I’ve written a lot about found footage horror movies over the years, but one element of the popular subgenre that I tend to gloss over is the fact that, basically, it’s a young director’s game. The by definition low budget aesthetic of the found footage concept, combined with the genre’s tendency to emphasize the youth culture’s obsession with public documentation of their personal experience, tends to lend itself to filmmakers who haven’t quite “made it” yet, and are looking to raise their visibility by capitalizing on a gimmick and expressing cynicism of their generation’s cultural values on a reasonable budget. Very few experienced directors seem interested in playing this particular game. Enter… Barry Levinson?
Though perhaps best known as the director of Rain Man and Diner, Levinson has never been one to shy away from genre entertainment, whipping out films like Disclosure, Young Sherlock Holmes and Sphere betwixt more well regarded films like Avalon and Wag the Dog, albeit with mixed success. His latest genre experiment, The Bay, isn’t just his first found footage movie; by all rights it’s also his first horror movie, and he’s definitely got the chops to pull it off, experimenting with the form with an impressive hit-to-miss ratio.
The Bay takes place in a small coastal town on the Chesapeake Bay, where most of the town’s population mysteriously died over the course of 24 hours in 2009. In the midst of a local festival, members of the populace begin to form strange, painful lesions, leading to stomach pain and ultimately violent, ulcerating deaths. The exact nature of the horror is eventually revealed in excruciating detail – sometimes excruciatingly explicit, sometimes excruciatingly longwinded – and has rather a lot to do with the pollution of the town’s water supply, and a small town conspiracy to cover that whole thing up.
Although the storyline sometimes succumbs to moralizing, the human drama of the outbreak is strongly realized, thanks to an interesting conceit. Instead of telling a found footage story through the eyes of just one group of people, the footage “found” to produce The Bay is taken from cameras collected from throughout the town, assembling the entire story from bits and pieces of the greater whole. Some segments, like the town doctor’s frantic and frustrated interactions with the CDC, directly move the plot forward. Others, like a small girl video chatting with her friend over the phone, oblivious to the seriousness of her ailment, are there to generate discomfort, and generate discomfort they very much do.
While the overall pastiche of Levinson’s experiment creates a striking atmosphere of all-encompassing dread, he’s generally undone by his narrator Kether Donohue, who was on the scene as a local reporter and now attempts to reveal the full story years after the fact. She’s a capable actress, but her storyline in the flashbacks goes nowhere and her hindsight is 20/20 narration rarely illuminates the events appearing on screen. She introduces characters and reminds us that they have no idea what they’re about to experience, and that’s something we could have easily figured out on our own. She clarifies and overclarifies the events on screen to the point of near annoyance. The function of her character, to be slightly ahead of the audience and occasionally emphasize key exposition, is overplayed, and she’s of so little consequence to the story itself that one wonders why they bothered with her at all, when a few ominous title cards could have done the deed on their own, and had about as much character in the process.
But there will be folks in the audience who need the helping hand, and the narration never entirely mutes The Bay’s impressively morbid narrative for those who can follow along on their own. It’s a striking experiment, never entirely successful enough to achieve iconic status, but years from now when we look back on the found footage boom I suspect The Bay will be remembered as one of the more striking and interesting examples of the subgenre, and Levinson will be given credit for beating most of these young upstarts at their own game.