The horror elements in Barry Levinson’s horror movie The Bay are merely okay, but there are compensations. Set on July 4 in a sleepy East Coast waterfront town, The Bay follows the rapid progression of a mysterious flesh-eating ailment that affects residents who’ve been in contact with the local water supply; while Levinson only occasionally delivers a good, jolting scare, he and screenwriter Michael Wallach have constructed an impressive full-scale narrative out of images caught on the fly. The Bay is made to look as though it’s been cobbled together from cell phones and surveillance cameras, much like Brian De Palma’s Redacted (only far less amateurish) or one of the Paranormal Activity movies (only with a broader perspective). The result is surprisingly satisfying, like Jaws for the YouTube/Skype era.
The prospect of an Oscar-winning writer-director making a found-footage eco-horror film could’ve been depressing, as if implying Levinson couldn’t get a better gig at this stage of his career. But perhaps it takes an old pro like Levinson to show how an increasingly played-out genre can be improved. The Bay’s large cast of characters each get their stories told via snippets woven together into a good approximation of a ’70s-style disaster movie. The Bay jumps from chaotic holiday celebrations to scientific expeditions to news reports to hospitals littered with corpses, showing how the crisis quickly grows beyond the point local authorities can handle, or beyond the point where the townspeople can warn others. Some characters appear throughout, while others pop up just long enough to get infected and die gruesomely. However long they last, their self-shot clips are made to fit into the plot, not used as filler.
In content and approach, The Bay is still too familiar, no matter how impressively realized. And again, it could’ve been much scarier. (One of the reason found-footage films are so popular is because even the cruddiest of them are often genuinely frightening.) But without laying on too heavy a hand, Levinson and Wallach do have strong points to make with The Bay, not just about the extremist outcome of environmental neglect, but about how the past decade-plus of “starve the beast” anti-government policies have left the United States unprepared for the inevitable. Now that’s some real horror.