“No one has ever seen anything like this.”
So says Capt. Steve West (Alex Rebar) at the start of The Incredible Shrinking Man, a silly slice of low budgeted sci-fi horror written and directed by William Sachs. West, an astronaut leading his crew on a mission taking them to Saturn -- what for, we never learn -- is specifically referring to the “magnificent” sight of the sun through Saturn’s rings.
Then again, he could be describing the next 80 minutes or so, which I think it is safe to say no one has ever seen anything like, either.
Though released in 1977, The Incredible Melting Man has a premise (and title) that comes straight out of the 1950s. Of course, while one generally finds even in the least accomplished B-movies of that earlier era some sort of moral or message -- say, about the dangers of allowing scientific progress to go unchecked, or communism, or the bomb, or what have you -- the emphasis here is a little different.
Rather, The Incredible Melting Man is a film about sticky goo. Mostly.
Following a vague opening sequence in which the Saturn mission apparently goes horribly wrong, West lands wrapped in bandages in a sparsely-filled room in what looks like a warehouse. It is a warehouse, actually. But we’ll call it a “Psychological Research Center” because of the hand-lettered sign hanging outside.
Left alone, West swiftly removes the bandages to discover he has become the titular character. He’s melting. It’s incredible, man.
The doomed mission’s only survivor then wastes no time expressing his disappointment by attacking and killing a nurse, then taking off into the surrounding woods. Such anti-social behavior is explained via mumbo jumbo from the doctors about radiation and the fact that “he’s going to need human cells to live on” so “his instinct will tell him to kill.”
The viewers instinct will tell them this is hardly an explanation, but I imagine most getting this far will still be curious to see what happens next.
And what does happen next? A sequence of awkward set pieces involving numerous random folk, all punctuated by more mucky mayhem committed by an increasingly syrupy Steve. These scenes include a fishing expedition, a kids’ game of hide-and-seek, an involuntarily-topless photo shoot (with the often-topless cult film star Rainbeaux Smith), an elderly couple stealing lemons, and a man eating leftover turkey.
There’s a sheriff impotently running around trying to figure out why heads and other body parts are turning up all over his jurisdiction. He’s not helped very much by two others who know more about it all than they are letting on -- an avuncular though mostly unpleasant General Michael Perry (Myron Healey) and the weirdly morose and uncharismatic Dr. Ted Nelson (Burr DeBenning).
Strictly amateur hour top to bottom in this one when it comes to editing, cinematography, script, acting, mise en scène, and just about every other aspect of filmmaking one can name.
For example, at about the half-hour mark the entire opening sequence is repeated as a flashback occurring in the melting man’s memory. I mean, it was less than thirty minutes ago. We remember. (And this despite the fact we’ve been told “his mind is... completely decomposed.”)
That said, seeking other of the film’s many goofs is a big part of the fun here. Late in the film a woman finds herself trapped in a farmhouse kitchen, the viscous villain awkwardly trying to push his way inside from a connected room. She spots the back door. Does she run out? Nah. She locks it.
And then finds herself a meat cleaver.
Speaking of, that inexplicable choice allows for another of numerous examples of the film’s sort-of-interesting-for-the-time gruesome makeup effects, provided by the since-celebrated Rick Baker who’d go on to earn a half-dozen Oscars for such.
The film eventually oozes its way to a finale of sorts, with an ending so messy it needs a custodial crew to clean it up. No, I’m serious. There’s a janitor... with a broom and dust pan.... Okay, don’t believe me.
Some might remember this one famously received the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” treatment, although the original film is plenty full of gelatinous grins even without the wiseacres in silhouette pointing ’em out. Keeping in mind the usual scales of cinematic valuation, one star seems the most suitable grade here. But some will nonetheless find reason to seek out The Incredible Melting Man, including those who enjoy and/or appreciate campy goodness.
Also, those who like sticky goo.