Trust is a tricky thing to get back once it’s gone. Minor social betrayals and mess ups can be hard enough to heal. However, throw in shape-shifting aliens that can silently take your friends over from the inside without you knowing and suddenly ‘sorry’ doesn't cut it anymore.
John Carpenter’s The Thing is probably best known for its amazing practical effects from ‘80s legends Rob Bottin and Stan Winston - the kennel scene, where an alien disguised as a dog unravels into layers of wet tubing and extra mouths is still horrible to watch. With such copious viscera and fluids it’s easy to miss a far more subtle horror: what do you do when trusting anyone becomes impossible?
Set on an isolated Antarctic research base, The Thing sees its inhabitants attacked by an alien organism capable of imitating any lifeform. Worse still, it infects people like a disease - a single cell capable of taking you over piece by piece, unseen and unnoticed until it’s too late.
The first half of the film, then, mixes copious body horror with a complete disintegration of relationships on the base. As different characters monstrously metamorphose (teeth in the wrong holes is a strong theme), disappear or go mad, the remainder slowly slide into abject, lethal suspicion. “It could be any of us” becomes the catch phrase as guns are waved and threats made in every direction. The peak of this sees MacReady (played by Kurt Russell) being abandoned to die in a snow storm after suspicion falls his way. He finds his way back and, near frozen, holds everyone hostage with a stick of dynamite to propose a blood test that might find out who’s still human.
The idea is simple. The alien has repeatedly demonstrated that any single bit of it acts like a separate animal - heads have separated and crawled off on their own, any fragment not immediately incinerated has developed its own misshapen life. If any single bit of the alien is alive in its own right then, MacReady deduces, drawn blood, alien blood, should react to a threat. A red hot wire, say.
Which brings us to The Thing’s blood test scene. The moment when the film tries to reestablish trust. At gunpoint. After trying everyone up. By this point several people are dead, including one man shot by MacReady because he went for the gun. Not because he grew any new mouths or erupted into tentacles without warning. He just sort of moved a bit. The only thing preventing a complete collapse is MacReady’s stick of dynamite as he takes blood from everyone and collects it into labeled petri dishes.
By now there’s no doubt where this is going. Something’s going to happen and someone will be uncovered. But the very premise of the film means the audience is as much in the dark as anyone else. There’s no way of really knowing who’s The Thing so, like the cast, all you’ve got to go on is suspicion and prejudice. Keith David’s Childs has made it clear he’ll kill MacReady the first chance he gets, TK Carter’s Nauls has already tried, while Donald Moffat’s Garry is just enough of a stuffy prick to make you think he’s protesting too much. Even MacReady’s not in the clear when it’s revealed the man he shot was human.
In the end it doesn’t matter who it was (it was Palmer, a relatively minor character who mainly stood around in the background looking slightly stoned). What counts are those few minutes of watching a hot wire being plunged into blood and realising that you’re just as clueless as any of the people in that room. Get past The Thing’s gore and the film, this scene in particular, gives you the creeping uneasy feeling that trust is a very fragile thing; based on belief and hope much more than anything you can quantify. You don’t need an alien to shatter your faith in people but this one moment makes you realise that if you were in that room right now, you’d want to be holding the wire, not be tied up.
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