Written by Tom Kilpatrick; uncredited contributions by Malcolm Stuart Boyland
Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack
Albert Dekker: Dr. Thorkel
Thomas Coley: Bill Stockton
Janice Logan: Dr. Mary Robinson
Charles Halton: Dr. Bulfinch
Victor Kilian: Steve Baker
According to Wikipedia, this is the first science-fiction movie to be filmed in Technicolor. Being a fan of all things retro and cool, that means sooner or later I was destined to see it. As you can see from the poster at the top of the review, the color film process was a bigger star than anyone in the movie--it gets top billing and bigger lettering. As well it should! Think about the fantastic spectacle that's synonymous with Technicolor--would The Wizard of Oz be as magical if it hadn't gone from sepia to vibrant, richer-than-reality color film stock? No. Of course not. And the 1938 Adventures of Robin Hood is still the high water mark for rousing adventure, at least partly because of the way all the knights and Merry Men have costumes that pop right off the screen. So of course I'm interested in seeing how this film looks (and the opening credits, flickering in eerie green, are about as cool as you're going to get as far as 1940 opening credits go--actually, the movie's copyrighted 1939 but was released the following year). The credits flicker in and out of existence exactly like the scan lines on primitive video displays, so even before the first image appears on screen we're getting SCIENCE!, which is wonderful to behold.
And then, joy of joys, a stout bald guy wearing protective goggles is looking at some kind of radioactive power source in a leaded glass tube, filling the screen with that same flickering green color. I wonder if this very movie is the reason radiation is a sickly green in pop culture (apparently in real life when you can actually see radiation from a nuclear power source it's blue). A second man, named Mendoza and not wearing Ether Goggles, enters and asks the unnamed mad scientist when he's going to give up his impossible plan to do whatever it is that he's doing. The bald man says that he's actually done it, so he doesn't have to give up doing it, and he was right all along (so there). Baldy says "it still lives" and tells Mendoza to look through a microscope to prove it, which the other man does.
Whatever the first doctor did, he says he used enough radium to "tear it to shreds", whatever it is, and yet it hasn't died. Mendoza takes this really poorly, saying that the bald doctor has Gone Too Far and Tampered In Realms Man Was Not Meant To Know (I'm guessing that this dialogue was old hat even in 1939); instead of destroying all his work and hoping that nobody else uncovers his techniques, Dr. Thorkel says he's now able to tamper with the very forces of life itself and has not just the right but the moral imperative to keep doing that. Mendoza says he won't allow Thorkel to keep doing what he's doing--and since it's his equipment and his radium deposit in "the jungle" in the Amazon, what Mendoza says goes.
Thorkel takes that pretty well, all things considered--he grabs Mendoza by the throat and slams his head into the glass tube full of green flickered radiation; the Expository Casualty dies of massive radiation poisoning in seconds (which is portrayed by making his face look like a skull thanks to a dissolve from the actor to the actor in the same position with makeup on his face). Which is just how you'd have to make that happen in 1939.
Then it's time to meet another scientist, one working at the North American Research Foundation (which I assume is the laboratory that eventually created Pinky and the Brain; after all, they are the N.A.R.F.). The awesomely named Doctor Rupert Bulfinch, another late-middle-aged white guy, has gotten a job offer from Dr. Thorkel, who he has never met. The head of the NARF says he worked with Thorkel, and found the guy to be weird even for an obsessed biologist. He also says Thorkel was insanely secretive about what he was working on, and wishes the other scientist would reconsider working with--or for--Thorkel.
The next person we encounter is Dr. Mary Robinson, who is introduced writing out a telegram to the aforementioned Dr. Rupert Bulfinch. She's signing on to supervise the microscope equipment and record keeping for an expedition (telegrams charge by the word, so she doesn't say which expedition that is; besides, the audience already knows). They team up and try to convince a young playboy mineralogist named Bill Stockton to work with them--Thorkel's original choice can't abide the high altitudes in Peru so he had to quit before the expedition started. Stockton isn't having any of it until Robinson threatens to have him jailed for unpaid debts (that she's acquired from the local American ambassador, who is a friend of the rock hound and has been trying to keep him out of legal trouble) if he doesn't sign on to whatever they're doing. He's a realist, so he decides to do some science.
