One of the things makers of horror movies are always desperate for is verisimilitude: the ability to convince the audience that the stuff on the screen, no matter how outlandish, is actually happening. This, I think, is the prime factor behind the recent boom in ‘found footage’ films, which started with The Blair Witch Project and continued to include such variable offerings as Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, Apollo 18 and the Paranormal Activity series. In fact, it has become such a staple of the genre that sometimes people seem to be using it when you wouldn’t have thought plausibility would be a particular issue (when the film is quite strongly rooted in reality, for instance). Such is the case with Barry Levinson’s 2012 movie The Bay.
The film is framed by the testimony of a young reporter (Kether Donohue), who is supposedly releasing the film via a whistleblowing website (hmm, topical), in defiance of the wishes of the government. The events of the story itself date back three years to the 4th of July weekend of 2009, when hundreds of people died horribly in a small seaside town off the Chesapeake Bay.
Quite what killed them is not immediately clear, but we are treated to various tantalising hints: the bay itself is horribly polluted and routinely used as a dumping ground by the local poultry farmers, two oceanographers discover the fish in the bay are plagued by nasty parasites (the boffins mysteriously disappear weeks before the disaster), much is made of the desalinisation plant providing drinking water for the town, and so on.
A number of different story threads play out in parallel, together telling the story of the fateful weekend – large numbers of citizens suddenly begin to develop a blistering rash on various parts of their bodies, which in many cases worsens to the point where their flesh actually seems to be being eaten away. The local authorities are self-serving, venal, and obstructive, while the doctors at the CDC are blindsided by the sheer strangeness and suddenness of the outbreak. Meanwhile the people of the town struggle to cope with the disaster, and a young couple sailing across the bay to visit their parents there have no idea what they’re heading into…
Well, on one level this is a somewhat more realistic version of The Crazies mashed up with Shivers. I started watching this film having no idea of what the nature of the disaster actually was, which I think was a distinct advantage: the mystery of exactly what’s going on, and how the different elements of the set-up come together, is one of the more engaging elements of the film. Watching the DVD extras I was amused to learn this project started off as a ‘straight’ documentary about the real-life on-going ecological disaster in Chespeake Bay, which mutated into a fictitious horror film in the hope it might stir people up a bit more.
I’m not sure that it works that way. The problem with The Bay is that is suspended between two imperatives: the need to work as a properly nasty horror film, and a perceived need to stay grounded and credible, both as a found footage film and a film seeking to address real world issues.
The film does a good job of avoiding some of the cliches of the found footage genre – what usually happens as things start kicking off in earnest is that I find myself shouting ‘Why on Earth are you still bothered about filming this?!?‘, and one of the main characters in The Bay does indeed just drop their camera and head for the hills, taking no further part in the main story. Of course, this results in a slightly odd narrative structure, but not an unsophisticated one – Levinson directs creatively and well. More of a problem is that the film feels like it’s missing a third act – the bit in a more conventional, outlandish horror movie where society has totally broken down and the protagonists are battling to survive as the hordes of zombies/mutants/whatever shamble after them. The nature of The Bay‘s horror really precludes that final escalation; people can just leave town and they’re safe, which is realistic but not necessarily satisfying.
On the other hand, some aspects of the story seem a bit far-fetched – it’s never explained why hundreds of people suddenly fall victim to the outbreak practically simultaneously, when one might expect there to be a more gradual appearance (it could be that this is to do with the prominently-featured desalinisation plant, which otherwise plays no part in the main plot – if so, a little more exposition is needed). As a result I assumed that the whole thing was, in fact, made up, which kind of defeats the point of doing a ‘realistic’ eco-horror about a real place. And even now I know what a toxic hell the bottom of Chesapeake Bay really is, I’m not sure what I can do about it: this story is being played out in many places, in many forms, all across the real world. Nevertheless, The Bay is a commendable, inventively-made film, even if it doesn’t quite succeed either as a genuine horror or actual agitprop.