The ecological horror film “The Bay” is a lot like “Jaws” – if the shark was about an inch long.
The clever and chilling found-footage film also takes place in a cheery seaside community, in this case the town of Claridge, Md., celebrating the Fourth of July. It’s a town that depends on the water to bring in vacationing tourists every summer.
But something’s going on underneath the surface of the bay. The water quality has dropped in recent years thanks to lax EPA enforcement. The local industrial chicken factory has been letting its waste run off into the water, and there are rumors that the company has been feeding their birds growth hormones. Oh, and apparently there was a little nuclear accident a few years back.
Mix well, and sit back and watch the carnage. Mysterious welts and blisters start appearing on the bodies of the citizens of Claridge, spreading across their bodies. Then local police start finding the mutilated bodies of other residents, looking as if they’ve been eaten alive. It’s only later, too late, that doctors at the local hospital realize they’ve been eaten from the inside out.
So, yeah, “The Bay” is gross, full of gory moments and the kind of quick jump scares that horror fans crave. But it’s also very craftily executed. The “found footage” is presented as film that’s been uploaded to a Wikileaks-type site by rookie TV journalist Donna Thompson (a fine Kether Donohue), and it’s her own live footage, mixed with surveillance tapes, police logs, Skype conversations and other sources.
The result is that, while most “found-footage” horror films are confined to a single point of view, “The Bay” lets us follow multiple characters. Thompson’s footage is at the center, but we also see a harried local doctor’s increasingly panicked conversations via Skype with baffled Center for Disease Control officials, footage of two oceanographers trying to track down the source of the carnage, and, most chillingly, a young couple and their baby happily boating into Claridge, completely unaware of what they’re sailing into.
“The Bay” was directed by, of all people, Barry Levinson, the Oscar-winning filmmaker behind “Rain Man” and “Diner.” One might think being reduced to a “Paranormal Activity”-type shocker would be a sad step down for a once-great filmmaker, but he really makes “The Bay” work. I get the sense he was attracted to the film’s potent ecological message, but he proves very adept at playing to the genre’s strengths, pulling all the different storylines together to create a growing sense of dread.
It’s funny how “The Bay” draws from a recent filmmaking trend and a hot-button environmental issue, and yet still makes a horror film that’s partly an homage to those old ’50s monster movies, right down to the clueless mayor who insists there’s nothing to be worried about. “Jaws” convinced a generation that it wasn’t safe to go in the water; “The Bay” will make you think twice about even drinking it.