The group goes on to the mule-rental shack where they were promised--and already paid for--a bunch of mules that Steve Baker, a miner, says are his and he won't let them out of the corral. Kendall tries reasoning with the laconic industrialist, and that goes about as well as you'd expect. Robinson offers more money as well and the guy won't take it. Finally Baker says he wants to go along on the expedition, which is not what any of the various scientists expected (I think he wants to get his hands on that radium deposit, myself). The expedition continues down a shallow portion of the Amazon on mule-back and there's a Komedy Interlude with a peasant (who pulls lots of Komedy Reaction Faces as he sees the party arrive) and his dog (who is more dignified and doesn't do that), who notifies Dr. Thorkel--wearing the Mark I Iron Man armor--that his helpers have arrived.
When the scientists (and the miner guy) arrive, the peasant asks if they've seen his horse on the trail; apparently it got loose at some point and he'd really like it back. He also tries to keep his dog nearby, because losing a horse is one thing but losing your dog is catastrophic. Thorkel comes out of his house / lab in a rumpled tan suit in order to greet everyone except the dog. Thorkel is the very picture of genteel scientific cooperation and enthusiasm, and tells Bulfinch and Robinson that his eyesight has deteriorated to the point that someone else has to look through the microscope in order to record any of the results he's been producing. The pair of scientists are naturally sympathetic and want to help, as anyone with a functioning soul would be in this situation.
Science sequence! Thorkel has the trio of researchers check out something he's got on a microscope slide; Bulfinch spots cellular deterioration and Stockton recognizes tiny pieces of crystallized iron. Thorkel nearly collapses when he hears that, but says it's for a good reason--Stockton's eyesight and knowledge mean that Thorkel knows how to fix whatever it is that's gone wrong. He refers to the iron crystals as "my only error", which suggests that he's got a touch of the Hubris. Thorkel also turns out to have only wanted his colleagues to journey ten thousand miles to look at that one microscope slide; he thanks them for their time, says he's got an experiment that needs constant supervision, and tells them all he hopes to spare a minute or two in order to say goodbye when they leave the following morning. Did your brain just make a record-scratch noise when you read that? Because mine sure did when I saw it.
Thorkel says that he doesn't actually need any other help, walks back to his lab and shuts the door. I can only imagine the profanity that a real scientist would have let loose at this point. Bulfinch is fuming; Stockton is happy to be done and ready to leave, while Dr. Robinson says nobody should set one foot outside of Thorkel's compound without some kind of acceptable explanation for what he just had them do. Dr. Robinson also points out that none of the three scientists know what the hell Thorkel is up to, but Baker thinks he's got it figured out. He's spotted telltale signs of mining activity but neither Bulfinch nor Robinson think he's got a theory worth listening to. So the miner sneaks out of the compound fence and sees that flickering green light through the windows in Thorkel's lab, and there's at least two different Science Noises emanating from there.
Baker checks out a mine shaft and happens to be there when Thorkel turns off the Science Stuff in his lab, then comes out to manually haul up what I assume is the reactor that powers his equipment--the mad doctor makes some adjustments to it and lowers it carefully back down to the bottom of the well. He never notices Baker hiding behind a barrel (that terrible eyesight comes in handy for the protagonist here), and scoops up some mineral samples before returning to the compound.
And in Thorkel's lab, it turns out that the missing horse is right here all along, but it's only about a foot tall now! Damn, that really is tampering in God's domain! The shot of Thorkel removing the cloth covering the mini horse looks to be a forced-perspective effect rather than matting in a horse--and the edit between the scientist putting the tray down on his desk and the shot where he pulls the cloth away is very deftly done. I imagine that shot completely blew the audience members' minds in 1940.
