When you think of Director Barry Levinson and the many different movies that he’s made in his career, I’m sure you don’t think of scary movies, unless of course you take particular issue with one of his past works. Regardless, Levinson is among the last people you’d expect to make a found footage horror film, but lo and behold he’s managed to turn in one of the better ones that the genre’s had to offer in some time, depending on how you qualify ‘Sinister’, of course. ‘The Bay’ is an environmental disaster movie depicted in a way that’s more ‘Contagion’ than ‘Paranormal Activity’ (or thankfully ‘Apollo 18′) in nature. He doesn’t exactly reinvent the genre or use the footage in a distinctly different way like Scott Derrickson’s recent film did, but he’s helped breathed a bit of life into it, along with his career as well. A far cry from the uninspired ‘Paranormal Activity 4′, this movie is creepy and at times shocking. Levinson and scribe Michael Wallach don’t shy away from some very violent events, and manage to throw in some political commentary as well. I’d say they’re most successful when making this a straight horror film, somewhat mixed when commenting on the environment, and less successful when taking on politics, but overall this is a satisfying creep show. The film opens Friday and hopefully will find itself a brave audience. I certainly enjoyed seeing it back at the New York Film Festival and expect many of you to like it as well.
The film is comprised of supposedly previously confiscated footage from a recent “environmental” disaster. Essentially, the movie is told mockumentary style, which works in its favor during the course of the running time. Depicting the events of July 4th, 2009 in the tiny town of Claridge (a small seaside burg of Maryland reliant on a bay for its industry and tourism), we see how progressively worse a biological catastrophe gets. The videos are shown and narrated to us by a presumably lone survivor of the incident, a college reporter named Donna (Kether Donohue). We see the initial warning signs that the government ignored about the possibility that something bad was happening in the bay, along with the first incidents of that fateful day that began taking lives. Something terrifying is in the water and causing an awful lot of trouble in the bay for the people in the town. When we finally do find out what it is and exactly what’s going on in Claridge, the unsettling nature of it is surprisingly powerful and at times even a little emotional. Of course, all of the standard horror movie scenes that are necessary in this type of movie are there as well, but Levinson has arranged it in a really appealing way that should work for all sorts of genre cinema fans. There’s some clear riffing on ‘Jaws’, but Levinson does it in an effecting and affectionate way.
There’s not a whole lot of acting to praise here, but that’s the nature of this type of flick. Kether Donohue is our lead, and she’s decent enough, but very forgettable. Her purpose is to have someone to lead us through the film and to have someone to identify with. In that regard, Donohue does her job, though she’s better early on as she narrates than later on when she begins to enter into horror movie trappings, and in no way does she elevate things. Most of the rest of the cast is filled with unknowns, though oddly enough two possibly recognizable actors show up in supporting roles. Christopher Denham is on hand as a scientist who was one of the first to realize that something was up in the bay, and he’s actually more or less the comic relief here. Denham isn’t amazing, but he’s certainly fine. Also we have Kristen Connolly as a young mom on a boat slowly headed towards the infected area. She’s nothing special, but it is jolting to see an actress you’ve seen before like Connolly in a film of this ilk. Overall, you buy the cast as real people, and that’s the most important thing anyway.
Barry Levinson is a director better known for prestige projects than gory horror flicks, but he shows a surprising aptitude for it here. He’s also got a nice feel for found footage, using it in the service of a story by Michael Wallach that in and of itself is a throwback to the types of plots we saw in the 1970’s, just with a modern spin. Levinson violates the realism once or twice, but it’s usually to add extra terror, so it’s kind of a wash there. Wallach at times tries to stuff too much into his script, but when he keeps it simple, things really do work. The creatures causing the havoc are pretty damn gross, so they deserve credit for creating those too. Their only real stumbling point is in the third act when they try to shoehorn some extra political commentary into the story. It didn’t need it and feels unnecessary.
‘The Bay’ really is a spiritual companion piece to ‘Contagion’ in many ways when you get right down to it, even down to some very specific ways of telling the story. I don’t think the quality is quite the same between the two, but I liked what Barry Levinson brought to the table here, and if this is what bigger name directors can do with this particular style of film, then I’m all for letting them at it going forward, even if someone like George A. Romero had a more mixed outing when he did ‘Diary of the Dead’ a few years back. When it showed in a film festival setting, this was a welcome change of pace and it should function well in normal theatrical release this weekend. I think it’ll do solid business if given the chance to find its audience. It’s certainly getting a recommendation from me, so keep that in mind and be sure to check it out for a creepy good time!
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!