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Witches, radioactive mutants, giant monsters and endless
ghosts have had their moments in the found-footage genre, and now it’s
eco-terror’s turn. And with THE BAY, director Barry Levinson has adopted a
somewhat different approach in tune with his hot-button subject matter.
Rather than fix us within the point of view of one
cameraperson, THE BAY (opening in limited theatrical release today, and also
available on-demand) is found-footage horror-drama in its most literal
expression. Taking advantage of the omnipresence of video surveillance and
personal recording devices, the movie is framed as visual evidence of terrible
events that took place in Claridge, Maryland in 2009. Juxtaposing everything
from Skype conversations to police dashboard-cams to news footage, it “exposes”
what happened when this community on Chesapeake Bay was invaded by a
particularly virulent breed of water-borne parasite.
All the clips have been ostensibly gathered and assembled by
Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue, no relation to THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT’s
Heather), who is also seen in the aforementioned news footage as an
enthusiastic student journalist getting her break covering Claridge’s 4th of
July celebration. After sufficient images of typical Americana to establish the
innocence that will soon be tragically lost, Donna’s camera starts catching
evidence that not all is well, and neither are some of the people: They start
breaking out in blisters, vomiting and otherwise disrupting the festivities.
Among the many other participants in the ensuing drama intercut with Donna’s
reportage are a pair of oceanographers who discover evidence of the infection
ravaging the bay’s fish population, assorted medical personnel dealing with its
spread to humans and a young couple, Alex and Stephanie (Will Rogers and THE
CABIN IN THE WOODS’ Kristen Connolly), obliviously boating up the coast toward
Like George A. Romero’s DIARY OF THE DEAD, perhaps the only
other example of a movie of this type made by an established veteran rather
than an up-and-coming filmmaker, THE BAY’s first act has a little too much portentous
narration alerting us of the horrors to come, rather than allowing the audience
to gradually discover them. Once things start seriously getting out of hand,
though, Levinson and screenwriter Michael Wallach let the awfulness speak for
itself, and there’s plenty to go around. Claridge at first seems to be
afflicted by a pustulent sickness, before an even worse plague is revealed:
isopods, icky multilegged critters that feed on other living creatures and do
grotesque damage to their hosts. Lest anyone confuse them for science-fictional
beings, Levinson takes advantage of the pseudodocumentary form to include
plenty of real-life images of these little predators, of the sort that may make
you very nervous the next time you go for a dip in the ocean.
That’s part of Levinson’s point, and there is certainly a
bit of agitprop going on here. The director was inspired to make this film by
the real-life ecological problems in Chesapeake Bay (see interview here),
and it indicts both local industries and politicians for their culpability in
the disaster. For the most part, though, the focus is on the regular folks
affected by the bloody tragedy, from the town doctor and cops who are helpless
to stop it to a teenage girl sending increasingly panicked bulletins to a
friend via iPhone. By allowing for so many different video points of view,
Levinson gets around the why-are-they-still-taping? plausibility issues common
to this form, and this particular approach allows him and editor Aaron Yanes to
pace the movie like a thriller, augmenting it with occasional music.
While there are plenty of grisly highlights, employing
skin-crawling makeup and critter FX, THE BAY’s most effective and cinematic
device is the intercutting of Alex and Stephanie, their cheerful traveling
suspensefully juxtaposed with the grotesque scenario that awaits them. Once
they do arrive, the atmosphere becomes that of a zombie/infected apocalypse
thriller, while keeping the personal focus that makes the movie work as a
whole. THE BAY has a much broader scope that sets it apart from most of its vérité
ilk, while maintaining the immediacy that allows the audience to share in the
fear being experienced by those doing the taping.
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