The value of a great scene is lost on most films. It seems a bizarre thing to say but watching as many as I do, you’d be amazed how set-pieces and moments of flair can be sacrificed for the all-consuming monolith of story. We’ve got to get to the next scene as quickly as possible, so if a scene isn’t expressly about accomplishing that goal, more often than not it’s gotten rid of or marginalized. This isn’t always a bad thing, as most of the scenes I talk about in these parts are tangents from a mass, and if they’re not worth our time then they can bring the film to a screeching halt, momentum permanently lost. This perhaps why genre films excel at set-pieces, for if your plot is a monster is trying to kill these guys, or these two fall in love, then your plot is shorthand, a spine that allows you to the room to see what can really be accomplished in 5 minutes as opposed to two hours, and have that spine there to bring you back on course when you’re done being awesome.
Whether you have seen John Carpenter’s The Thing or not, it should be patently obvious which category it falls into (not a romantic comedy). I’d call this film Carpenter’s best work, and then at some margin. I’m not exactly the man’s biggest fan, his films tended to be too right brain for me and lacked decent characters and often the capacity to surprise. That as well as the fact that I consider Halloween to be the most overrated film ever made in the history of cinema (no hyperbole, that’s actually my literal opinion) but The Thing is the exception that proves my Carpenter hating rule. I think it’s a deserving and lasting classic, Carpenter’s minimalism combines perfectly with an elegant set-up and ingenious monster design, and if there are many monster movies better than this, I haven’t seen them.
The blood test scene, iconic enough that it probably needs very little introduction to the kind of people that would be reading a site like this, is an extra-ordinary example of how to wring every last drop of tension out of a scene. Carpenter has drawn occasional comparisons with Hitchcock, something that makes sense if you remove quality from the conversation. Both spent their entire careers making essentially the same film, both had an interest in filming variations on similar sequences in different movies, as if trying to craft a perfect version of said sequence and both an interest in incorporating technical advancement and experimentation. But this sequence is probably the only time Carpenter mastered suspense in the way Hitchcock could, in a way so carefully crafted and designed, where every beat comes at the perfect moment and a punch you know is coming manages to hit you as strong as any imaginable surprise or twist. Delightfully agonizing, you might call it.
So in the name of set-up, the blood test occurs well into the running time of The Thing, and essentially kicks off the final act. Everyone at the extremely isolated base in Antarctica knows about the shape-shifting monster that’s not only killing them, but making copies of its victims that then blend in amongst the other survivors (instead of just killing them instantly, which the alien could do with ease. Movie magic y’all) This of course means that anyone who’s been separated from the group for any period of time is a suspect. MacReady, our nominal anti-hero, is in exactly this position. So he takes radical action of taking all those not yet killed hostage by threatening to suicide bomb everyone with a stick off dynamite.
His plan is thus. He’s noticed that almost every strand of Alien DNA is alive, it’s own separate entity. As have we by the way (Poor Norris got his head turned into a spider). Following that logic, if he were to take a blood sample from each other survivors, if any of them were alien, that blood sample would attempt to survive, its own separate entity, if under attack from a heated copper wire. So, with each survivor tied to a chair, MacReady proceeds to test the blood, one by one, whilst we wait for the inevitable jump. We know somebody is the monster, because come on, you can’t get us that way. Instead it’s a moment that has to be ‘Goldilocksed’ The time of the reveal, the identity of the monster, the manner of the gearshift from that moment on, it needs to get it all just right.
First to be tested is Windows. Windows is a relatively minor character and that combined with his going first, you’re suspecting he’s going to be clean, or else this scene will have shot its wad before getting to the good stuff. But the shot lingers Windows looks terrified, my certainty is waning. The copper wire fizzes into the blood. No reaction. Next goes MacReady himself. No reaction. Obviously. Carpenter is cutting around all possible suspects at all times, taking in everyone’s tension. Asshole Childs, Company man Garry, comic relief Palmer, newbie Nauls. No music, trusting the moment to play on its own wits. Which only makes everything that much more on a knife edge.
Next up are two of the recently deceased, Copper and Clark. The latter of which MacReady has just shot in the head in self defence. Copper. No reaction for Copper. Clark. No reaction for Clark. In a moment that slightly alters the tone of the scene, Childs (played emphatically by genre legend Keith David) points out that this makes MacReady a murderer. A moment of regret flashes on Kurt Russell’s face. Palmer next. A nervous Garry calls this nonsense and not proof of anything. MacReady, clearly suspecting Garry, calls him out in a moment of triumphant hubris, then BAM. Palmer’s blood shoots into the air, screaming everywhere, Palmer begins to morph into a thing whilst Nauls, Childs and Garry, all tied to him, collectively shit themselves. Complete calm to complete pandemonium, Carpenter pulling the trigger at just the right moment. Long enough that we’d settled into the scene and began to let our guard down, but quick enough for the thing not to overstay its welcome.
Palmer was the perfect choice because although he wasn’t exactly the kind of character that survives this kind of thing, he’d played the role of the movie’s likable guy. And with 6/7 people left it felt way too early for him to go. Carpenter intelligently keeps him largely quiet for the entire scene, so the punch of it works so much better. In many ways, this is the classic hitchcockian sequence, removed from all the grandstanding gore, it’s someone hiding something and our hero forcing them to reveal it with lives at stake. Just you know, instead of a bomb going off, or a spy getting burned, dude’s head is going to open, flesh jaws are going to come out and eat poor Windows. But you know, roughly the same.
After blowing up the Palmer-Monster with blowtorches and dynamite. There’s nothing left to do but continue the test, with Nauls, Cilds and Garry yet to go. Each passes, and after an exasperated Garry screams in disbelief, we fade out, as if the movie knew we needed to charge down after so much awesomeness. Ladies and Gentleman, THAT is how you do a set-piece in a horror movie.
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