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Anatomy of a Scene: 40 years of defibrillator chaos in 'The Thing'

Arguably the filmography of John Carpenter is one of the most important bodies of work of the late 20th century, with the innovative creations of the director inspiring countless imitators. Having an indelible effect on the legacy of the horror genre, Carpenter’s knack for cult filmmaking allowed films such as Halloween, The Fog and Village of the Damned to easily suffuse into the mainstream conscience. 

Remembered for his ongoing Halloween franchise featuring a town as defiantly postcard-American as David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, Carpenter’s film brought a sense of unease to every small town U.S suburb—suggesting something fantastically abnormal could be lurking in the shadows. Setting the standard for modern horror cinema, Carpenter’s film is underscored by his own, timeless creeping score; a synth-led nightmare that has you instinctively checking over your shoulder.

Whilst Halloween remains his most well-known title, it is the remake of the 1951 film The Thing from Another World, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2022, that truly establishes the director as one of the greatest genre filmmakers of all time. 

Set within an isolated Antarctic research facility, The Thing follows the activity of a cosmic being that perfectly assimilates its prey, infiltrating the team of scientists and taking them out one-by-one. 

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With help from the groundbreaking monster design from special effects artist Rob Bottin, The Thing exudes a shocking terror that remains as slimy, gruesome and disturbing to this very day. A compelling thriller with more than a few doses of stomach-churning horror, Carpenter’s film is a masterpiece of suspense typified by an ominous climactic scene that radiates a perpetual paranoia even after the credits roll.

Taking on the shape, form and characteristics of whoever it consumes, the titular ‘thing’ at the heart of John Carpenter’s horror classic is a mastermind of physical and psychological terror. The true form of the cosmic beast of Carpenter’s film is unknown, taking on the appearance of the friends and colleagues of those working on the research station, with this terror reaching a head when the creature begins to dispatch the workers one by one. 

This accelerates in one iconic scene when the geologist of the team, Norris, suffers a suspected heart attack and is rushed to the operating table. In an attempt to revive him the physician, Dr. Copper, plunges a pair of defibrillators onto his chest, initially doing nothing to bring Norris back to life. “Clear,” he remarks before plunging the pads back onto Norris’ chest, only for his hands to go right through the skin and into the man’s innards, as a set of razor-sharp teeth on either side of the skin flaps crunching down and decapitating his arms. 

Combining the sound of furiously bubbling blood and the screams of Cooper, Carpenter embraces the true chaos of the moment, placing the camera low down so that we can experience the vulnerability of the lead characters. Boiling with green gunk and pus, Norris’ chest releases several fleshy vines that writhe and whip across his body before popping a geyser of bodily fluid into the air, as the horrific creature extends its body upwards. 

Masterfully designed by Rob Bottin, the creature itself is an utter abomination, made up of a patchwork of organs and bones, that impossibly stands rigid on the leg of fragile strands of skin and flesh. Roaring with the threat of a sea lion and the pain of a human cry, the creature is lit on fire by Kurt Russell’s R.J. MacReady, before Carpenter quickly cuts to the head of Norris that is now separating itself from the burning body with hideous exertion. 

Splitting away from the body to the sound of what resembles a 1940s police siren, the monster clings to life, with Norris’ head now merely a vessel for its autonomous mission for survival. Creating a palpable tension and sense of urgency with the sound of the siren, Carpenter shows the head sink slowly off the back of the table, steadily snapping the fleshy vines that keep the head connected to the body. 

Using its tongue like a lasso, however, the head catches onto a table, dragging itself across the floor as it seeks safety from the baying human survivors. Here it has time to recuperate, adapting remarkably quickly to its environment by growing crab-like legs before scuttling across the floor and out the door. Unable to quite make it out in one piece, however, the creature is spotted and is burned to a crisp, with Carpenter bookending the scene with one more final cosmic siren scream that brands itself into the mind of each and every horror fan.