Written by: Michael Wallach and Barry Levinson
Directed by: Barry Levinson
Starring: Kether Donohue, Kristen Connolly, and Frank Deal
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Panic feeds on fear.
A cynical person might say that the recent rash of found footage films owes to the relative ease of the approach, a notion that’s complete nonsense, of course (it’s really, really hard to make a movie). However, there’s a kernel of truth in the shorthand nature of the technique. Even when it features (ahem) paranormal activity, found footage lends an instant air of authenticity, and there’s something about the uncanny valley of seeing the supernatural carved within the veneer of reality. With The Bay, Barry Levinson goes in the other direction by presenting a scenario that’s terrifyingly realistic, so the authenticity factor is amped up even further. It’s probably trite to say this, but, save for the presence of recognizable actors that break the illusion, The Bay feels like the type of conspiracy theory video you might find in some weird corner of the internet.
It’s done with exceptional skill, however. Levinson and company eschew the typical found footage narrative and instead opt for a mockumentary approach that cobbles together footage from various sources to paint a bleak, horrifying portrait of a 4th of July disaster in a small Maryland town situated on the Chesapeake Bay. Three years after the event, a reporter on the scene (Kether Donahue) has been tapped to narrate and chronicle some unearthed footage that was initially confiscated and buried by the U.S. government. The faux-documentary stitches together myriad sources: personal handheld cameras, police car monitors, security cams, text messages, Facetime exchanges, etc. What starts as an idyllic bayside Independence Day celebration descends into a chaotic, nightmarish scene when the town’s instituted pollution habits come back to haunt them in the form of mutated, aquatic wildlife.
Despite its patchwork style, The Bay is a remarkably tight, sharp experience that threads together several, disparate stories; while none of them technically intersect, they’re unified by the film’s bleak, ominous tone. Donahue’s narration and Marcelo Zarvos’s score bring an immediate menace that even renders the joyous town celebrations into a creepy, oblivious death march. As the separate stories begin to unfold, audiences are provided with a glimpse into several corners of the outbreak: we follow Donahue as she desperately seeks to make sense of the chaos, while another subplot finds us observing a local doctor’s futile attempt to contain and treat the epidemic. Perhaps the most haunting is culled from a young couple’s voyage into the bay with their newborn child, but another subplot featuring a pair of town cops arguably rivals it, if only because it features one of the film’s most disturbing moments (it’s entirely audio, too—that’s how effective and atmospheric The Bay is).
Other flotsam, such as a teenage couple’s ill-fated jaunt to the bay, fills in some blanks and provide some extra scares without feeling too superfluous. All of this stuff piles up to form a gripping and terrifying collage that’s craftily pasted together by a masterful storyteller in Levinson. Unless you count Sphere, this is his first try at a horror movie, and it’s obvious that he’s seen a whole mess of them because The Bay is actually constructed like any other effective monster flick in its slow-burn, suspenseful reveal of the disaster. Predictably, it begins rather innocuously with the discovery of an unusual amount of dead fish washing up onto the shore. Then, a corpse mysteriously laps up, which demands even more attention from a pair of marine biologists (the film continues to track their own discoveries during the event in yet another thread). Eventually, the film graduates to more explicit stuff: at the height of the town’s celebrations, citizens start to stagger about with mysterious rashes and begin puking their guts out right in the middle of a crab-eating contest.
From there, The Bay takes on an especially conspiratorial tone, with the town’s local chicken farm and its filtration silo taking on a menacing presence. One of the film’s greatest strengths is its resistance in becoming overly talkative; even though Donahue consistently provides a narration and gets some support from on-screen text, The Bay leans on its creepy sights and sounds to reveal the disaster at hand and the nature of its beast. Again, it’s especially deft at the latter because Levinson parcels that out as well—we see the skin-scrawling symptoms (boils, scabs, etc.) of what seems to be a bacterial infection before the actual culprit appears (the moment elicited an audible “oh shit” from me, and I was watching the movie alone in my living room).
The Bay also doesn’t arrive without some obvious political commentary that intones against recklessly treating the environment as a dumping ground, but it also resists an overly preachy tone. Instead, it prefers to quietly creep viewers out with some cleverly edited sequences that loop and paste together previous footage to highlight the sheer horror of the government’s culpability. At times, it resembles one of those documentaries that exposes just how horrifying the food industry is (Food, Inc. is a particularly unnerving one) because it all comes down to the unsanitary conditions of the town’s chicken farm. The simplicity of that is terrifying and echoes Contagion, another bone-chilling eco-disaster flick that took a similarly sprawling approach. Levinson’s film is more intimate and possibly scarier in its implication of the government; where Soderbergh often strives for optimism, Levinson paints a bleaker picture that’s full of incompetence, negligence, and sinister cover-up mechanisms.
Beneath its gimmicky, found footage façade, The Bay is essentially a creature feature, a gross-out movie, and a disaster flick stripped down to their bare essentials. There’s something wonderfully 70s about its politically charged eco-consciousness, too, which makes it the logical successor to stuff like The Prophecy, Frogs, and Day of the Animals. It’s even as schlocky and visceral as its ancestors at times, as there’s no shortage of eviscerated bodies, guttural puking, and parasitical infestations. None of them inspire any sort of awe, though, and The Bay aspires to be more than an empty splatter flick. It definitely leaves you gagging and squirming all the same, though. Buy it!
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