About as far away as you can get from movies like Good Morning Vietnam and Rain Man as you can get, Academy Award winning director Barry Levinson's latest film, 2012's The Bay is the latest in a seemingly endless string of 'found footage' horror movies to hit the market. So while the technique behind the movie may not be particularly original at this point in the game, Levinson at least manages to craft an interesting and sometimes genuinely unsettling horror story out of it.
When the movie begins we're on the opposite side of a Skype webchat with a young woman named Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue) and as she talks to the camera we learn that back in 2009 she was working as a fledgling TV news reporter covering what should have been a particularly mundane story - the Independence Day celebrations at a small Maryland town on the coast of Chesapeake Bay. We learn early one that something happened and that the FBI confiscated as much footage as they could, but some of it survived in the hands of the public and she intends to get it out there for everyone to see.
From here, we more or less experience the events of July 4th, 2009, through the camera phones and security cameras and portable video cameras of those who were there, with footage of Donna in front of the camera bridging bits and pieces and tying all of this together into a cohesive narrative. The first of many ominous things to happen occurs at the crab eating contest where, after ingesting massive amounts of shellfish, the participants start vomiting. From there, people start showing up with red rashes on their bodies, they wander around puking blood, and boils start appearing on their necks and torsos. Before you know it, the local hospital is overrun with sick people and the only doctor (Robert C. Treveiler) who hasn't fled the scene has got calls in to FEMA and the CDC. The mayor (Frank Deal) of the town rides shotgun with a cop to try and find out where the rest of the police officers have disappeared to, while a young couple, Stephanie (Kristen Connolly) and Sam (Christopher Denham) dock in the harbor and proceed inland with their newborn baby in tow in search of Stephanie's parents. While all of this is going on we learn the fate of two young divers whose bodies were found on the shore shortly before it all hit the fan, indicating that just maybe there's something going on in the water...
One of the biggest problems with found footage horror movies is that they almost always mess up something in the technical details. Case in point? Paranormal Activity 3 purporting to be shot on a camcorder but shown framed at 1.78.1 and in HD clarity. V/H/S suffered from some of the same gaffs. The Bay, however, gets this part almost entirely right -there are moments where one scene may be shot on a camera phone and then cut to a security camera, which might not be the most realistic way to do it, but it is at least technologically possible. There's a slip or two in this department towards the end but overall Levinson put enough thought into this aspect of the production that we are at least able to suspend our disbelief.
As to the story itself, it jumps around a fair bit and doesn't really go out of its way to offer us much in the way of characterization (there's really no one single person we latch onto here), but it does do a pretty good job of showing us what could happen if a small town like the one in the movie were to fall victim to a heretofore undiscovered parasitic attack of sorts. People would panic, the hospitals would overflow, and the government would do what the government does in situations like these, for better or for worse. As such, there are some quality scares to be found here, particularly if you have an aversion to Cronenberg-esque body horror and creepy, crawly isopodes. The fact that some of these isopodes are rendered in CGI of questionable quality doesn't do the movie any favors, but thankfully this happens infrequently.
The performances are generally okay. Not amazing, but okay. Kether Donohue's character is essentially the anchor in the movie, the one person who ties all of this together into a semi-coherent form. She handles most of the scenes well, though there are one or two where she seems maybe just ever so slightly forced. Overall though, she's pretty solid. The supporting players are also reasonably believable here, and the movie is paced well. If anything, it's a bit too quick, at once you exclude the end credits sequence it's roughly seventy minutes long. With that said, this is an interesting take on the whole environmental horror thing that pops up often in the genre. It isn't a perfect movie but it's clever enough often enough that you just might want to check it out.
Lionsgate presents The Bay in 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen in a transfer that does as good a job as can be expected with the material. As so much of this movie was shot using iPhones and webcams and low end video cameras and all in hand held environments, you don't get the clarity or resolution that you would out of a more traditional shoot. With that said, for what it's going for, the transfer is fine. This is a found footage film that looks like found footage, so expect some macroblocking and compression and expect some jitters and aliasing - it's all there and it's all part of the experience.
The only audio option on the disc is an English language Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound track, though optional subtitles are provided in English SDH and Spanish. The audio follows the same 'rules' as the video here, it's audible enough and the dialogue is generally pretty clean but expect the Skype conversations to have that sort of hollow sound that Skype conversations have and expect the levels to bounce around a bit as they're apt to do in movies shot on a smart phone.
Barry Levinson pops up in a twelve minute interview that serves as sort of the Cliff's Notes version of the commentary that he also provides. Basically, in both supplements, he talks about how he was approached to make a documentary on some of the environmental issues plaguing Chesapeake Bay but noticed that a very good documentary had already been made. At this point he figured, hey, why not turn this into a horror movie - the concept is solid and we can use new technology to give it a 'you are there' sort of feel. He also discusses the effects, working with his cast and crew, shooting on location and the use of technology not just in the film but in the world, really. He notes where things that we see in the movie were inspired by actual events and just generally gives us a really solid look into his process and his motivations for making this movie. Trailers for other Lionsgate properties are included as are menus and chapter selection, but there's no trailer for the feature itself included on the DVD.
The Bay isn't a perfect movie, there are a few times where you're taken out of the experience and a few times where you have to question the characters' judgment, but overall it is a pretty effective horror film with some interesting ideas at work. Performances are generally pretty strong, the effects work, outside of a couple of obvious CGI shots, is solid and the pacing is quick and tight. Lionsgate's DVD looks and sounds just as it probably should given the context of the picture, and the interview and commentary with Levinson are both worthwhile .Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.