(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on November 2, 2012.)
Eco-horror movies have been around for ages. One could conceivably call the Godzilla films eco-horror films, as the giant lizard was born in a hostile environment, emerging to wreak havoc upon an unsuspecting populace; likewise with The Hills Have Eyes and Piranha (the 1970s originals of both, not their latter-day remakes). All are movies about creatures whose natures have been changed by man’s meddling with nature, only to grow nasty and homicidal. Acclaimed director Barry Levinson marches into the eco-horror genre with a “found footage” movie called The Bay, which focuses on a town called Claridge in Maryland, where some unusual circumstances caused 700 of its citizens to die horribly in one day.
Our narrator, Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue) takes us through July 4th, 2009 in Claridge. An idyllic slice of Americana, Claridge stands on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, brimming with excitement for the day’s festivities. They’ve got a dunk tank, a crab-eating contest, a beauty pageant, a parade, and a fireworks show to top everything off at night’s end. There’s even a couple making a seven-hour boat trip to Claridge to visit family and be a part of the fun. But all this takes a turn for the worse when people start vomiting violently and presenting with boils, rashes, and bite marks on their skin. Thompson, sent to Claridge to cover the July 4th party as a video blogger for a local TV station, starts to cover the unfolding horror with only her cameraman and her microphone as accompaniment.
The whole of the The Bay is shot through all manner of video recording devices – cell phones, video cameras, security cameras, Skype sessions, and webcams. We’re divided between five worlds: Thompson’s footage, hospital webcam interactions with the CDC in Atlanta, bystander footage, environmental research documentation, and government/law enforcement. Every recording device was snapped up by the government and held in secret; recently released through govleaks.org (a fictional Wikileaks analog), Thompson takes us through the footage and provides names and backstories to faces that would be otherwise anonymous.
Levinson has crafted a fairly taut, suspenseful movie that, much like Jaws did in 1975, will make you scared to go in the water for the rest of your life. Every piece of this film fits where it should fit; the narrative timeline is mostly straightforward, with the environmental research footage intercut with the timeline in order to keep their discoveries relevant to the suspense level. With each new finding the researchers uncover, a new chapter of the story begins and the dread level is raised, a choice I appreciated a lot. We see some graphic imagery of what is happening to the townspeople, including a murder/suicide. But most importantly, we see how a small town deals with a threat larger than they can imagine; it’s a tragedy to see these people suffer under circumstances which they can’t control or did not cause. However, we get to see the appropriate people squirm, and there’s a slightly sickly delightful bent in watching them do so – it’s the people who can’t explain what is happening or the people who may or may not be responsible for the day’s events who try to spin this and wind up looking pathetic.
This isn’t a scary movie in the traditional sense; there aren’t many “BOO!”-type jump frights to be had. Instead, it’s scary because what’s happening could be conceivably real, and we’ve seen politicians and government agents acting haughty and arrogant, just like the ones found in The Bay. The movie loses a bit of that fright factor because of the constant explanation of the phenomena that’s affecting the water; at the same time, though, you’re also left anticipating the next possible downward turn of events, as there’s no way this can end well. The actors that inhabit this movie are all relative no-names, which lends a certain credibility to the proceedings. My one quibble is that the acting in this movie ranges from believable to “oh, my God, just shut up. Stop talking.” Unfortunately, the latter is my description of Donahue’s anchoring performance. Obviously meant to embody an amateur thrust into the story of a lifetime, her confessional-style narration borders on the intolerable, as if she’s just reciting lines rather than really putting any kind of emotional weight behind them. I’m not asking for melodrama or overacting; I’m just asking for a little bit more gravitas from a person who supposedly witnessed these horrible events.
However, that doesn’t stop The Bay from being a fairly engrossing movie. Veteran director Barry Levinson flexes his low-budget chops and manages to eke out a found footage movie that feels mostly organic and natural, always keeping the viewer engaged and waiting for the next twist or scientific revelation. For someone who is mostly known for crime dramas and satirical comedy, Levinson seems very adept at quickly setting up a joyous atmosphere only to have it replaced by absolute terror; he draws us in bit by bit, even though the film shows its hand early and often. To me, this is the selling point of The Bay; when the final few minutes come and go and you’ve caught your breath after the big scare, you’ll realize just how much you invested yourself in the movie without even knowing it.
(One more note: my apologies to my wife, whom I woke up with a shout of fright at the aforementioned “big scare.”)