Friday, October 28, 2011

Horror Scenes - The Thing

(SPOILERS: The Thing)

I’ll continue my series analyzing scary scenes with one of the best scenes from the 1982 version of The Thing (screenplay by Bill Lancaster) – the blood test scene. Someone’s posted a clip of it on You Tube. Note that The Thing is a remake of a 1951 movie. And you probably know that a prequel, written by my friend Eric Heisserer, is now in theaters!

In this scene, MacReady and another man have tied up most of the surviving members of the Antarctic base crew. MacReady has a theory about a way to determine who’s the alien by testing the reaction of blood to a hot wire.

The situation is naturally tense. We feel for the people tied up. Those that are human are helpless to defend themselves. And even though MacReady and another man are free, they will not have any help once the creature is revealed. The monster in The Thing plays into a common horror movie theme: not knowing who is trustworthy. If you can’t trust anyone, you are alone.

Like the previous scenes I’ve looked at, we once again have a slow build up of tension. The test itself is brilliantly slow. Someone has to get close to each person to collect a blood sample. Then the wire has to be slowly heated. They test each person in order, needing to reheat the wire each time, building suspense over who might be the monster. By the time it reveals itself, we’re wound so tight we jump.

There’s also a moral subtext here – two members of the crew have been killed. MacReady tests their blood, and we discover they were human. MacReady has unintentionally killed an innocent man. Again, trust is called into question. Can MacReady even trust his own decisions?

Then the Thing is revealed. There’s a great, subtle moment here – MacReady is in the process of accusing Garry when he tests the blood that first reacts. The accusation distracts us from the test, pointing us forward (MacReady has just told Garry, “We’ll do you last.”). So when Palmer’s blood jumps out of the Petri dish, we’re caught off guard, even though we’ve been expecting it. The writer is masterfully directing our attention for maximum impact.

Then we get some gore. It’s a bit cheesy by today’s standards, but it also demonstrates another horror technique: it’s always unsettling to see the human body move or distort in ways we know it shouldn’t.

Now we have the chaos after the build of tension. Our poor, defenseless human men are now tied to a monster. MacReady’s flamethrower malfunctions – a convenient coincidence, but we accept coincidences that work against our hero. His one ally is so frozen in fear, the Thing gets him before he can burn it.

What makes this scene so memorable is the tension of the slow testing of the bound men one by one to see who is really an alien. It’s almost an obligatory scene based on the concept of a monster that looks human. Some of the most enduring monsters – vampires, werewolves, zombies and the Thing – are monsters that were once human. It tells us we could all become a monster.

1 comment:

write ten pages a day said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. A "horror" masterpiece in my mind. That scene, specifically, left such an impression on me when I first saw The Thing. Brilliant. And Kurt Russell was perfectly cast.

Thanks for the in-depth.