So imagine that it’s the Fourth of July in a little all-American town on the Chesapeake Bay. The people all conform to the stereotypes of apple-pie fed Middle America, being fat, white and complacent in their little American flag t-shirts and patriotic paraphernalia; there are parades, sparklers, eating contests, and dunking booths. The festivities are presided over by a slightly shady mayor, a local entrepreneur who is aggressively pro-business; he’s probably a Republican, but he’s friendly enough. Everything is about as perfect as you could imagine. And then people start puking blood. Entire families begin developing lesions and boils on their arms, backs, and legs. People’s stomachs and faces begin bursting open and cockroaches the size of tennis balls crawl out. That sounds like one hell of a Fourth of July celebration, but it also happens to describe the new ecological horror flick from director Barry Levinson.
What’s behind this epidemic of face-exploding bugs? The short answer: Pollution. The long answer: A local poultry plant has been dumping tons of chicken feces in the bay, which in turn has killed off the local ecosystem while creating the ideal habitat for a genetically mutated isopod that enters its host and feeds on the host’s innards until it matures explodes out in dramatically bloody fashion. So: Pollution. Just…thank God it’s not zombies.
Oren Peli’s name is in the credits for this little independent horror movie, so you can bet your ass that it’s a found footage flick. It seems like no one can pick up a camera and shakily tell a horror story from the first person perspective without this guy getting a cut. Regardless, I suppose The Bay is one of the better entries in the growing found footage subgenre.
The entire film, told from a multitude of viewpoints, is arranged as if it were a documentary cobbled together from footage pulled from a WikiLeaks-type website. A young amateur reporter (Kristen Connolly) narrates the events, providing connective tissue between all of the disparate stories. In the course of the film’s brief runtime, we follow a couple of young scientists who uncover the cause of the ecological threat; we watch as the young reporter struggles to find out what’s going on amid the chaos; we see the footage compiled by a local surgeon as he attempts to treat the infestation; but mostly we get to see people puke blood and cough up black parasites.
I admire The Bay in the sense that Barry Levinson and screenwriter Michael Wallach at least attempted to put a scientific gloss on their monster. Could the dumping of chicken shit into a local water supply result in a proliferation of intestine-devouring crustaceans? Eh, I doubt it, but crazier things have happened. The people afflicted with the parasite suffer from symptoms that are suitably gruesome and believable.
On the other hand, having created a suitably terrifying scenario for a horror film, Levinson and Wallach seem to have stopped there. After the devastating outbreak and it’s cause are established, the movie just trails off without anything approaching a satisfactory conclusion. The characters are quick to diagnose and harp on the cause of the disaster (pollution!), but we never witness a climax or a resolution. As a result, The Bay feels surprisingly inert for a horror film. It’s mostly set-up with very little follow-through.
And this is another found footage horror movie, which translates into a lot of nauseating cinematography and mediocre acting. Further, the fact that the story is told as a faux documentary doesn’t stop Levinson from injecting irritatingly loud jump scares into select scenes; I’ve never seen a documentarian like Werner Herzog or Errol Morris edit a loud noise into the middle of a piece of footage before, but that doesn’t stop Levinson from indulging in such audience manipulation here.
In the end, we’re left with a haphazard collection of occasionally unsettling short films bound together by a preachy political message. The Bay is like Paranormal Activity crossed with an episode of Captain Planet. Levinson doesn’t really want to scare his audience, he just wants to leave them with a message. However, the ham-fisted political commentary ultimately distracts from the scares and bogs down the momentum of the film. As a result The Bay is admirably original, but unfortunately ineffective.