The found footage film is the cinematic equivalent of the abandoned manuscript or the notebook found in a deserted house. It’s an effective, potentially powerful way to add verisimilitude to a story (and get around holes in the budget), as The Blair Witch Project showed so effectively back in 1999, so it’s unsurprising that the last decade and a half has boasted so many of them.
The Bay is a mixture of found footage film and mockumentary grounded in reality. Its premise: on 4 July 2009 a gruesome outbreak occurred in the Maryland coastal town of Claridge in which hundreds of people met horrible deaths. The culprits were the charming little creatures known as isopods or sea lice – parasitic crustaceans that eat fish from the inside. Waste dumped into the Chesapeake Bay mutated them into lethal, fast-growing flesh eaters whose microscopic larvae entered Claridge’s water supply. The government covered up the incident, confiscating any digital record of the event, but a Wikileaks-style organisation has now laid hands on it.
It’s a great idea, and it enables Levinson to work on a big canvas without losing the gritty, intimate feel of the found footage film and without Cloverfield’s limitation of having to fit the whole story into a single camera’s POV (not to mention motivating the cameraman to keep on filming despite the events around him). But problems emerge early on. The main one is that the film is ‘presented’ by Donna Thompson (Donohue) a student who was covering the 4 July celebrations for the local TV station when the outbreak occurred. It isn’t that Donohue’s a bad actress, just that her present-day scenes, clunking with banal, obvious dialogue, are unconvincing, while breaking mood and pace constantly. It’s surprisingly inept, given Levinson’s years and experience as a director, and it’s hard not to suspect that many or all of these scenes are filler to bulk out The Bay’s brief running time.
Enough of these scenes are shoehorned into the first half of the film to have a lot of viewers reaching for their DVD’s ‘eject’ button, but as The Bay progresses Levinson starts cranking things up. At Claridge’s main hospital Dr Abrams (Kunken) deals with an influx of patients and tries to identify what’s killing them. The video diaries of Sam (Denham) and Jacqueline (Aluka), two oceanographers who died several weeks before the film’s main events, appear in flashback to reveal the disaster’s cause. A scared teenager (Jennifer Burch), clinging to her smartphone like a lifeline, describes both the progress of the epidemic and her own infection. Stephanie (Connolly), Alex (Rogers) and their infant son sail unknowingly into the unfolding nightmare. Meanwhile, police officers Jimson (Michael Beasley) and Paul (Jody Thompson) try vainly to get the situation under control, and Mayor Stockman (Deal) whose actions prove to have precipitated the catastrophe, tries just as vainly to play it down as the casualties mount.
Dotted in amongst these different narratives are brief vignettes showing the fate of other victims: an exchange of text messages, CCTV tapes and water-damaged video camera footage that breaks up into a flurry of jagged images. As The Bay progresses, these orchestrate gore, ‘jump’ moments and atmosphere with brutal effectiveness. In one of the most chilling scenes, Paul and Jimson enter a house, but all we see is the view from their squad car’s videocamera. Subtitled audio footages plays over shots of the house, with the outbreak’s victims’ tormented screams and the officers’ appalled description of their condition finally giving way to the victims’ pleas for a merciful death. Donna’s ‘present-day’ scenes, while irritating, do less and less, as the film goes on, to vitiate the rising sense of dread that it evokes.
The Bay taps into fears both ecological and political, and manages to be clever and inventive while still packing a visceral punch; despite some glaring flaws it’s actually a fierce and effective little film, if you can get past the slow start.
A technically excellent film which re-imagines the found footage genre and stitches it all together in one of the best eco-horror movies. Levinson manages to tackle and raise awareness of the very real issue of Chesapeake Bay whilst still creating a thoroughly entertaining and compulsive horror film. Even the occasional appearance of a soundtrack adds to the film – a device which would have utterly thrown the viewer had it been handled by a lesser director. If you like your horror grounded in reality and thought-provoking then watch this real-life monster movie now.
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