There are a number of interesting… or at the very least unusual conceits regarding Barry Levinson’s The Bay, released last week to VOD. It wants to be a horror movie, a cautionary tale, a pseudo-documentary, and a science lesson. It succeeds, to various extents, in all of those things, which seems like a positive thing. The problem is that those little successes a) don’t all combine into a single, effective narrative and b) don’t always outweigh the film’s failures.
The film takes place in 2009 in the Chesapeake Bay town of Claridge, MD, and consists of predominately “found footage” about a mysterious disaster that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of townspeople over their fourth of July weekend. Narrated by amateur local reporter Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue), the film is assembled through various bits of home-shot footage, newscasts, and Thompson’s own reporting, with her voiceover covering it all. The film is meant to appear to be a documentary about the events, with Donna as its main source.
Things start off innocently enough, though it’s well shot to give it that documentary feel. Numerous bits of footage of ominous waters and freeze-framed shots of the seemingly-innocuous mayor are interspersed with the type of generic Americana present in the kind of seaside town that runs a Ms. Crustacean contest. Things start to go to hell in a hurry, however, as townspeople start developing massive, festering boils all over their bodies, begin vomiting blood, and screaming for help across the placid little blurb.
What follows is a kind of investigative documentary about just what happened and what caused the symptoms. It appears that the victims are afflicted with some sort of flesh-eating sickness that also is perhaps driving them quite made as an added bonus. Thompson and her intrepid camera man wander through the increasingly despairing township, and at the same time the local hospital is flooded with cases and a hapless doctor tries to work with the CDC via videoconference to figure out what’s going on.
All of this adds up to a relatively intense, suspenseful, and at times supremely disturbing collection of scenes as we traverse through Claridge’s hellish day and night. The problem is this: after a fairly gripping setup and a demonstrated spectacular ability to make you squirm, the film promptly loses steam. Oh, there’s still plenty to be grossed out about, as corpses burst and rupture, faces are found with gaping holes in the middle of them, and there’s enough bloody vomitus to fill a swimming pool. But the agonizingly slow investigation that eventually leads to supposedly sinister goings-on with the town’s water supply never really captivate.
Furthermore, there’s the issue with the ultimate source of the problem, and I’m not really spoiling this since you should have figured it out from the posters and trailer: it’s bugs. Yes, I said bugs. A mutated version of the admittedly creepy isopod Cymothoa exigua. And while there are certainly reasons why this should be creepy, in The Bay, Levinson is too busy building an environmental morality tale to effectively mine the horror aspects of it. As a result, the answer is bugs. They’re burrowing into our bodies and we’re dying as a result, albeit horribly. Yet there’s no real sense of menace or villainy outside of a couple of squicky moments of shuddering grossness.
Similarly, the cause of said mutation isn’t enough to really ratchet up the anger enough to make it a worthwhile documentary, however fictitious it may be. Sure, there are allusions to government corruption and a mayor who is straight out of a Jaws ripoff, but there are such a variety of unproven, theoretical possibilities that the blame doesn’t rest on any one party.
So what you’re left with is a faux documentary that doesn’t really do much to educate or investigate, a horror movie without a real antagonist, a thriller that isn’t particularly thrilling. And that’s basically all there is, because the characters certainly aren’t going to carry the film — each of them only has about 10 minutes of screen time, and there’s little to no development or sense of personable appeal to any of them. Donohue’s plucky young reporter is appealing enough, I suppose (and oddly the film spends a surprising and somewhat disheartening amount of time on her tightly-pantsed backside), but even she is little more than a casual observer. There are a few other plot threads — a couple of oceanographers examining the water, an investigative eco-blogger, a couple of patrol policeman — whose experiences are used to flesh out the tale and provide additional exposition. But you never get to really care about any of them, and as a result they really are just clumsy\, obvious exposition dumps that all meet various grisly demises.
The Bay is gross and disturbing, there’s no question of that. It’s beyond gory, but it’s also got no heart. It was marketed as a gripping, tense horror-thriller, and part of the hype was that many thought it was going to be either a Crazies-style tale of man-on-man carnage or an alien creepy-crawly. Instead, we’ve got bugs. And acting best described as average, and clumsy, ineffectual moralizing, and predictability, and wannabe-scary bugs that a-skitter out of people’s orifices. Yet it all combines into a flat-feeling story that fails to live up to its opening salvo of thrilling, disturbing moments, and as such, I can’t really recommend it.
Unless you’re into the whole copiously vomiting blood thing. Then you’re in for a treat.