Screenshot: HBO Go

I don’t remember actually sitting down and watching Honey, I Shrunk The Kids back in 1989, but I do remember firmly believing that I might spontaneously shrink down to the size of a thumbtack at any moment for several months afterwards. I don’t think I had trouble telling fantasy from reality at 6 years old—sure, I was a fearful little weirdo with night terrors who also imagined Frankenstein’s Monster ascending the stairs to my bedroom every night. But I knew what movies were. I loved movies, especially when they scared me, which was often. This particular fear stuck around longer than most of them, however, spanning the full summer between kindergarten and first grade.

For those few months, I remained constantly vigilant: I refused to walk over storm drains, in case I was directly above one of them when the moment inevitably arrived. Similarly, a metal grate built into the ground outside K-Mart meant I had to be carried, screaming and thrashing, over the threshold of the store every time my mom wanted to buy toilet paper. Even the wooden stairs leading down into our cellar were deeply suspect, thanks to the open spaces between the treads. My irrational anxiety about shrinking—more specifically, shrinking and falling through some sort of hole to my certain death—got so bad that my cousin, who is two years older than me and loved to tease me, could make me cry simply by jumping out from behind a corner and yelling, “HONEY I SHRUNK THE KIDS!” So he did. A lot.

My fear didn’t involve a shrink ray malfunctioning and shrinking me by accident, as happens to the kids in the movie. In fact, it didn’t involve a shrink ray at all. No, there was something about the idea of becoming very small itself that freaked my 6-year-old brain out on a primal level. The images that stuck in my mind were straight out of a horror movie: A scientist bent over a mysterious machine that’s vomiting sparks. A giant ant with alien fangs looming over a helpless child as the boy screams. A girl drowning in a deceptively deep puddle, gasping for breath as she chokes on the filthy brown water. But surely, my memories had simply blurred together with my bizarre phobia. This was just a case of the right thing hitting at the right time in my then very-much-developing psyche. It couldn’t be that bad.

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Nope. This movie is still fucked up.

As most ’80s kids’ movies are on some level, Honey, I Shrunk The Kids is about the latchkey era, in that its psychological subtext plays on the fear of all the bad things that can happen when your parents aren’t home (also, Rube Goldberg devices). Re-viewed through an adult lens, it’s basically a story about four kids who are ignored by their parents until they essentially disappear. And as soon as they become so small that their parents can’t even see them anymore, the kids’ lives immediately become a horrifying gauntlet of mortal danger. The most distracted and least reliable of the parental figures literally throws them in the trash, and nearly kills them several times over the course of the film. Yes, it’s all technically an accident. But does that really matter when you’re in the grips of the Freudian nightmare of being eaten by your own father?

The action is relentless. The kids nearly suffocate in a trash bag, drown under a sprinkler, fall to their deaths off the side of a bee, and get chopped into tiny bits by a sharp, spinning lawnmower blade. The peril continues up until the last 10 minutes of the film, when clueless dad Wayne Szalinski (Rick Moranis) finally notices his son Nick (Robert Oliveri) screaming his lungs out inches from his face. (There is a lot of screaming in this movie.) Even the film’s description on HBO is unsettling: “A backyard is transformed into a jungle hell for four kids after they are accidentally shrunk to the size of bugs in this comedy.” Not an adventure. Not even a safari. A jungle hell.

What I didn’t realize until recently was that the movie is designed to scare children. While it was put together on the happiest cinema assembly line on earth, Honey, I Shrunk The Kids had its roots in an altogether less family-friendly world: the B-horror movies of Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna. The director-producer pair had broken out with Re-Animator in 1985, a film that’s colorful, cartoonish, but most definitely not for children. It was followed by From Beyond in 1986, another mad-scientist tale based on the eldritch work of H.P. Lovecraft; that story is also told in broad, neon-lit strokes, but with a perverse sense of humor that includes Barbara Crampton’s role as a sex-crazed psychiatrist whose kinky leather outfits are about as far from the wholesome Disney brand as you can get.

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Ironically enough, it was a Disney movie—the all-but-forgotten 1985 Depression-set “girl and her dog” drama The Journey Of Natty Gann, specifically—that got Gordon and Yuzna to consider adapting their campy horror style for younger audiences. Well, that, and Yuzna’s pride. As Gordon tells the tale in the book Filmmaking On The Fringe: The Good, The Bad, And The Deviant Directors:

I remember really clearly how it all began. I was with Brian Yuzna in his backyard, and he was really upset because his kids had gone to see a movie called The Journey Of Natty Gann, which was directed by a neighbor (Jeremy Kagan) whose kids went to the same school as they did. The director’s kids invited the entire class to come to an advance screening, and Brian’s kids came home afterward and said, “Dad, how come we never get to see any of your movies,” which knocked his nose a little out of joint.