The next morning, Bulfinch is rummaging through the ore samples that Baker retrieved, and has found tiny bone fragments of the native wildlife. Bulfinch thinks he's tripped over the discovery of hitherto undiscovered species of micropig, since the bone fragments are from a mature animal. He decides to name it after himself, of course, as scientists do. Thorkel overhears him and chuckles indulgently (of course he, and we, know what's really up with those bone fragments). Bulfinch says that the main difference between a mouse and a whale is their size, and I'm no biologist but I think there's probably a few other differences that someone could probably spot.
For one thing, the Enterprise didn't need to find mice in the past.
It's also very difficult to make scrimshaw from a mouse.
Thorkel wasn't just there to tell Bulfinch that he probably didn't find a brand new species of single-serve bacon strips on the hoof; he was also there to thank everyone again for their service and to show them the door. Bulfinch figures that Thorkel's treatment of the three researchers means he doesn't have to consider Thorkel's feelings when deciding what to do. Thorkel counters by saying if Bulfinch is still there in an hour, whatever happens to the biologist is not Thorkel's fault. Then Pedro the peasant hears the micro horse neighing and figures out at least part of what's up (in that he knows what Pinto sounds like). Baker peers through a gap in the fence and sees Dr. Thorkel looking for the horse in his back yard, with a butterfly net. He motions the others to come look at this weird shit, and they do. A convenient clump of grass means they don't actually see Pinto in his newly reduced state before he gets caught and put in a pet carrier, but all of the observers think at the very least that Thorkel's out of his goddamned mind.
Pedro offers another piece of the puzzle--it turns out that he was originally hired to bring a bunch of rats, chickens, dogs and cats to Thorkel's compound. His own dog and a fat black cat named Satanas are the only remaining creatures from that shipment, though Pedro doesn't know what happened to all of the animals he brought to the lab. And Pedro also says he's been working for Dr. Thorkel for about five and a half months, but still has never been allowed inside the laboratory building. Everyone just kind of shrugs and decides to get the hell out of town while the getting is good, but while packing up his sample case, Stockton realizes that the lumps of rock that Baker brought back from outside the compound are pitchblende, which is what people call uranium ore when they don't want to frighten the shit out of the poor suckers mining it for them.
Baker and Stockton want to keep their knowledge of the pitchblende deposit on the DL, but Bulfinch and Robinson have figured out the presence of radioactivity on their own (and Bulfinch is even able to tell that the ore samples--which were literally just picked up off the ground--have a higher concentration of radium than anyone could logically expect to find). That pair of scientists quickly say they've decided to stick around and care for Dr. Thorkel; Stockton sees through their jive instantly and Baker takes it with equanimity, figuring the paycheck from a four-way split of a multi-million dollar jackpot is still plenty of money. Robinson doesn't just want the money; she's also thinking of all the Science! that could be done with a brand new supply of uranium. Bulfinch, for his part, doesn't like the idea of a massive source of radium left exclusively in the hands of someone who is batshit fucking loco (I am paraphrasing here).
Incidentally, that's an extremely up-to-date thing for this movie; although uranium was discovered in 1789 and its radioactive properties in 1896, its use as a power source didn't occur until 1934 (and the Manhattan Project, which spent billions of 1943 dollars to build the first atomic weapons, was first started in 1941 (which probably means at least some of the politicians who funded the project had seen this movie and were expecting miniature horses to be developed as a sideline to the nuclear bomb research).
Everything comes to a head when the five protagonists sneak into Thorkel's cabin / laboratory while he's out goofing with his reactor thing and start poking around. Pedro sees the prints from his horse's shoes in the dirt floor of the lab leading into a locked room; Baker sees a drawer full of extra glasses ground to Thorkel's coke-bottle prescription and Bulfinch finds his notebook. Interestingly enough, the biologist takes the notebook as further proof of the mad scientist's delusions, not as evidence that he really has been able to shrink a horse down to the size of a medium-sized dog.
Thorkel shows up and is furious beyond belief; Baker tries to make piece but Thorkel isn't interested in listening to anyone about anything right now. He goes even more incandescent when he sees that Bulfinch was reading his notebook, but becomes (apparently) calm after Baker and Stockton grab his arms and start looking for a holding cell. Then he decides to explain himself rather than face a few years in an insane asylum.
