Nov 4, 2012

The Bay

Or nature's payback time. It is unfortunate that this environmental horror flick by Barry Levinson opened on the same week that Sandy ravaged the East Coast. There were exactly six people at the screening I saw (too soon?) but this movie deserves a much wider audience. It is in the vein of all those supposedly found footage screamers like the Paranormal Activity series, (same producers), but the difference is that there is a good director at the helm. You can see Barry Levinson's nimble hand in the great direction of actors and in the realistic delivery of dialogue, which is one of his trademarks. Usually these movies have wooden B-listers who can't act their way out of a paper bag. Nobody in The Bay is well known, but they are all solid character actors, and it makes a difference.
Now, I am past the point of exhaustion with the DIY camera horror flick genre, a la Blair Witch Project. Remember when one could be scared shitless without a cheapie iPhone or video camera shaking all over the place? Still, Barry Levinson uses every small camera known to man with panache, he has a sly sense of humor, and the movie, if not particularly suspenseful, is really icky. The gross out parts are fabulously gross. The Bay is an environmental horror movie, where people get horrible boils and something eats them from inside. It's enough to make everyone become an advocate for the Green Party.
How scary is it when the water you drink, bathe in and cook in is polluted with mutated organisms (courtesy of industrial agriculture, and literally, chicken shit) that eat you from the outside in? The Bay is a combination disaster and flesh eating bacteria movie. The plot (screenplay by Michael Wallach) is rather flimsy, and more could have been made about evil corporate interests in cahoots with politicians that suppress information about pollution. Although it has a couple of jumps, it delivers more atmosphere and heebie jeebies than suspense. It's the way the story is framed that blunts the panic. It is narrated by a survivor, to whom nothing really happens, which dulls the sense of urgency; the worst already happened. Even though the use of consumer cameras adds realism, it takes away scariness, because the camera never lingers long enough on anything or anyone to create a sense of menace. Too much jumping around. The equipment that records the mayhem adds an extra screen, and thus, distance, which in my view, makes it less scary. One misses the ominous gliding camera work of Kubrick or Polanski. The kind of point of view of being immersed in the action that makes your hair stand on end is sadly not present in this movie, although Levinson stages certain events off camera that are all the more disturbing for being out of sight.
The Bay is smart, as these movies go, but it could be smarter. Even though it takes place in a very small town in Maryland, it doesn't use the mass hysteria that could quickly be unleashed by twitter and the internet. The CDC and FEMA are portrayed as cumbersome, slow bureaucrats, while it would be more exciting if everybody actually freaked out and contributed to exacerbate the problem. The small community is cut off from the mainland, but we don't see how or by who. I imagine that a lot of this is due to a small budget (the reason why these films are so profitable and why they use mini cameras). Still, Levinson gets a lot of mileage out of his "found" footage. Particularly gleeful and effective are shot after shot of people splashing around, jumping in the water, swimming in the pool, (very reminiscent of the opening of Jaws), completely unaware of the poison that lurks beneath the surface. It's very American, to celebrate the 4th of July (as in Jaws) without a care in the world, oblivious to the fact that the damage we do to the Earth, even in this little All American town, is going to come back, according to this movie, to bite our tongues off.

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