Director Alex Garland’s feature film, Annihilation, could easily be a “Fanbase Press’ Scariest” entry all on its own. Based on the novel of the same title by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation tells the story of a team of specialists who are the latest group of individuals sent to investigate a mysterious extra-terrestrial presence known as “The Shimmer” which is located in an isolated area of Floridian wilderness, where it is breaking down and recreating all biological matter in its radius on a genetic level. While there are many terrifying and haunting elements of the film (including the iconic and riveting score by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow), there is absolutely one specific scene the certainly stands out for every single viewer of Annihilation.
Annihilation's most terrifying moment
Towards the midpoint of the film, the team’s medic (played by Gina Rodriguez) suffers a mental breakdown under the stress and influence of “The Shimmer” and ends up subduing and restraining her allies due to her increasing paranoia. Tied to chairs in an abandoned house, first her companions fear for their lives because of their erratic teammate, but things change drastically when a mutated bear wanders into the house, attacking and killing the medic and then turning its attention to the immobilized individuals at its mercy.
The bear scene is easily, without question, the single most terrifying moment of Annihilation, which is saying a lot in a film where characters succumb to alien mutation, disembowel their allies, are attacked be various frightening creatures, and more. While a bear attack may seem, on paper, like fairly standard fare for a cinematic thriller, there are specific and unique subtleties that really make the film like no other.
Prior to the “bear scene,” a member of the team named Sheppard (Tuva Novotny) is dragged away by an unseen animal in the middle of the night. The following day, it’s confirmed that Sheppard has been killed. When the "bear scene" begins, shortly after the mentally crumbling medic takes the others hostage, we hear Sheppard’s voice outside the house, calling for help. Viewers hear the medic viciously attacked off screen, but it’s not till the nearly decaying beast enters the house that it’s made crystal clear that Sheppard’s voice is coming from the animal itself. While this horrific imitation of its former victim is nightmarish in its own right, the filmmakers also suggest through the film and the design of the creature that the apex predator has, in some ways, absorbed those that it has attacked and consumed. Experiencing this scene from moment to moment is among the most harrowing cinematic experiences out there, but the concept of Sheppard being merged with her killer, trapped in some sort of hellish purgatory she possibly can't even truly understand, is what will continue to torment viewers long after the film ends.
The horror of what you didn't see on screen
Sheppard's horrible fate also influenced the visual design of the diseased animal. In an interview with The Verge, Annihilation’s visual effects supervisor Andrew Whitehurst explained, “We wanted to suggest the idea that some of Sheppard’s DNA is somehow added into the bear, and maybe other humans it has encountered previously are part of it also. So, we were struggling to come up with a clear visual way of describing that. One of the concept artists, in a piece of 3D software, got a scan of a bear skull and a scan of a human skull, and literally just mashed the two together. We looked at that and went, ‘Yeah, okay, that’s horrible. That’s gonna work.’” Garland, Whitehurst, and their team continued refining the terror, stripping the nose and skin off the front of the bear’s face to take advantage of the shape of its skull, while “on the underside of the jaws and on the bottom, we put lots of fur, so that after it’s attacked people, that can be dripping in blood, for more visual impact."
Ultimately, much like the chestburster scene from Ridley Scott’s original Alien or the first appearance of the creatures in The Descent, Annihilation’s “bear scene” will continue to be nightmare fuel for viewers for years to come.