Turns out that Thorkel knew the super-rich radium ore was in the area because of its reputation as a cursed locale--lots of gold miners dug in the ground and died at a time when most people didn't have any idea about radioactivity or the hazards of exposure to the pitchblende. The reactor-thing down at the bottom of his well turns out to be a device that absorbs and channels the radioactivity of the ore; it doesn't look like Thorkel's done anything to refine the pitchblende and he's still getting that eerie green glow of SCIENCE! whenever he turns the equipment on (and again--don't forget that uranium enrichment was pretty much science fiction when the movie was written; I'm willing to let the details slide when there's no way anyone in Hollywood could have been expected to know about them).
When it comes time to demonstrate what Thorkel is actually doing with that radioactive power, he brings everyone but Pedro into the room where he built a huge metal thingy that directs and releases the atomic energy once he's got it condensed by his other metal thingy in the well. WhenPedro discovers his now tiny horse in a storage box, Thorkel tells the peasant to go into his Science Room as well; once everyone's looking at his atomic-powered equipment with polite interest he leaves the room, locks the door and turns on the machine. Ever the scientist, he puts on his safety hood and watches what's happening from the outside. The next we see of him, he's stuffing everyone's clothing into a sack and telling Satanas the cat to wait her turn; she'll see the people in the cellar soon enough. That's probably a much better deal for the cat than it is for the scientists.
The scene where Thorkel opens the cellar door and reveals that all five people are now a foot tall, and wearing togas made of handkerchiefs (Pedro, not being white, gets stuck with a diaper, the poor sap) is another marvel of split-screen and forced perspective effects. It's worth noting that Ernest B. Schoedsack also directed King Kong and Son of Kong; he was likely a go-to guy for the studio when the movie called for effects and camera trickery. Of course, in this case he's making people look small instead of making an eighteen inch stop-motion ape model look bigger than a subway train.
Thorkel picks up the cat (which was growling hungrily at everyone) and kneels down to discuss the impossibility of his claimed results with everyone. They're too stunned to speak, which I can fully sympathize with. At the first opportunity everyone high-tails it out of the cellar and climbs the stairs while Thorkel observes that they're all physically unharmed and still capable of the complicated physical tasks involved in climbing chest-high wooden steps. He also tells everyone not to worry, because he's shut the cat in the basement so they aren't going to be torn apart and devoured.
There's some neat interplay between the set where Thorkel is sitting in a chair and talking reasonably to his victims and the shots of the shrunken-down scientists (and Pedro and Baker)--I'm assuming that a quintuple-size duplicate set was built so that all the miniaturized characters would be in the proper scale. By using similar camera placement while shooting Thorkel and the protagonists, it's possible to make the scenes look like they match closely together.
Thorkel tells the hiding victims that he's being perfectly reasonable towards them and they sneak out from behind a crate to talk to him. Bulfinch decides to ask why God hasn't smote the crap out of the good doctor for doing blasphemous science; Thorkel chuckles indulgently and admires his spirit. After a drink of an unspecified "stimulant", Thorkel tells the shrunken people that they're the first shrunken beings that lived through the process and lies down for a nap. Everyone looks at the locked and bolted door and realizes they need to get the equivalent of twenty feet off the ground to work it (they stack books up until Stockton can reach up with a pencil and shoot the bolt). Once outside the lab building, the quintet looks around the yard of Thorkel's compound and tries to figure out what to do next. The now-enormous-relative-to-them roosters in the yard are scary enough, but it's the presence of Satanas that really freaks out the victims.
The animal noises are all mixed to sound louder and more threatening, by the way, even the chickens. It's interesting, and also makes the familiar sound alien (which helps the audience get into the same mental place as the protagonists).
The shrunken people hide in a convenient cactus patch so the cat won't get to them and Tipo the dog frightens Satanas off; the poor dog gets horribly confused when he sees his owner is now smaller than he is. Thorkel wakes up after his nap and goes looking for the fivesome so he can hassle them again about being tiny and sees that they've gotten out of his cabin. They've rigged up clothing for themselves out of other fabric; now, instead of all of them wearing white cotton shifts they're clad in different colored togas (and Robinson in a dress; Pedro is still in a big diaper, for some reason). This means that it'll be easier to tell any of the five apart in long shots.