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Competition can be an excellent motivator, and the two hammered out the basic concept for Honey, I Shrunk The Kids that afternoon, inspired by both their affection for 1950s sci-fi and their manicured suburban surroundings. As a throwback to the kitschy golden age of science-gone-mad B-movies, it works. The shrunken kids’ adventures follow a similar arc to that of astronauts crash-landing on a strange planet—only this time the planet is their own backyard. As Gordon said in an interview tied to his 2001 film Dagon, “Really, it’s not that different than Re-Animator. It’s about a mad scientist and an experiment that goes wrong, and so forth… the potential for severing some heads was there.”

The mad scientist trope endeared Gordon and Yuzna’s idea to Disney, which had produced a string of lighthearted comedies based around the concept with The Absent-Minded Professor, Son Of Flubber, The Misadventures Of Merlin Jones, and The Monkey’s Uncle in the early-to-mid ’60s. The company greenlit the pitch, and went so far as to give Gordon his own office on the Disney lot. But suits like Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg were—perhaps understandably—apprehensive about what might happen when the guys behind an infamous visual pun involving oral sex and a severed head made their first foray into PG-rated family films. “Disney was worried that I was going to kill all the kids,” Gordon laughed in a later interview with Turner Classic Movies, and he told Fangoria in 1987, “After we sent the first draft of the treatment to Disney, we got a note back saying, ‘Please make this more like The Absent-Minded Professor and less like The Fly,” a joke he still makes in interviews about the film.

The heavy-handed script notes and visits from squirrelly executives would continue throughout Honey, I Shrunk The Kids’ two-year development process. For the screenplay, Gordon and Yuzna recruited writer Ed Naha, who got his start writing the truly peculiar Canadian camp comedy Oddballs and went on to write such video-store mainstays as Wizards Of The Lost Kingdom and the original 1986 Troll. Naha had written a horror-fantasy movie called Dolls for Yuzna and Gordon, which came out around the time they started developing Honey, I Shrunk The Kids in 1987; that script revolves around a 7-year-old girl menaced by antique dolls that magically come to life (yes, Charles Band was also involved), so bringing Naha back for another tale of oddly proportioned, kid-centric terror seemed like a natural move.

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The trio’s original script, loosely modeled after The Incredible Shrinking Man, was called—and this should be no surprise to anyone familiar with their work—Teenie Weenies after a comic strip from Naha’s youth. Katzenberg shut down that title at the film’s first production meeting; he was full of other suggestions for the film: Some, like having Wayne almost devour his offspring like a mythological ogre so Disney could put some product placement on the cereal box, made it into the final script. Some didn’t. As Gordon wrote in a 2016 column for Talkhouse,

As we continued to write and rewrite the script, Jeffrey would throw concepts at us. Once he suggested that the minuscule kids should encounter an enormous pile of dog shit. “As big as the Beverly Center!” he enthused. Now, thanks to Jeffrey, whenever I see the Beverly Center I think of it as an enormous turd.

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Eventually, the script was finished, and Yuzna moved to Mexico to supervise the building of an all-American suburban neighborhood at Churubusco Studios in Mexico City. The process took more than nine months, and included the construction of 12 house sets with both front and back yards, a 10-foot-tall oatmeal cookie sculpted from polyurethane foam and real cream, a giant mechanical ant covered in real horse hair, dozens of blades of 40-foot-tall grass made of optical fibers and urethane foam, and a 16,000-gallon tank full of chlorinated water, food thickener, and pigment blended together to look like real milk. Yuzna thought the whole thing was a blast: “It was really fun to watch the set workers. They had to build every blade of grass, and it would take more than one person to carry it. It was kind of funny to watch,” he told Syfy Wire.

