Ever since Cloverfield became a huge hit the “found footage” genre has really taken off. You have Apollo 18, the REC/Quarantine series, Trollhunter, The Last Exorcism, 4 Paranormal Activity films as well as a fifth and a spin-off on the way, Chronicle, V/H/S, Project X and countless more direct-to-video releases. And don’t forget the movie that brought attention to the genre nearly 15 years ago… The Blair Witch Project. Personally I am not a fan of the genre although I do like one that brings something new to the table (Cloverfield, Chronicle, Blair Witch). The Bay is one of the most effective examples of this genre that I have ever seen.
A young, inexperienced reporter recounts the events that she witnessed during a biological outbreak that devastated a small Chesapeake Bay seaside town on the Fourth of July, 2008.
It’s always nice to see when an experienced filmmaker decides to branch out into an unexplored genre they haven’t worked in before. Barry Levinson, who has directed such classics as Young Sherlock Holmes, Rain Man and Good Morning, Vietnam (and some stinkers like Toys, Disclosure and Sphere), has never made a horror film before, let alone anything in this specific style. He succeeded in every conceivable way and made a movie that managed to do something that doesn’t happen very often… it freaked me right the fuck out.
The set-up is nothing new with a wraparound story of a young reporter attempting to get the truth about what happened that day in 2008 released to the public by narrating a documentary she made of footage that not only she recorded while working there, but from footage culled from other various sources (cell phones, police cameras, security cameras, home videos). Some of it is convenient (the stuff in the antique store during the finale), some of it is contrived (the young girl constantly video chatting on her phone) and some is coincidental (the video report with the people screaming in the background). All of it, however, is extremely effective.
The movie is set up like a disaster movie following a number of different people from different walks of life, from the young reporter who stumbles into a horrific ecological disaster (Kether Donohue), a young couple with a newborn baby taking a boat trip to the small town for the holiday (Kristen Connolly and Christopher Denham), a doctor reporting his findings to the CDC (Stephen Kunken), two oceanographers who are tracking the event (Nanci Aluka and Will Rogers) and a pair of cops who keep discovering victims along their patrol route (Michael Beasley and Jody Thompson). The acting is very convincing across the board even though Donohue seems younger in the wraparound footage than she does in the found footage which supposedly took place four years earlier. It was a wise choice to cast all unknowns in the roles in order to maintain the illusion of reality (except for Kristen Connolly who was in The Cabin in the Woods and I recognized immediately).
The central idea of the oceans off this coastal town being polluted by multiple forms of hazardous waste to create a unique biological mutation that effects the entire population is pulled off in truly frightening ways. At first it seems like a bubbly rash is spreading among the townsfolk, but it soon turns out to be something more deadly which I will not ruin for those who have not seen it. Take my word for it, there are parts that will get under your skin and give you the willies. It will definitely make you a little more cautious about going swimming in the ocean, believe me.
Thankfully Levinson uses every trick in the book to make this as frightening as possible without the use of “boo scares” like all the other recent found footage films (Paranormal Activity, I’m looking at you!). The story is paced evenly and reveals details about what is going on in measured increments as to not play its hand too early, and the buildup to the big reveal is expertly handled. It was refreshing to see a horror movie that didn’t pander to its audience and go for cheap thrills.
The movie is violent and creepy, but not overly bloody. I’m glad that Levinson held back on the red stuff except during scenes that required it for shock value (that scene with the lady wandering through the backyard vomiting up buckets of blood). There are some disturbing images that really unnerved me, but on the whole it’s a light “R” rating. There are more four letter words thrown around here than gore. The moody, pulsing score by Marcelo Zarvos also does a lot to help make the film effective as well, as does the excellent editing by Aaron Yanes.
My only issue is a short and anticlimactic ending which is wrapped up too soon and too conveniently. I was so hooked at that point that I wouldn’t have minded another ten or twenty minutes to see how things played out, but it was cut short in order to keep the runtime below ninety minutes. It’s mildly disappointing after the suspenseful buildup and prolonged tension up until that point.
This movie really did a number on me. I figured that it would be a decent horror/thriller after I saw some advance reviews from film festivals and its impressive filmmaker pedigree, but it disappeared from theaters so fast that I never got the chance to see it in first run. I’m glad that I did eventually get to see it because this is one of the best uses of the found footage plot device that I’ve seen since Cloverfield. It is a truly scary ecologically minded thrill ride that I hope finds its audience on video.
The Bay is a surprisingly well made and genuinely scary little horror ditty. I highly recommend it.