One week a month, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: In honor of the new sequel to the modern classic The Blair Witch Project, we look back at some of our favorite found-footage horror films.
The problem with most found-footage horror films is that they offer the laziest possible solution to an age-old B-picture problem: how to pull off an impressively scary movie on a pauper’s budget. It’s easier to disguise bad writing, amateur acting, and cheap special effects when most of the dialogue is improvised, and when shoddy camerawork and clumsy exposition are baked into the premise. That’s what makes 2012’s The Bay all the more impressive. Director Barry Levinson and screenwriter Michael Wallach take advantage of the found-footage format to deliver a lot of information in ways that feel fresh and organic, rather than just using cruddy-looking digital video to serve up one cheap shock after another.
Originally intended as a documentary about the environmental damage done to Chesapeake Bay, The Bay evolved into a reality-based fiction film, about an East Coast resort town devastated by a rapidly mutating, waterborne flesh-eating virus. To capture the full scope of the story, Levinson and Wallach eschewed the “camera crew stumbles into trouble” approach and instead imagined all the places a camera might be—from TV reporters to security cams to cell phones to laptops. The film ends up following a wide range of characters, in a variety of styles that keep any one from getting too tiresome.
The Bay wasn’t the first time an established Hollywood filmmaker constructed a politically charged mosaic from an array of sources. Brian De Palma’s experimental 2007 Iraq War drama Redacted tried something similar, with decidedly mixed results. The Bay works better because it’s much fleeter, and because it has a sturdy model—not Paranormal Activity, but Jaws. Set on July 4, the movie captures a community in crisis, unsure how to manage the growing piles of corpses on a day when everyone’s trying to enjoy their summer break.
Levinson doesn’t have the showmanship—or sadism—of a great horror director. The Bay isn’t viscerally terrifying that often, aside from the occasional jump-scare or gross-out. But the movie exhibits a fullness that’s rare for this subgenre, as Levinson and his editors weave hundreds of inexpensively staged and shot snippets into something that feels more like an epic-scaled disaster picture. Plus, The Bay has a larger purpose, beyond hollering, “Boo!” Found-footage films that embed with only one small group of characters suggest that bad luck and dumb choices are to blame for a catastrophe. The Bay, though, pins its apocalypse to underfunded emergency responders, systemic corporate and government malfeasance, and a pervasive societal complacency. Peering through cameras all over town, Levinson and Wallach can see that it takes a village to destroy the world.
Availability: The Bay is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased from the major digital services.