Looking at the trailers for The Bay made me wonder if Barry Levinson was slumming as a filmmaker. It’s been a while since he has made a feature film that really worked, and some of his recent movies like Envy and Man of the Year were duds. Sure, he did make You Don’t Know Jack which featured Al Pacino in one of his best (and non-bombastic) performances but that was relegated to HBO and not the big screen.
Here, Levinson looks to bring us another found footage movie which is a genre that just won’t die. As I sat down in the theatre I couldn’t help but to wonder if the director of Rain Man had run out of ideas and was just looking for any job to take on.
Well, it looks like I owe Mr. Levinson an apology because The Bay is not only a very effective thriller but it is also not what you expect it to be. Yes, it does have elements of a found footage movie, but it also acts as a mock documentary with a good dose of social commentary. It’s not the kind of horror movie which has those jump out of your seat scares every other five minutes (although it does have a few of those), but it’s one which literally and figuratively gets under your skin as it deals with a deadly plague which doesn’t feel all that removed from reality.
The Bay opens with Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue) talking with someone online about the events which took place in a small Maryland town on July 4, 2009. The town was enjoying a sunny Independence Day when a horrifying outbreak occurred which had many of its residents vomiting violently and developing horrific skin rashes.
Through a variety of different kinds of footage and eye witness accounts, we discover that there is a staggering level of toxicity in the water of the Chesapeake Bay which results in a mutant breed of parasites invading human bodies and devouring them in the process. From there the movie becomes a ticking time bomb as we nervously await these innocent residents to meet a fate worse than death.
Levinson has said that this movie is largely based on scientific facts, but he doesn’t go overboard in sticking to them too much. Those facts are there to give the story enough plausibility to the point where we are sucked in and cannot take our eyes off the screen. There have been several movies over the years featuring plagues or deadly viruses that succeeded in ravaging the human body like Outbreak or last year’s Contagion. The Bay proves to be as unsettling as those movies, if not more so.
The movie also features a variety of characters that feel very real and which are not just the same clichéd idiots that inhabit most horror films aimed at teenagers. Whether they react in a sane manner to this increasingly dire situation or in an idiotic way, we know these people from our own lives.
Levinson also gives each character a strong dose of humanity to where you are sad to see them suffer like this. The only character who you come out of this movie not feeling sorry for is Mayor John Stockman (played by noted actor Frank Deal), who stubbornly refuses to do anything in fear of starting a panic. In a movie where it hurts to see people suffer, you anxiously await for him to get it worse than everybody else.
Like many found footage movies or ones that have elements from them, The Bay features a cast of largely unknown actors. They all do great work of inhabiting their characters rather than acting, and that makes their shared predicament all the more terrifying.
Levinson also uses the deadly plague as a way to touch on all those anxieties we have come to live win in this post-9/11 world. When the town’s residents begin to fall victim to it, those around them begin thinking that this is some sort of terrorist attack or some trick to get them to believe in global warming (which is real by the way). Sadly, it’s not all that hard to believe that many people would jump to such conclusions.
The Bay is a movie that could have easily fallen off the tracks had Levinson not been careful. I kept waiting for it to turn into another zombie movie which might have been fun, but it also would have wrecked the story’s overall plausibility and turned it into something stupid. Levinson doesn’t make that mistake here though, and he never betrays the movie’s premise.
The film may not break any new ground, but it shows Barry Levinson using the horror genre to his advantage. Deep down it has a lot of social commentary about the deteriorating conditions of the water in his home state of Maryland, but he doesn’t beat you over the head it with too much either. With a movie like this you come into it to be entertained and thrilled, and The Bay does succeed in doing so. In fact, it may have more of an effect on you after you leave the movie theater.