While everyone else does something practical like disassembling a pair of scissors to make two single-edged swords that the shrunken men or women can wield or gathering food, Bulfinch is working his way through a scientific text and telling the others that Thorkel's theories are completely inaccurate. Well, that's possibly the case, Rupert, but on the other hand you're now about a foot tall and that's hard to ascribe to sheer coincidence.
Bulfinch walks away from the group to "reason with" Thorkel, saying that he won't go into the cabin to be weighed and measured by Thorkel; he demands a trip back to civilization. Thorkel says the mules are gone and nobody's going anywhere. Looks like the nearly blind but full-sized mad scientist has the upper hand in this discussion. Bulfinch, fittingly enough, is the one to refer to himself and the other four victims as "prisoners in Cyclops' cave". Thorkel thinks that's a crack about his vision, but the professor says it's more a signal that Polyphemus thought being bigger and stronger than the people under his power would be enough to keep him on top. And we all know how that worked out, or at least we should, I hope.
Thorkel orders Bulfinch to come into the lab for his examination; when the professor refuses Thorkel busts out the butterfly net again and goes hunting. At least for the time being he's more interested in recording the results of his inadvertent experiment than just stepping on the quintet and calling it a day. The scene where he reaches out of frame with the net so an oversized prop butterfly net can catch Bulfinch is another really nifty use of forced perspective and matting to achieve the effect. I doubt that anyone watching it now would be fooled (heck, I bet people had it pretty well figured out in 1940) but it's still an interesting thing to see and I applaud the low-tech ingenuity that went into the sequence.
Thorkel takes a quick measurement of Bulfinch's height and weight; the poor sucker is now thirteen inches tall and weighs only a pound and a half (which doesn't make a huge amount of sense to me, but I'll roll with it). Thorkel is concerned instead of jovially chiding the man who is utterly and completely in his power; Bulfinch is far from stupid and figures this out pretty much instantly. Another neat rear-projection / giant prop scene ensues when Thorkel picks up the protesting Bulfinch (who jabs him with a metal-tipped fountain pen rather than meekly submit to the examination).
Thorkel realizes that the shrinking process is temporary, and that Bulfinch (and, presumably, the other four people stuck in the same tiny boat) will grow back to full size eventually. I assume the horse is going to get big again too. Bulfinch says there will be a settling of accounts when that happens, and Thorkel agrees that it seems like a likely outcome. He says that's "most unfortunate", and has also killed at least one person that was opposed to his experiments, so if I were Bulfinch I'd likely keep my mouth shut while I was still small enough to get killed with a single strike from a hammer.
Thorkel presses a cotton pad soaked with chloroform over Bulfinch's face, killing him. When Dr. Robinson sees this she screams, which alerts the mad scientist to her presence (as well as the remaining three men). They flee for the cactus patch in the corner of Thorkel's yard, but that refuge doesn't last when the full-sized villain grabs a shovel and starts smashing the cactus leaves down. Thorkel (and the audience) see the drain hole in the base of the wall when the cacti are cleared out of the way, and now the four shrunken people are out in the jungle, unprotected, just in time for a rainstorm and falling tree to imperil them even further. They wind up taking refuge in a small cleft in some rocks and go forth to meet the following day.
They come across Pedro's canoe, and figure that if they can get it in the water and hop inside, at the very least they'll be out of Thorkel's influence and can hopefully get back to civilization before a leopard eats them. Dr. Robinson figures out a way to rig up branches and vines into a lever and windlass that the three men can use to push the canoe into the river (since it's far, far too heavy for them to move now). Unfortunately an alligator picks that time to go into the river itself. Nobody notices it approaching the men lifting the boat until it's almost too late; the men make it back into the rock pit but the alligator is standing there anticipating a tasty snack, so they're trapped. Robinson distracts the reptile while the three men pick up their stockpile of firewood; they dump burning sticks on the alligator's head and it sensibly enough retreats to the river.