Meanwhile, back in L.A., Gordon was having a lot less fun. He had shepherded the movie through pre-production, storyboarding the film, approving the set and prop designs, and designing the special-effects sequences, but being in charge of such a massive production, especially for an unrelenting taskmaster like Katzenberg, was starting to wear on him. Katzenberg prided himself on his long workdays, working seven days a week from his 5 a.m. breakfast meeting well into the night, and expected everyone under him to do the same. Stressed out and exhausted, Gordon experienced what sounds like a pretty apocalyptic nosebleed during a production meeting weeks before shooting was to begin. His doctor told him that his blood pressure was dangerously high, and that finishing the picture would be hazardous to his health. Disney, which had been suspicious of Gordon from the beginning, allowed Gordon to step down as director, nudging Yuzna into a more hands-off producer role in the process.

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A replacement was quickly found in Joe Johnston, an Industrial Light & Magic man who had worked in the art department on Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope and served as the art director for The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi. As soon as he took over the production, Johnston expressed concerns about the scale of the movie’s special effects, as well as the characters, which he deemed one-dimensional. So Dead Poets Society screenwriter Tom Schulman was called in for a last-minute rewrite. Now, with 30 years’ worth of hindsight, Schulman’s rewrite didn’t make the characters much more realistic or relatable: The kids operate on a spectrum from blank slate to purely obnoxious, and the adults are a loose collection of gendered stereotypes. Roger Ebert was one of the few critics to note a sterilized quality in the final product, writing, “It tells an amazing and preposterous story, and it seems bored by it.”

But most critics agreed with the Chicago Tribune, which gave Johnston the benefit of the doubt in its original review: “[I]t’s hard to imagine a camp and gore specialist like Gordon finding the blend of light satire and innocent fun that makes Johnston’s work so appealing.” Gordon’s collaborators think that the movie suffered without him. But the question of what Stuart Gordon’s version of Honey, I Shrunk The Kids would have been is not an entirely hypothetical one, given that Gordon had dictated his vision for how the film should look in pre-production. Visually and conceptually, at least, it is a Stuart Gordon film. “I’d say the movie is 80% the same,” Yuzna guessed when speaking to Syfy Wire.

One area where Johnston—who’s since enjoyed a long and successful career at Disney, most recently directing The Nutcracker And The Four Realms—did excel was in the film’s special effects, representing the height of practical-effects technology before CGI began to take over in the ’90s. (This too, was a side effect of the film’s horror origins; stop-motion animator David Allen also worked on The Howling, The Stuff, and Gordon’s own Dolls, and went on to create the puppet effects for the Puppet Master series). Presaging today’s effect-heavy blockbusters, much of the film was cobbled together with blue-screen effects and compositing.

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As sometimes occurs with major movie studios, the creative risk that gave Disney executives ulcers also made them a lot of money. Working with the Re-Animator guys on a family-friendly horror-adventure turned out to be just the thing to revitalize Disney’s live-action division, which was then on the verge of being re-named Touchstone to get the “family stink” off of it. As Gordon puts it in Filmmaking On The Fringe, “At the time Honey, I Shrunk the Kids was made, calling something a family film was kind of the kiss of death. Anything called a family film was nowhere; even Disney stopped making them.”

The studio needn’t have worried. Although Honey, I Shrunk The Kids never reached No. 1, it played in American theaters for nearly five months in its first run, only vacating cinema screens in early October. The film opened on the same weekend as Tim Burton’s Batman, which would normally be a bad sign— except that screenings of Batman kept selling out. The PG-rated Honey, I Shrunk The Kids proved an acceptable alternative to parents who had already dragged their entire clan out to the theater, and the movie opened at No. 2 with strong word of mouth. It went on to become the fifth-highest-grossing film of 1989, making $222 million worldwide and reviving the market for live-action family films in the process. Two sequels—Honey, I Blew Up The Kid (1992) and Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves! (1997)—a TV series, and a theme-park attraction followed.

As the suits profited, the guys who had the idea in the first place got screwed. Yuzna, Gordon, and Naha got “characters created by” credit on the film’s various sequels and spin-offs, so at least they got checks in the mail for a while afterwards. Disney also tossed Gordon a scrap in 1998, when he got the offer to direct a Halloween-centric episode of the Honey, I Shrunk The Kids TV series. But he never got another chance to cross over into mainstream big-budget studio gigs, and continues making low-budget horror movies to this day. Naha got into writing kids’ Bible cartoons, and Yuzna got the Disney experience out of his system by directing the depraved surrealist suburban body-horror movie Society shortly after Honey, I Shrunk The Kids went into production. As an adult with more reason to worry about a shrinking bank account than an errant shrink ray, that may be the scariest part of this entire story.

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