PLOT: The aftermath of a parasitic outbreak in a small Maryland town on July 4th is documented via various forms of technology.
REVIEW: THE BAY is what it would look like if National Geographic decided to make a found footage horror movie. A fictitious account of a deadly outbreak in a seaside town, Barry Levinson's film is well-intentioned, and scary in a “more you know” kind of way, but it's also cold and dramatically inert, giving us no characters to root for and no true investment in the situation outside of the faint interest in seeing the creepy creatures who act as the villains make a handful of gruesome appearances.
Film introduces us to young reporter Donna Thompson (Kether Donahue), who details the frightening events she was an eyewitness to three years prior in the tourist town of Claridge, Maryland. Prefaced by strange occurrences like millions of fish turning up dead in the water and blackbirds dropping out of the sky, the town sees itself become ground zero for a bizarre biological parasite on the Fourth of July. This “isopod,” a crustacean that is evidently one of the earth's oldest creatures, has been mutated thanks to toxic chemicals unleashed by a nearby chicken plant; this mutation is so freakish that even the people at the Center for Disease Control have to google it – never a heartening sign.
THE BAY establishes a building sense of dread with sequences of increasing ghastliness – a crab-eating contest turns into a barf-o-rama; a woman with boils and sores on her face wanders around a horrified crowd, screaming for her family; a group of revelers on a boat get a grotesque surprise when they find out firsthand the yucky way the isopod introduces itself. Levinson has a firm grip on what makes a scene scary; the director, known of course for far less hideous subject matter (RAIN MAN, WAG THE DOG) sets up a few unnerving scenes with the ease of a master of horror, and isn't shy about going for the jugular with gross-out moments (the isopod eats the tongue of its victim and does the chest-burst thing). The movie gets progressively eerier as the town's population decreases until it's effectively a ghost town; an empty street littered with corpses always makes for a powerful image, especially when the far-off howling of the dying begins to fill the night air.
The film cuts between various accounts of the outbreak: a couple vacationing on a boat with their baby, a couple of cops doing their rounds through the neighborhood, Skype calls between the town's doctor and the CDC, etc. Levinson basically utilizes every possible piece of technology available to him to build a 360-degree view of the escalating tale of B-movie horror. Security cameras, iPhones, dashboard cams and more are used, although of course it's never truly explained why this “account” has been pieced together so dramatically, with music and jump scares added to heighten the mood. You have to give the director credit for going all-out with the found footage gimmick, which of course has long ago lost most of its novelty.
THE BAY proves to be clever but distant. There are a core group of characters we follow, but we've never around them long enough to truly care about them – or really know anything about them. (Plus, Donna often helpfully informs us of their fates before we even get started on their story, so we'll know usually know if they're going to die or not.) You watch with the same interest you might a cable documentary about the dangers of toxic waste or a nature show; you follow along, but you're not sucked in the way you are with a solid thriller. No momentum is able to build when cutting between so many different entities, with so many tangents and diversion (we meet so many characters along the journey); it detaches the audience from the experience. Essentially, the film often feels like an assemblage of clips as opposed to a suspenseful narrative.
It's also not exactly what you can call a crowd-pleaser; audiences are likely to feel as if they've just sat through the most disgusting educational film about the environment ever. The best found footage films, the PARANORMAL ACTIVITYs and the [REC]s, immerse you fully in the hellish situation, and make you feel as if you're part of the terror. THE BAY simply never does that, but it's an admirable attempt at something a bit different.