*. Another found-footage horror film. Yes, but with a few new wrinkles.
*. In the first place, it’s directed by Barry Levinson. Not a name you’d normally associate with low-budget, gonzo, indie horror. He confesses on the DVD commentary that he was working far outside the sort of filmmaking parameters he was familiar with. How he got here is instructive though.
*. He started out wanting to make a documentary on pollution in Chesapeake Bay but decided a dramatic film would have a more visceral impact. This is probably right, but it also explains why The Bay is less visceral and more documentary-like than the usual found-footage offerings.
*. That documentary feel is the second difference I’d mention. You don’t get the sense that The Bay is trying very hard to scare you. I think there were only a few jump scares, which shaky-cam movies are usually full of. Instead, it feels almost informational in places.
*. A final slight difference is that The Bay presents itself as being cobbled together from various different sources. This is unlike movies like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity, Rec, or Cloverfield, where there may be at most a couple of cameras. Instead, this is more like what Levinson calls “an archaeological dig” through different forms of communication and eight or nine different stories.
*. These are all interesting variations on the found-footage theme, but while they make The Bay different I don’t think they make it better. Take the point about the fragmentation of the story into separate storylines. This can be effective, but the problem with it here is that the movie lacks a center we care about. Since she’s providing the narration years later we know Donna (Kether Donohue) survives so we’re not worried about her. Aside from her, we’re also told that the heroic doctor won’t make it. There’s a teenage girl using her cell phone that is somewhat sympathetic but we don’t see as much of her. And finally there’s a yuppie couple it’s hard to care much about. He’s a dentist. She’s a high-powered lawyer. Meh. Kill them both and throw their bodies in the bay.
*. Then there is the documentary approach. Again, this might have been effective. The nasty little critters here, called isopods, are real. And when we see actual footage of them they are creepy. There’s something unnerving about things so small getting inside you. When we see the larger, CGI versions, however, they aren’t as scary. In fact, the CGI isn’t very well done at all, and the gore effects are also below average. The outbreaks of bloody boils don’t impress.
*. Another way the realism seems to work against things is in the anticlimactic ending. On the one hand it’s a nice twist that the mayor is disposed of almost as an afterthought. Originally he was shown dying from an isopod infection but Levinson decided that was too obvious. True, but on the other hand, the whole film sort of leaves us hanging. What happened to the woman and her child? And are we really supposed to believe that the FBI managed to cover up a story this big so completely?
*. Then, just to bring things full circle, there’s Levinson. I appreciate that he was genuinely interested in this as a new form of storytelling, and that he was up to the challenge. It’s also clear that he thought the movie had a serious message. But I just don’t think he has a feel for horror. Roger Ebert thought he seemed “more interested in spreading a green message than terrifying viewers” but I don’t think that’s quite fair. I think he probably did want to terrify viewers but he just wasn’t sure how to do it.
*. Maybe they needed a fresher story. Eco-horror is another genre with a long history and there’s little new to it here. The slimy mayor who doesn’t want to upset holiday-goers with a scare story about what’s in the water is also old. We’ve seen him or someone like him in Jaws, Piranha, and even a relatively obscure film called The Curse that The Bay reminded me of quite a bit.
*. So, on the plus side The Bay is something a bit different. But it doesn’t leverage these differences in any ways that make it a better horror movie. I liked it well enough as a low-budget creepshow, but it didn’t fulfil all of its potential.