Contagion by way of Paranormal Activity, director Barry Levinson (Good Morning Vietnam) brings a much needed dose of legitimacy to a generally dismissible found footage sub-genre with The Bay, a horror film that’s as credibly constructed as it is incredibly scary.
Kether Donohue (Pitch Perfect) plays Donna, a journalist-in-training, whose first assignment becomes a nightmare after a beachside community’s Fourth of July celebrations are disrupted by a deadly disease. Three years later, and Donna has teamed up with a documentary filmmaker to blow the lid on the subsequent government cover-up, assembling an impressive array of footage – from CCTV, cell phones, Skype conferences, as well as video captured on the day by her own deceased cameraman – in order to reveal the horrifying truth.
To say that The Bay may be the greatest found footage film of all time is something of a backhanded compliment. Since the style’s resurgence four or five years ago we’ve been subject to a pitiful stream of amateurish horror flicks that not only aren’t effectively scary, but are laughably unable to maintain any kind of semblance of reality. Case in point: even if you accept that a gigantic monster is roaming the streets of New York, that the characters in Cloverfield keep a camcorder running just doesn’t make any sense.
In contrast, Levinson’s doco conceit helps justify the presence of such conventional filmic devices as editing, music, multiple camera angles and a sense of narrative escalation, things that is others found footage movies are distractingly out of place. At the same time, the seemingly plausible nature of the threat –The Bay began its life (allegedly) as an actual documentary about water pollution – makes it terrifying in a manner that a ghost or an alien is not.
Indeed, as repulsive as the boils and blisters are, what’s just as frightening is the failure of authorities to respond. Levinson’s depiction of the town’s greedy, vote-grubbing mayor is unfortunately one dimensional (think Mayor Vaughn in Jaws), but watching organisations like the CDC and Homeland Security attempt, and fail, to effectively liaise with local doctors and law enforcement makes you wonder how ready they’d actually be. The Independence Day setting is a particularly brilliant touch, with the films themes of industrial and regulatory irresponsibility juxtaposed with images of quintessential Americana – balloons, flags, red, white and blue streamers – hanging with dreadful irony over scenes of desolation and death.
Which is not to say that the film is some high-minded docudrama. While Levinson has plenty of social horror, he also delivers on the more schlocky scares, including a couple of jump out of your seat moments that are all the more effective because the rest of the movie is so grounded. As you try to anticipate these moments, the tension is like a parasite that worms its way into your brain. Waiting, patiently, for the just the right moment to strike.
The Bay was reviewed as part of our coverage of the 2012 New York Film Festival.