In “The Bay” Hollywood veteran Barry Levinson borrows the techniques of low-budget indie filmmakers to make a found-footage horror movie. So far, so good but he is unable to resist certain Hollywood touches that work against those techniques.
The most prominent is the intrusion of a pounding music score that serves to undermine the whole idea of hyper-realism caught on a variety of photographic platforms from cell phones and surveillance cameras to Skype.
Then there is a Hollywood overkill that turns “The Bay” into a near zombie movie.
The idea from Levinson and writer Michael Wallach is perfectly solid — despite the fact the found footage movie is already getting tired — and the execution quite good. Plus, unlike alien space invaders, the horror here is all too real.
After turning down a chance to make a doc about toxic pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, Levinson decided instead to make a fictional film on the subject that feels like a doc.
On a bright 4th of July in 2009, in the picturesque seaside town of Claridge, Maryland, tragedy strikes hundreds of its citizens. Strangely, word of this event never gets beyond the rumor stage in the mainstream media.
Then a young woman (Kether Donohue), who happened to be interning that day for a local TV station, comes forward not only with her own footage of the terrible events but radio podcasts, 911 calls and footage from surveillance cameras and police cars that have been leaked to her.
These she posts on a WikiLeaks-like web site. And there’s your movie — an hour-by-hour recounting of the galloping horror that sweeps over the town including a government cover-up underway by nightfall.
The horror stems from actual facts: Approximately 40% of Chesapeake Bay consists of “marine dead zones” where fish cannot survive. The cause is unknown but undoubtedly pollution contributes to this. There is also a flesh-eating bacteria residing in the Bay.
Meanwhile a parasite called a “tongue-eating isopod,” once confined to the Gulf of California, is spreading into oceans around the world.
The movie imagines an ecological disaster precipitated by two things: the dumping of tons of chicken shit full of steroids from a processing plant in Claridge and a cover-up several weeks earlier of an oceanographers report by the town’s mayor (Frank Deal) and other officials warning of impending disaster.
Blending together the “found” footage, Levinson nicely builds the tension since the young woman clearly knows the value of withholding information to increase dramatic impact.
At first a local hospital and its increasingly rattled doctor (Stephen Kunken) are overwhelmed by sickened patients with rashes and blisters. A bacterial outbreak is suspected and the CDC called.
Then more frightened symptoms develop and violence flairs. The intern frequently cuts back to a video diary kept by the two oceanographers (who were later found dead) to fill viewers in on the marine biology behind this disaster.
Then Levinson allows his makeup artists to go so overboard that the town’s citizens start looking like extras in a zombie movie.
Along with the screeching music and an unaware couple with a tiny infant blithely boating into the harbor and then walking into a town littered with bodies yet somehow not reacting properly only pumps up the laughter.
Then there’s the coverup. If the terror were not so widespread, “The Bay” would have made a nifty cautionary horror tale. But the notion that any government can cover up 700 deaths is unrealistic.
Nor is the motive to do so clear. The owners of that chicken processing plant couldn’t have that much influence.
So “The Bay” is a mixed bag. Some of it is quite entertaining and thought-provoking. Other parts are plain silly and over the top.
The actors, none well known, do extremely well, acting quite naturally under increasingly bizarre circumstances. The flusters of the would-be reporter and reactions by various people from the docks and city streets to the parks and hospital feel genuinely of the moment.
Cinematographer Josh Nussbaum, using no less than 20 camera types, most of them for consumers, creates very realistic found footage. I caught only a few shots where it was hard to determine a plausible source.
Finally, the South Carolina locations offer wonderful beauty and a quaint town to contrast with the unrelenting horror that unfolds.
Opens: November 2, 2012 in theater and VOD (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions)
Production companies: Lionsgate and Alliance Films in association with IM Global, Hydraulx Entertainment and Automatik present a Baltimore Pictures/Haunted Movie production
Cast: Kether Donohue, Will Rogers, Kristen Connolly, Frank Deal, Stephen Kunken, Christopher Denham, Nansi Aluka
Director: Barry Levinson
Screenwriter: Michael Wallach
Story by: Barry Levinson, Michael Wallach
Producers: Barry Levinson, Jason Blum, Steven Schneider, Oren Peli
Executive producers: Brian Kavanaugh-Jones, Jason Sosnoff, Colin Strause, Greg Strause
Director of photography: Josh Nussbaum
Production designer: Lee Bonner
Music: Marcelo Zarvos
Costume designer: Emmie Holmes
Editor: Aaron Yanes
R rating, 85 minutes