people under the horror/B-movie banner.
The Devil-Doll (1936)
Tod Browning’s film is an intriguing mix of horror and sadness. It feels like someone took a plotline – a banker is framed by his co-workers and spends nearly 20 years in jail – and made two movies (a horror film and sad family drama), then spliced them together.
Lionel Barrymore plays Paul Lavond, the wrongly imprisoned banker who has escaped Devil’s Island with the sickly scientist Marcel (Henry B. Walthall). He learns Marcel has been experimenting with shrinking living objects to 1/6th their size to help stop world hunger. Lavond is horrified to see animals and people turned into mindless miniature versions of themselves but realizes he can use them to fulfill his vengeance.
Still a fugitive, he travels to Paris disguised as a kindly old woman which allows him to get close to the three bankers who betrayed him as well as see his beautiful daughter Lorraine (25-year-old Maureen O’Sullivan).
Browning plays the horror extremely well. In one nerve-wracking scene, police are in the house of a banker who has received a note to confess by “the tenth hour” or die. The tension dramatically increases with each tick of the clock as a tiny man with a poisoned dagger slowly approaches to strike the fatal blow at his feet. (You’ll be thinking twice the next time you feel that tingling sensation by your ankles.)
Attack of the Puppet People (1958)
Pay no attention to the title or accompanying artwork – you won’t find attacking puppets in this film.
Instead, the danger is from a lonely (but demented) doll maker named Mr. Franz who miniaturizes people and uses them as playthings like a child with a toy. He keeps them in suspended animation and displays them in tubes in his doll shop (creepy), only waking them to dance, sing (the song is You’re My Living Doll) and entertain him.
He’s so out of touch, he thinks he’s doing them a favor. “I haven’t really harmed you – you get the best of care,” he tells his “funny little people.”
They try multiple times to escape (six of them give the team effort to lift a telephone receiver and call for help). When they finally get away, they’re in even more danger from life-sized objects. It’s not easy being small.
Notes: The film is directed by Bert I. Gordon, who also did the special technical effects and wrote the story. The movie shown at the drive-in is Gordon’s The Amazing Colossal Man, which was released a year earlier in 1957. B-movie favorite John Agar plays Bob, the salesman who makes the unfortunate mistake of falling for the office secretary. The familiar actor playing Mr. Franz is John Hoyt, whose lengthy career includes When Worlds Collide and a long list of television shows from Hogan’s Heroes and The Virginian to Perry Mason.
Dr. Cyclops (1960)
This is another demented scientist movie, but in this case, his experiments are out of greed (he has discovered a rich deposit of radium), not altruism.
In a remote laboratory in the Peruvian jungle, the once-brilliant, now twisted Dr. Thorkel (Albert Dekker) has summoned other scientists for help because of his failing eyesight. When he then quickly tries to send them away, they refuse, do a bit of snooping and find themselves shrunken to about a foot tall. As Thorkel, dubbed Dr. Cyclops by one of his victims, realizes his minis are reversing and will soon be back to normal size, things turn deadly.
The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)
While vacationing at sea with his wife, a man gets stuck in a “fog” from a passing cloud. Months later, he notices his clothes are getting big and bigger until a doctor confirms the unexplainable: he is shrinking. While his celebrity rises with his new stature, his life falls apart. Forced to move inside a dollhouse, when even that becomes too big for him he turns despondent with the realization that he will continue to shrink, possibly until he is no more. Don’t look for a happily ever after here.
Trivia: Richard Matheson co-wrote the screenplay which is an adaptation of his story The Shrinking Man. It is one in a long list of B-movies directed by Jack Arnold (Creature from the Black Lagoon, Tarantula) and is on the National Film Registry.
–Toni Ruberto for Classic Movie Hub
Toni Ruberto, born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., is an editor and writer at The Buffalo News. She shares her love for classic movies in her blog, Watching Forever. Toni was the president of the former Buffalo chapter of TCM Backlot and now leads the offshoot group, Buffalo Classic Movie Buffs. She is proud to have put Buffalo and its glorious old movie palaces in the spotlight as the inaugural winner of the TCM in Your Hometown contest. You can find Toni on Twitter at @toniruberto.