Now it's time for yet another complication; Thorkel is out hunting with a shotgun, looking for the surviving victims. He's using Pedro's dog to track them down, which is actually really smart of him. The quartet of protagonists hide in the tall grass where there's space to hide and Pedro runs off so the dog will follow him instead of leading Thorkel to everyone. He distracts the doctor at the cost of his own life and Thorkel shoves the canoe into the water with one hand, stranding everyone where they are (and doing more in seconds than the protagonists managed in hours of strain and effort). Then, because he's tired of looking for them, Thorkel sets fire to the tall dry grass they're hiding in. In a stroke of genius, the three survivors hide in Thorkel's sample case because they know he won't look in there. He eventually gives up looking for the shrinking victims and returns to his lab.
Back in the lab, Thorkel is looking for something he wrote down earlier, and moves some heavy medical books around in order to find it. Unfortunately, the books go right on top of his sample case, so the three remaining shrunken people have to cut through the mesh window on the front panel in order to escape. When Thorkel's out screwing around with his atomic accumulator thing in the back yard again they seize their chance. Dr. Robinson and Baker get ready to run back outside while Stockton decides that he's going to stay behind and figure out a way to kill Thorkel with his scissors-blade sword. Stockton's courage means that Dr. Robinson and the miner decide not to run off and abandon him.
While Thorkel continues farting around with the atomic whatsit, the three shrunken people rig up his shotgun so it'll be pointing at him in bed. Once he's out cold, they'll pull the trigger, murder the shit out of him and at least be free from one source of danger in the Amazon jungle. Since Thorkel doesn't know they're in the cabin with him, he would have no reason to suspect any danger. It's just bad luck that Thorkel doesn't go straight to bed. He falls asleep in his chair at his work table instead.
While Thorkel's out cold, the three remaining protagonists take all his spare spectacles out of their drawer, and Stockton does the suicidally dangerous theft of the mad doctor's remaining glasses from his hand while he's out cold. The doctor can't see any of his victims once Stockton throws his glasses to the ground, but hears Dr. Robinson warning the man to look out when he wakes up. Thorkel's too ticked off to work in his own best interests when he finds out the trio of shrunken people are back in his cabin, and tells them that they're going to grow back to full size eventually. He figures it won't make any difference because he's going to find them and kill them before it's an issue.
Thorkel trips over a crate while looking for the survivors, and soon enough realizes that he's missing every single pair of glasses in the cabin. He decides that he can't use the shotgun effectively when he's blind and removes the barrels to use 'em as a club. He also winds up with a pair of glasses with one lens left unshattered, and he refers to himself as Cyclops at that point. Enraged, he overturns everything in his cabin while looking for the trio of victims. While he's rummaging around for stuff the shrunken characters run out of the cabin through a hole Thorkel blasted in the front door; he hears them and follows them out to the yard, where the scaffolding over the radiation well gives way. The mad doctor is hanging to the well rope with one hand when Stockton cuts the rope on the lanyard arm with his scissors-sword, dropping the mad scientist into the well to die horribly. And good riddance to him.
Cut to a title card reading "months later", where the restored survivors decide not to tell anyone where they really were over the last few months because nobody would believe them. Baker wants to keep all the pitchblende mine money he's got coming to him, and if he's locked up in an asylum for his own protection he won't be able to spend it. Dr. Robinson and Stockton aren't listening to his reasoning, though; they only have eyes for each other. Fade to the "THE END" title card and credits as the miner asks if they haven't had enough danger in their lives yet.
Alas, I can't really recommend this one to anyone not already interested in the history and sociological aspects behind the movies as I am. It's pretty neat, and the Science! props look cool, but other than Albert Dekker's performance at Thorkel there aren't any notable performances to speak of. The film takes a third of its length to get moving. After seeing the novelty of the extra-big set for the five (then four, then three) shrinking victims to interact with for a few minutes, there's not a lot for the film to do. Even the occasional REALLY OBVIOUS DOLL for Thorkel to interact with only really breaks up the monotony of the good effects without providing much in the way of campy amusement. It's really too bad. The film's a small success, I guess, but I was hoping for something more impressive, given the director's masterpiece when he was dealing with things that were really big rather than small.