Stephen King once wrote that there are three types of scares: gross-out, horror, and terror. Gross-out is self-explanatory; it's a severed head, mutilation, the entirety of the Saw franchise. Horror is the unnatural, he suggests, zombies or a pregnant woman ingesting raw liver in the dead of night. Meanwhile, terror is the cerebral, the feeling of knowing something is hiding behind your closet door but only darkness greeting you when you open it. King likely didn't mean to suggest that the genre is trinary, but it's an interpretation that has taken on a life of its own, largely influencing the categorization of frights since he defined it so many years ago.
The reality is that horror as a genre is often a Venn Diagram of these classifications. At its best, it contains a little of all three. Few horror setpieces exemplify this quite as well as The Bear in Alex Garland's 2018 existential sci-fi nightmare Annihilation, one of the great modern WTF moments.
Garland set about adapting the first installment of author Jeff VanderMeer's acclaimed The Southern Reach Trilogy in about as unconventional a fashion as you're likely to find. Rather than looking to the text as the blueprint for the film, Garland instead relied on his memories of the one time he'd read the book, recounting his recollections of character, story, and setpieces like a half-remembered dream. It's a decision that factors heavily into the end product of the film, which from the first scene plays out like a product of a dreaming mind.
Nightmare logic dictates the plot's progression, with inexplicable time-lapses and albino alligators plaguing the crew Natalie Portman's Lena accompanies into a strange mutated patch of land in Florida called The Shimmer. From the moment they cross its threshold the conventions of time, physics, and nature are distorted. This sense of unease, of unreality breaches the fourth wall and washes over the viewer. New viewers won't know what to expect because no logic seems to dictate what comes next. It's simply an extended nightmare — a nightmare that comes to a head with the appearance of one of the more gruesome movie monsters of recent memory.
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. The stage is set.
It warrants noting that before any creature shows up, Rodriguez sets the tone with a chilling line reading: "When I look at my hands, at my fingerprints... I can see them moving." 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. Anya bolts, running off to save her friend, but quickly disappears with a yelp. 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.
Maybe that's for the better — the sight of what enters would break any remaining semblance of sanity between the three of them.
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. As it lurches forward, it sticks its long, misshapen jaw between Lena and Tessa Thompson's Josie. In the scare to end all scares, its mouth opens and reveals the voice of Cass screaming for help.
It's the intersect of King's trinary of scares. The rotting flesh of the bear peeling away to reveal the skull beneath is so vile a sight it's hard to not imagine what its breath smells like as it wafts over Lena's shoulder. 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.
In that moment, Lena and her fellow travelers know the same fate awaits them should death find them on this journey. It's hard to imagine newcomers to the film experiencing this scene for the first time and not muttering, "What the f***?!" under their breath. Such a response to Annihilation's Mutant Bear is more or less involuntary.
Garland's brand of existential science fiction horror is present in both of his feature films (Annihilation is preceded by the artificial intelligence masterpiece Ex Machina). With his first foray into TV, the FX and Hulu series Devs, which premiered this weekend, it feels safe to say he'll find a new way to make us squirm (albeit this time on our couches) pretty soon.