I am not easily scared by a movie these days. I went through my teens on a steady diet of horror movies and Fangoria magazines, and over the years I’ve absorbed tons of scary movies/books/shows, so few things really get to me anymore. But a scene in one particular movie really hit me a few years ago, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had such a visceral reaction. Not only was it terrifying in a visual sense, but on an existential level as well.
The movie was Annihilation, and it’s fantastically weird. I read the book before seeing the movie, but I highly recommend both. I’m not going to overexplain the plot here, but let’s just say there’s a coastal area of the country where something is refracting and distorting the DNA of animals and people there. It leads to some really freaky shit, y’all.
The scene in question is described in a syfy.com post perfectly, so I’ll do some selective snipping:
About midway through the film the crew makes camp at an old abandoned military base. As night falls, one of their numbers (Cass) falls to an attack from a mysterious creature they can’t see through the dark — though Gina Rodriguez’s Anya suspects one of her fellow explorers murdered her. Paranoia consumes them, leading to Anya breaking down and turning on the group, tying them to a chair, and gagging them. Just as she seems to be on the precipice of violence, a familiar (but notably disembodied) scream rings out through the hallway: it’s Cass. …As they’re bound to chairs, the group can’t fully turn to see what she encountered, though they seem to know it isn’t Cass.
A bear lumbers across the wooden floorboards, though not one of the human world. Blanketed in shadow, we first only see its face, which has rotted away, revealing a sentient skull beneath. …In the scare to end all scares, its mouth opens and reveals the voice of Cass screaming for help.
The sight of this bear — which has clearly died at least once — somehow still alive is the unnatural incarnate, as is the moment the scream of one of its victims careens out of its mouth, shattering tense silence. And then there’s the terror of it all, the realization as to where that noise is coming from: after being killed by the bear, Cass’ DNA, her natural essence, was in some way absorbed by the bear and made part of the constant mutation of the Shimmer.
This hit me while I was staring wide-eyed at the screen, and I involuntarily blurted out “Oh…shit.” It just freaked me out on a level I couldn’t explain.
The designers of this creature describe it this way, which makes it even more horrifying:
It’s an animal who doesn’t really know what it has become and is clearly suffering, and that side of the story was important because you didn’t want something that was just this horrific killing machine: You wanted a creature that was in a situation that was not of its own making and that it was unable to deal with.
There are other unsettling things in the movie, like those trees that more-than-sorta look like people. And the character whose fingerprints were moving. And the morphing fractal thing in the tower that’s absolutely mesmerizing to look at. So much surreal, otherworldly goodness! And one of the best sci-fi soundtracks I’ve heard in a while.
But that scene with the bear is always the one that haunts me. Being killed is one thing, but having the things that make up who you are as a person be distorted and absorbed into something completely different is somehow worse.
Or is it just me?