The Bay (2012)
“Panic feeds on fear.”
Director: Barry Levinson
Cast: Will Rogers, Kristen Connolly, Kether Donohue
Synopsis: Chaos breaks out in a small Maryland town after an ecological disaster occurs.
Barry Levinson is not the type of director you’d expect to find attached to a found-footage horror movie, but apparently his motivation to make The Bay was more personal than usual: he lives close to Chesapeake Bay, which provides the backdrop to this cautionary ecological horror tale, and while the Chesapeake, as far as we know, isn’t filled with life-threatening parasites, it is heavily polluted and no longer capable of supporting the fish it once did. Levinson, who provided the story, and his screenwriter Michael Wallach, use this fact as the starting point for a story which grows increasingly harrowing without ever jeopardising its plausibility for the sake of horrific effect. The Bay is one of the more effective horror movies you’re likely to see simply because it’s so easy to imagine the events it depicts one day becoming reality — albeit to a much less dramatic degree.
The movie opens with a montage of real-life TV news reports of the mysterious mass deaths of birds and fish for apparently inexplicable reasons before presenting us with a direct-to-camera narration from a girl called Donna (Kether Donohue). You can see just from looking at her that Donna is a troubled girl. She wears a plain tee shirt, has straggly, unkempt hair and wears no make-up. She tells the camera that she was a young, inexperienced TV reporter working on an internship in 2009, when the movie’s events take place, and was despatched to the fictional Maryland town of Claridge with a cameraman to report on the usual 4th July festivities. As we all know, there’s no better way of ramming home the message of America under threat than showing traditional Fourth of July celebrations being disrupted, and it’s not long before it becomes apparent that something isn’t right in the little town of Claridge.
Our first inkling arrives when an amateur video film picks up the figure of a middle-aged woman we had previously seen being dunked into a pool of water hysterically beseeching reluctant passers-by for help. Much of her skin is covered in strange raised blisters, and the woman is only the first of what will become a massive wave of victims. It slowly becomes apparent that the lesions on her and the other victim’s skin aren’t blisters but the larvae of a water-borne parasite identified as an isopod, whose presence in the bay has been known since it was found on some fish by a couple of marine biologists about six weeks earlier. Occasionally, we’re shown footage of these biologist’s video diary to fill us in on just what kind of threat these bug-like parasites pose. Their reports, we’re also informed, were forwarded to relevant authorities and the town’s mayor, but never received a response. The implied reason for this is that the mayor also runs a massive chicken ranch in the town. Not only has he recently invested in a desalination plant for the ranch that draws water from the bay, he’s also been storing mountains of chicken faeces perilously close to the bay. Combine this with a nuclear leak a decade earlier and you have a ready-made recipe for disaster.
Unlike most found-footage movies, which have to contend with the limitations of the omnipresent cameraman, The Bay makes use of a variety of sources, from amateur movies filmed on tablets and cameras to Facetime clips, police dashboard cameras, professional news pictures, and CCTV. This means that Levinson can pretty much roam where he likes around Claridge in order to show the mounting crisis and to provide us with a diverse range of tableaux. Early on, we see the contestants in a crab-eating contest throwing up; police officers finding a body lying face down in a quiet suburban street; the waiting room of a hospital filling up with increasingly panicky patients; police officers called to a house from which only one will emerge, infected and suicidal. The sense of dread Levinson creates is palpable and unrelenting, and the horror is magnified by the otherwise normality of the surroundings and the victims, and the fact that we’re dealing not with some supernatural entity with a grudge, but a conceivable real-life horror.
The found-footage sub-genre is pretty much a tired one which, because of its confining nature, was never expected to have a long life, but The Bay goes some way to proving that a skilled and imaginative moviemaker can still get some mileage out of it. This one’s definitely worth a look.