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The Thing: Breaking Down John Carpenter’s Most Terrifying Scene

The Thing is full of terrifying sequences, but one stands out as one of the most innovative and scary set pieces of John Carpenter’s entire career.

John Carpenter’s The Thing is an immaculate work of filmmaking that has become one of the defining films of the science-fiction and horror genres — and for good reason. From its first frame to its last, the film is overflowing with set pieces full of emotional resonance, motivated character work and insanely impactful action beats, thanks to Carpenter and co.’s masterful craftsmanship. But one particular scene remains an astonishing testament to not only The Thing‘s greatest strengths but also the greatest strengths of Carpenter as a filmmaker. Meticulously built up to across the film’s runtime and acting as a converging point for several threads, all culminating in a genuinely horrifying sequence, The Thing‘s central defibrillation is a sculpted work of pure cinematic terror and one of the most horrifying scenes of John Carpenter’s career.

The Thing opens with a group of a dozen American researchers midway through a lengthy tenure at Outpost 31 in Antarctica. When they take in a seemingly harmless stray dog, things begin to go awry. The dog is, in actuality, a vessel for an alien life-form capable of assimilating and imitating any number of living creatures at a time, including man. As the titular ‘thing’ spreads through the outpost, Kurt Russell’s MacReady and his team become increasingly paranoid over who is still human and who is “one of those things.” Just before the defibrillation scene in question, MacReady’s team finds evidence that seemingly incriminates him as inhuman, leading to them deliberately trapping him outside to freeze. MacReady fights his way back in and acquires the outpost’s flamethrower and some sticks of dynamite as a means of controlling negotiations between him and the team, but he seemingly badly injures their geologist Norris in the process. And thus, the stage is set.

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The scene opens on MacReady backed into a literal corner. Other members of the team, such as Keith David’s Childs and Richard Masur’s Clark, stand nearby and watch him anxiously. Right off the bat, Carpenter and his longtime cinematographer Dean Cundey go to work, utilizing their Panavision frame to isolate MacReady. His team members reside along the borders of the frame, the Panavision frame stretching out the space between them, while MacReady is cornered both in the room and by the frame. Simultaneously, Cundey’s lighting is at its harshest on MacReady’s face here, accentuating every nervous tick of Russell’s performance as he eyes the others. MacReady begins to accuse the others of leaving him for dead as editor Todd Ramsay cuts to the other side of the room, where Dr. Cooper lays Norris out on the table and begins to attempt to resuscitate him.

This simple cut establishes the dueling dynamic of the scene. Set in one room, the scene is an active conversation between these two related tensions that Carpenter is crafting. The first of these seems the most pressing: MacReady’s survival. MacReady is the protagonist, he’s the one holding dynamite and a flamethrower, and he’s the character whose humanity is most in question at the moment. The second tension is Norris’ survival. If anything, at this point in the film, Norris’ predicament plays as an upping of the stakes of MacReady’s conflict with the others, further inciting them to side against MacReady.

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As MacReady continues to defend himself against the accusations of the rest of the team, Carpenter and Cundey take the audience from an external view of MacReady’s situation to an internal one, placing the camera right alongside MacReady as the others close in around him. Again, Cundey makes brilliant use of the Panavision, placing the camera low enough to really accentuate the claustrophobia inherent to this many characters in-frame together, closing in around MacReady and the viewer. Then, Carpenter introduces another upping of the stakes: Clark, standing in opposition to MacReady, is eyeing a nearby surgical knife.

Just as Ramsay cuts away from the close-up insert of the surgical knife, Dr. Cooper cries out for them to “quit that bickering,” the edit swaying back to the other side of the story as Cooper desperately pounds on Norris’ chest. Cooper asks for the defibrillator as the edit cuts directly back to the close-up, now with Clark’s hand entering the frame and picking up the surgical knife. Ramsay then cuts back to a wide shot, with MacReady in the background and Clark’s hand gripping the surgical knife in the foreground, all captured in a nigh-seamless split-diopter shot. This is the kind of visual Carpenter and Cundey have been using to work over audiences for years at this point, establishing suspense so palpably by putting all the elements in the same frame. It’s their shot from Halloween‘s climax of Michael Myers shooting up behind Laurie Strode cranked up to 11. Here, the tension of MacReady’s half of the scene escalates to suspense; the audience knows Clark is planning on stabbing MacReady, but MacReady does not.

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Thus, when it inevitably cuts back to Norris’ side, it’s all the more painful. Pulling the audience away from the escalating suspense actively makes it all the more nerve-wracking, as viewers ache to know how the suspense will be resolved, but the film actively prolongs it. Ramsay cuts back and forth between the two sides, further escalating things. Then, just when it appears that Clark is about to attack, the edit cuts back over to Cooper trying the defibrillator once again, only for Norris’ chest to split open into the gaping maw of The Thing.

This is utterly brilliant. In the build-up to this reveal, Carpenter expertly builds two diametrically opposed strands of tension while continuously favoring one in specific. In the writing, staging and editing, the MacReady-centric portion of the scene is formally reiterated time and again as the most crucial story being told here, escalating from tension to suspense. The Norris-centric portion escalates as well but in a much quieter fashion, and notably, Carpenter positions its biggest developments (the introduction of the defibrillator) in the immediate aftermath of the other side’s biggest beats, deliberately keeping them on the back burner of the audience’s mind. This allows Carpenter to dissect Alfred Hitchcock’s classic ‘surprise vs. suspense’ debate and actually have both. He builds suspense around Clark’s surgical knife and the team members surrounding MacReady before cutting over to the big surprise of Norris being ‘the thing’ and its subsequent attack, which he had been subtly laying the foundation for the entire time.

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The scene sees Carpenter and co. utilizing the same visual language and suspense-orchestrating techniques that they had on prior films, like Halloween, Someone’s Watching Me! and The Fog, but actively subverting the expectations they set. Clark’s surgical knife does eventually get paid off, with Carpenter using his attack as a surprise in its own right, again allowing Carpenter to have his cake and eat it too. Later sequences in The Thing, such as MacReady’s blood testing set piece, even utilize the expectation that this defibrillation scene sets to further mine suspense and surprise by exploiting the complexities of the film’s scares.

With The Thing, Carpenter took the traditional set-up/payoff structure inherent to the genre and built upon it, resulting in a film just as capable of assimilation and imitation as its titular creature. The defibrillation scene remains both an absurdly impactful encapsulation of all that makes The Thing so brilliant and one of Carpenter’s most horrifying scenes ever put to film.

Will Jones is an ardent adorer of all things cinematic, from writing about films to making films. He came onboard with CBR in 2022, after having previously worked at sites such as WhatCulture and BigShinyRobot.

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