Barry Levinson’s work generally has a touch of Americana in some way or another. Even if it isn’t as overt in THE NATURAL or critical as in WAG THE DOG it is generally there somewhere. In his eco-horror THE BAY it is overt and very critical. It’s the Fourth of July and Claridge, Maryland is hosting its big bayside celebration but as the day progresses and night falls there is little left to celebrate as the dead line the streets.
This resort town on Chesapeake Bay has lived the American dream and it seems that will be what kills it as well. Greed has led the mayor to cut corners and grant favors that are detrimental to the life of his town. A few weeks prior to the celebration something disturbing came to light with the deaths of two oceanographers. Local medical examiners ruled the deaths as shark attacks but conceded there were inconsistencies. Before the bay chewed them up and spit them out, they had determined that the body of water was 40% dead and that the cause is the toxic runoff from fertilizer and chicken waste. There was also a spill at a nuclear power plant a few years before but the government didn’t think it would have to deal with it for another few years. That’s quite a slurry of toxic goodness that has a great potential to kickstart some evolution should it encounter anything living for long enough. Add on a chicken farm that breaks many environmental laws and dumps chicken crap packed with steroids into the water and it acts as a catalyst to susceptible lifeforms.
The horror unfolds slowly at first. A middle aged woman walks down the boardwalk covered in blood
and boils begging for help. No one helps her or calls for help they only watch and film her as she stumbles off crying. A crab eating contest goes south as all of the contestants begin vomiting and becoming violently ill. As victims begin to arrive at the local hospital, Dr. Jack Abrams quickly realizes there is an epidemic of some kind and gets in touch with the CDC who prove to be at a loss and despite their best efforts end up placing the town under quarantine as they scramble to find a solution. As it turns out there were concerns over the water quality for some time and the mayor refuted them and buried any reports to the contrary. Like many others he does not make it through the night of July 4th.
THE BAY is one of the best found footage films ever produced. Now that doesn’t sound like a feat but think about how hard it is to make found footage work. How many good ones are there? THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, THE LAST BROADCAST, maybe even GRAVE ENCOUNTERS but that’s about it. This is easily my number two favorite of the genre, possibly even number one. As an ecological horror flick it had my skin crawling. It moves at a breakneck pace. Once the first victim appears on screen, things in Claridge spiral out of control. Levinson skillfully eases horror and builds even more tension by having footage from earlier in the day or footage of the oceanographers study scattered through out the film. The presentation also enhances the found footage aspect while making it much more palatable. A cub reporter was on the scene when the outbreak began but all evidence was buried. She has culled together all of this footage from the events and provides narration to fill in the gaps as she makes it all available on an internet leak site.
Instead of casting a big name, Barry Levinson went with an ensemble cast of veteran character actors and each did quite well for the fairly small amount of screen time afforded them. Due to the nature of the narrative the film plays out as vignettes. Each possessing its own characters and horror. Many characters do not meet the brave Dr. Abrams who treated 350 people before he died that night. The story of the deputies is absolutely horrifying. When they enter a house after an emergency call the viewers are stuck in the cruiser hearing the horror unfold over the radio. This is as effective as the opening sequence to SCREAMS OF A WINTER NIGHT which is simply audio over a black screen.
THE BAY is something truly something to behold. An interesting choice for sure from the man who directed RAIN MAN. I would like to see him try his hand at more horror for sure if this is a sample of what he can do. Don’t worry about the eco-horror label because THE BAY is an eco-horror flick with teeth. It has enough of the red stuff to satisfy all but the most diehard of gore hounds.