Barry Levinson isn't a natural fit for the horror genre, but with "The Bay," he dips his toes in the eco-thriller genre to curiously provocative effect. Although technically a found footage assemblage of incidents replete with shaky cam effects, "The Bay" contains a more advanced collage of media than one usually finds in this overdone style, coupled with a cogent basis in reality that often makes it closer to a documentary than an appropriation of the form.
The story tracks a 24-hour period on July 4, 2009 when a parasitic infiltration of the water in Claridge, Maryland threatened to infect the entire town. While the rash of deaths and close encounters with the leech-like parasites borrow liberally from the traditions of zombie and alien invasion movies, the source of the chills never strays too far from the real world.
In fact, "The Bay" only lessens some of its impact when it abandons the big picture portrait of bureaucratic neglect to take a stab at embellished dramas. Screenwriter Michael Wallach, a former State Department political analyst, capably assembles the hodgepodge of neglect involved in the dumping of chicken excrement into the bay. However, he relies on the larger framing device of nervous young reporter Donna (Kether Donohue) recording her video reminiscences of the sudden viral outbreak that killed off most of the town. Donna's memories occasionally help to contextualize some of the footage but also frequently distract from the more potent dramas they depict. Her perspective is not the crucial one.
Instead, "The Bay" generates significant dread from the various experts it captures in fragments of Skype calls and security cameras as they attempt to figure out the cause for the countless victims crowding the local hospital. Covered with grotesque rashes and other lethal infections after swimming in the water, their prospects of survival are slim. While the town's smarmy mayor (Frank Deal) shrugs off responsibility for monitoring the water quality by passing the buck to equally neglectful safety organizations, a team of oceanologists investigating dead fish at sea discover the extent of the danger.
Failing to get a rise out of authorities, their incapacity to have an impact on the mounting doom provides the movie with its polemical effect: Levinson has said that 85% of the narrative culls from real life incidents, and a title card points to the alarming fact that Chesapeake Bay is 40% lifeless. The bloody monster movie he spins out of that ingredient frequently plays like "Diary of the Dead" by way of a Robin Cook novel.
Although the action takes place on one day, "The Bay" draws from material ostensibly shot in the weeks leading up to the July 4 incident, with warning signs pointing to the incoming disaster ranging from swimmers literally mobbed by parasites to fish filled with wriggling, worm-like critters. Those moments are thoughtfully juxtaposed with the bickering of emergency investigators as they attempt to figure out the cause of the incident and gradually come across the tips they failed to acknowledge before.
Once the mayhem begins, "The Bay" puts a fair amount of effort into framing the infection in horror terms, as various residents come across bloddied corpses and dying victims with creatures writing beneath their skin. At this point, by-the-numbers screeching music cues and freakish makeup emphasize the scares. As body horror goes, it's nothing you haven't seen before, but the non-fiction foundation still deepens the level of unsettlement.
Produced by Jason Blum ("Paranormal Activity"), "The Bay" is unique among found footage entries for the way it constantly emphasizes the tension between fact and fiction. Sometimes the screenplay goes too far with the reminders: "Are you making this up?" someone asks when a scientist reveals a gigantic mutant parasite discovered in the bay. "It looks photoshopped." The reply, "it's not," marks an obvious moment of the filmmakers directly addressing their audience. It only works because "The Bay" manages to scare up a real fear of environmental neglect. It's quite possibly the first example of jump scares used in service of activism.
Criticwire grade: B
HOW WILL IT PLAY? "The Bay" will receive a limited theatrical release and will also become available on VOD platforms on November 2. While its theatrical prospects are dicey, the real world parallels may drum up enough interest for solid returns in ancillary markets.