Judge Daryl Loomis has brackish blood.
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Typically, two types of directors make horror films. There are those who build a career out of scaring fans, never really leaving the genre, and then there are those young filmmakers who cut their teeth in horror, building experience and reputation before moving on to more "reputable" topics. What we almost never see is the already established mainstream director who just goes ahead and makes a horror movie all of a sudden. Rarer still is that director an Oscar winner, so when Barry Levinson (Rain Man) decides that his next project will be a found footage shocker, it makes me sit up and take notice, if only to wonder why.
Facts of the Case
July 4, 2009 was supposed to be a simple day of celebration for the town of Claridge, Maryland, a little town on the Chesapeake Bay. That day, though, will live in the memories of the residents as the day all their lives came crashing down. That was the day that the water, the lifeblood of the town, rebelled against them. Out of nowhere, anybody who comes into contact with the local water breaks out in boils, hives, and much worse. The whole story was swept under the rug until now, three years later, when a young reporter named Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue, Boy Wonder) has finally mustered the courage to tell her horrific tale.
Found footage horror usually forces me to suspend my disbelief much farther than with a traditionally made genre picture. It's not that I somehow believe that vampires or axe-wielding dolls are real; I'm just used to how those movies are made. With found footage business, whatever the premise might be, I'm forced to also accept a reason why some moron is still filming while all his friends fall dead around him. For me to take the bait, that question has to be answered and answered well; otherwise, it will be the only thing on my mind the entire time.
Barry Levinson takes care of that issue right away. By basing the story on a few environmental facts and presenting it in a manner closer to journalism than traditional fiction, he delivers a film of undeniable realism that is unique on the found footage block. The Bay is presented as a documentary about the incident, produced and edited like it would be ready to air on PBS, with no acknowledgement of its fiction. He doesn't try to fool anybody about that, though; there are enough departures from that for anybody to clearly understand that none of this is actually real, no matter how gullible. What he does do, though, is use it to give the film the kind of tension that exists in a good episode of Frontline, rather than what should happen in a good horror movie. It doesn't make The Bay scary, but it does make for a compelling watch.
Originally, Levinson had conceived of making a documentary about the problems in the Chesapeake Bay, but after finding that he was satisfied with the journalism surrounding it and not having an original angle on the subject, decided instead to make a movie that traded on some of the same themes. I don't know how far he went with the facts in the final story, but it is perfectly true that, first, the Chesapeake goes partially dead in the summer and, second, there are plenty of verifiable cases of mass deaths of fish and bird populations that are vaguely explained. He uses these two points as a launching pad, creating a piece of conspiracy fiction that works really well within its world.
To create this type of journalistic feel, he eschewed the usual single perspective technique of this type of film. Instead, he gathered local residents and gave them cheap digital cameras, had people shooting on their Iphones, and utilized the existing security cameras, finally cobbling together all of this footage to make something far more credible than much of what appears on horror screens.
Using all of these different viewpoints, The Bay doesn't have a whole lot of style, but that's in line with the feel of the film. Much of the acting comes from amateurs, and nobody in the film has much experience at all, but it's all fairly natural. The pace is slow and measured, but it's never boring. There are a few effective scares and enough tension to sustain the premise, even without a big scary monster or a lot of gore. It's solid horror that may require a larger attention span to reach its payoff, but it's worth it.
Lionsgate delivers a decent DVD for The Bay. The technical details are extremely limited by the nature of the film, but it fares pretty well. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is free of digital errors, but colors, black levels, and detail aren't particularly strong. When the security camera footage is the best of the lot, you know there's not much to write home about the rest. The sound is similar, with a Dolby 5.1 Surround track that has very little dynamics, but the dialog is generally clear.
The extras are scant, but interesting. An audio commentary with Levinson is very informative, but kind of dry. There is plenty of empty space and he doesn't say nearly as much as other commentators might, but everything he says is pertinent. The only other extra is a ten minute talk with the director, in which he goes over much of the same info as the commentary, but it's still an interesting listen.
Barry Levinson brought a dry, journalistic tone to the found footage horror genre and the results are very solid. The Bay is neither as scary nor as gross as other genre films, but its credibility makes it one of the more effective entries. While it may not get a lot of traction with the gorehounds, it's realism makes for very good horror.
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