John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is one of my favorite movies of all time. Besides the practical effects that still hold up 40 years later, Carpenter demonstrates his knowledge of building up tension and catching viewers off guard. The scene that perfectly sums up this film is the Tainted Blood Scene.
I first watched this without audio. Roger Ebert talked about how frames will show which characters are “positive” or “negative” depending on which side of the image they are on. When The Thing reveals itself, it is on the right of the screen, showing it is more powerful than the people tied up to the left of it. However, as it burns to a crisp, it moves to the left, showing that it is growing weaker. The film also shows power in which characters are standing up taller. Kurt Russel’s character is the first person standing up because he is the one in control checking the blood samples. Everyone else is sitting down as they are being checked. The Thing is also sitting down before it reveals itself. When it does reveal itself, it first stands up and then jumps onto the ceiling, showing it is the most dangerous and powerful entity in the room. It only gets down when it is sprayed with a flamethrower.
I next listened to the audio of the scene without video. On the audio side of things, John Carpenter made a brilliant choice to not include background music in the film. The sparsely placed sound effects build unease in the air, and the silence feels deafening. The quiet tension of the first half of the scene contrasts with the loud, chaotic noise of the second half of the scene after The Thing reveals itself. Even more brilliantly, the audience is caught off guard because the reveal comes in the midst of the sound effects, not during a period of silence. The dialogue is quiet and short at first. The characters are all restless and feel uncomfortable with each other, which is why the dialogue is sparse. When the loud sounds start, they don’t let up, making the listener overwhelmed and almost confused, which is how the characters feel.
This scene and the rest of The Thing proves why it has become such a milestone in horror. The fear often comes from the tension and distrust, not the shapeshifting Thing itself.