Ecological Found-Footage Thriller The Bay Burrows Under the Skin
On a random day in 2009, over two-million fish inexplicably washed up on the Eastern seaboard of the United States. Thousands of birds plummeted from the sky, dead before they hit the ground. People who swam in the waters were afflicted by a strange bacterium that led to the loss of a leg or an arm, some ending up dead as if they were consumed from within in less than 24 hours.
But the story of what happened on July 4 in Claridge, Maryland has never been told. This thriving township was nearly wiped off the map, and the reasons why were kept a terrifying secret by the government. Now, three years later, a young journalism student, Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue), who was there covering events as they transpired, has assembled confidential video footage from a variety of sources and clandestinely released it to the public. What she reveals is a horrific ecological tragedy unlike anything one can imagine, even in the deepest confines of their most paralyzing nightmares.
Hyperbole aside, The Bay is inspired by real events yet is entirely fictional. Director Barry Levinson’s (Rain Man, Wag the Dog) found-footage horror yarn is as unsettling as it is thought-provoking. Uneven, yes, and some of it does ring a little hollow, but that’s not a big deal. This disgustingly suspenseful yarn got under my skin, and I kept shivering long after I left the theatre.
Levinson frames all this nastiness as something of a low-rent documentary, narrated and compiled by the shaken Thompson. She utilizes footage from her cameraman shot on that day as well as video compiled from everything from iPhones to Skype to police dashboard cameras to everything in-between. The journalist captures the townsfolk in their darkest moments with striking detail, creating a level of immersion that is frequently debilitating.
It’s compelling stuff. Michael Wallach’s script hints at man-made environmental lunacies which could lead to humanity’s eventual destruction, all of which is inherently unsettling all by itself. But it’s equally unnerving to watch people literally disintegrate from within, the sheer awfulness of it all beyond disquieting.
The framing device does wear somewhat on the nerves. Donna’s constant yacking feels far too fallaciously scripted for it to ring with the sort of unsentimental truth the story oftentimes requires. She spells way too much out and doesn’t always allow the viewer to read between the lines on their own, making certain facets of the story concrete when they arguably should have remained an ephemeral and uncomfortably eerie enigma instead.
None of this is subtle, and it’s not like Levinson minces his words as to what humans are doing to the Earth. But considering two of the producers here are Paranormal Activity creators Oren Peli and Jason Blum, it’s not like this lack of subtly is surprising.
Yet there are numerous highs, and thankfully they’re frequent. An entire subplot involving a driven doctor (Stephen Kunken) attempting to serve his community is superb, his communications with an increasingly befuddled Center for Disease Control perfectly speaking to the story’s central themes. There’s also some great stuff concerning a pair of marine biologists (Christopher Denham, Nansi Aluka) eager to ring the alarm bell before their enthusiasm for the truth eats away their opportunity to do so, a lot of their footage scoring the highest thrill count while also insidiously hinting at the catastrophe to come.
For all its faults, The Bay more than gets the job done. The terror it generates comes from the all-too-real possibility that much of its fiction might someday, sooner rather than later, become destructive fact. It’s paralyzingly terrific in a multitude of gruesomely memorable ways, and as far as the bigger picture is concerned that’s what matters most.
Film Rating: 2½ (out of 4)