Primarily known for his talky, small-scale comedic dramas, exemplified by his beloved "Diner," Vanity Fair recently made a compelling argument for this seminal Barry Levinson film influencing everything from "Seinfeld" and "Swingers" to Judd Apatow's comedy factory and feel-good Hollywood trifles like "The Natural." In light of this posit, this makes "The Bay," Levinson's new, highly squishy found footage horror movie more than just a career left turn; it's more like he veered onto oncoming traffic. The only thing more surprising than Levinson making "The Bay," though, is how effectively creepy it is.
Beginning with real-life news footage of various ecological mysteries — schools of fish that wash ashore, dead and riddled with parasites; birds falling from the sky like some biblical plague; sea life taking on a bloody red tint — "The Bay" quickly sets up its premise. It’s that of a horrible tragedy befalling a tiny southern town called Claridge, a tragedy that was covered up by the government for three full years. Now, the footage has finally leaked and is being assembled into a narrative by a plucky journalist named Donna (Kether Donohue, beautiful in a natural, non-Hollywood way) who managed to survive the original event, which struck the town as it was getting into the swing of its Fourth of July celebration.
Three years ago, Donna (who also serves as a de facto narrator) was covering the Fourth of July celebration for the local news network. Starting out as a sunny day full of games and crab-eating contests, soon the townspeople start showing signs of a terrible infection – rashes start to cover their bodies, they start vomiting blood, and many simply drop down dead. Simultaneously, some kind of parasitic outbreak starts occurring, with crabby chiggers literally burrowing out of people's bodies (it's just as cover-your-face disgusting as it sounds). Donna is just as confused as everyone else as to what is happening (she is initially told that the deaths are a series of murders) and makes for a good audience surrogate, especially when things start getting really weird.
But while Donna and her search for the truth is the main trust of "The Bay," what makes the movie so much fun to watch (and what makes it really, truly terrifying) is the way that Levinson absorbs not just the footage from Donna and her film crew but everything else. There are Skype conversations between a doctor at the local ER and the CDC, flirty footage of kids swimming in the titular bay, scientific footage by a pair of researchers who were testing the bay for toxins (it doesn't end well for them), on-board footage from police officers on the scene, videotape from a young couple who were traveling to the town by boat, and text message conversations from those living through the outbreak. While little explanation is given to how Donna (or whoever) assembled the footage (and occasionally put ominous music on top), the fact that we get such a complete view of the event makes for compelling, deeply scary viewing.
Levinson is indebted to a number of his forbearers, mostly the kind of politically barbed horror movies from directors like George A. Romero, Larry Cohen, and Stuart Gordon, mixed with the kind of exposition-heavy, just-the-facts-ma'am straightness of Steven Soderbergh's "Contagion." Levinson does an uncanny job of showing you flashes of the townspeople, basically just enough to make you really cringe when you see them dead and bloated on the side of the road or with parasites crawling out of their eye sockets. There's an almost Stephen King vibe to the characterization of the townspeople, especially its corrupt mayor (Frank Deal, just as slimy as any of the monsters), and the movie borrows both the general structure and basic content from Steven Spielberg's "Jaws." It's the most aquaphobic movie since Spielberg's original. But that's also where the movie stumbles where Romero, Cohen, Gordon and their ilk soar – Levinson seems to be trying to make a point about something, but what that point is remains elusive.
The plot of "The Bay," at least initially, was based on a real-life incident where a parasite infected fish and actually replaced their tongue. Where their tongue was supposed to be was, instead, rested a grubby little parasite (photos of this very disgusting incident are actually seen in the movie's assembly of news footage). At various points we get explanations about what is happening in the brackish bay, with most pointing to the local chicken farm and the runoff of chicken shit that gets haphazardly dumped in the water, but it seems like an ironically haphazard answer; a plot point more than a profound indictment. While the pacing of the movie is breakneck and severely anxiety inducing, you wish you had more time with the twilight of the outbreak, when the shit really hits the fan (and, even more fascinating, potentially, the cover-up by the government, which must have been documented). The reason there isn't as much stuff towards the end of the movie is, of course, that anyone videotaping the events was probably dead, and while this is a pretty good explanation for things, thinking about the physical realities of these found footage movies can be maddening and, ultimately, pointless. We wanted more juice towards the end and more juice was what we should have gotten.
Still, these are minor quibbles with what is, more or less, a terrifically exciting horror movie achievement. While Levinson might not have been the obvious choice for a project like this, he proves to be a great fit. Levinson is interested in humanity, in the small moments that make us who we are, and it's these moments that make "The Bay" so chilling – the confusion of the young couple as they dock on an eerily quiet Fourth of July, the way that the ER doctor runs down the events with clinical detachment ("I've had to amputate hands, legs, arms," he says), the young girl communicating, via Face-time on her iPhone, that everyone is sick. "The Bay," produced by the team behind "Paranormal Activity" but with much more on its mind than those films, is a movie whose immediacy and realism make it even scarier. And be sure to stick around for the end titles, featuring a title card with a font so good, if they stuck it on the poster, everyone would say "I want to see that movie." [B]