One would never suspect Barry Levinson, Oscar-winning director of such American classics as “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Rain Man,” and “Bugsy,” to be behind “The Bay,” a gross, compact eco-horror pic that uses the apparently deathless found-footage conceit to depict a small Chesapeake Bay town’s flesh-eating viral outbreak. When a more conventional style of filmmaking might’ve rendered the film cheesy and less convincing, it’s creepily plausible and shrewdly persuasive for the admittedly played-out found-footage fad.
Communications student Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue) recounts the disaster that she became an eyewitness to in Claridge, Maryland on July 4th, 2009 when she expected to just report the innocuous festivities as a summer intern. Claridge was just a happy, bucolic tourist town where you could have your first crab dinner, until the local hospital encountered bacterial outbreak cases of blisters, boils, and lesions. Some townsfolk were even found walking around with half their tongues gone. Culpable Mayor Stockman (Frank Deal) denied that there was anything wrong with the water and the local police believed all of the dead bodies were turning up from a series of a cult murders. However, a pair of oceanographers discovered the parasitic larvae of crustaceans called isopods inside some dead fish, which have been eaten from the inside. With the bacterial growth accelerating, the chemical steroids and chicken runoff might be the culprits, but no one will be left to finalize the answer.
Beginning with a primer that alleges “the following story was never made public,” the proceedings are pieced together from “digital information” justifiably obtained from home video, FaceTime sessions, hospital surveillance, police video, local TV news broadcasts, and other sources. Donna’s narration, with lines like “I can’t move on with my life until this story is told” and “they have no idea something so much darker and sinister is about to happen,” borders on less than subtle and often alleviates the suspense, but it’s functional anyway. Also, inserting a musical score into the “real” footage lessens the effect at times, but Marcelo Zarvos’ score is low and pulsing.
Screenwriter Michael Wallach, working from his story with Levinson, has no use for a traditional three-act structure, but “The Bay” is more interested in making us witnesses to available footage, which mostly speaks for itself. Other than Donna, the only other characters that we really spend time with are a nice couple, Alex (Will Rogers) and Stephanie Talbot (Kristen Connolly from “The Cabin in the Woods”), who rent a boat, with their baby in tow, to go watch fireworks in Claridge with Stephanie’s parents.
The film is goosed with enough realistically yucky, genuinely skin-crawling moments, including a crab-eating contest that quickly turns into a barf-o-rama and a lone woman with boils on her face wandering the crowded streets. Levinson handles there’s-something-in-the-water clichÃ©s with immediacy and also trusts the power of suggestion. For example, when a cop enters a house to check on his partner who’s investigating a domestic disturbance, we just witness a static outside shot and hear the inside audio, which is chilling enough. And those isopods are more disgusting and threatening than most movie monsters and zombies.
A horror B-movie that works in context as an environmental message movie, “The Bay” builds a sense of dread, and gets in its gross-outs and stance against the Environment Protection Agency in equal measure. It won’t have you screaming out of the theater or your living room, but if you’re left scratching your arms and paranoid to drink from the water spicket, this effective little horror item certainly achieves what it sets out to do.
85 min., rated R.