NOVEMBER 2, 2012
I'm sure I've mentioned it before, but it bears repeating since I like to embarrass myself: I am afraid of fish. Not like, goldfish or whatever else a kid might buy for his little tank, but anything one might catch with a rod freaks me out (plus turtles - I saw West Of Memphis today and there's a scene with a giant snapper turtle that terrified me more than any horror movie has in the last 3-4 years). Basically anything that might be in that water that I can't see scares the shit out of me, so the fact that The Bay is about a parasite that lives in the water made it right up my alley. It's rare, but this is a horror movie that actually scared me!
And that's even more impressive when you consider it's a found footage film, as I've pretty much had my fill of these things for a while, and find myself increasingly annoyed, not by the inherent limitations of the genre, but by filmmakers who don't even TRY to get around them. Leave it to Barry Levinson (!) to come up with a new-ish idea: making it an ensemble of sorts, with multiple cameras (and formats) providing footage that is pieced together later. Sure, we've had movies like Chronicle (with its silly "I'll use everyone's camera to film the climax" idea), and [Rec]2 had a similar notion of another perspective on the same events, but nothing to this extent: the framing device is a Skype session of a girl who survived the events, narrating the footage that was put together by a Julian Assange type a few years after a horrific event in a seaside Maryland town.
According to our narrator (the lovely Kether Donohue), the government snatched up every camera, cell phone, and whatever other recording device they could find in the town after this parasite wiped out just about everyone that lived there, and thus the movie is assembled from all that stuff. We see video footage from the town parade, local news footage, kids playing with their cell phones and inadvertently capturing something scary, teens on their video blogs, surveillance footage from traffic and ATM cameras, the mount from a police car... if it's capable of shooting video, it's probably shown here. Thus, the movie has an energy that is relatively foreign to found footage movies, as there's little need to spend time on the "boring" parts. Since it's actually "found" footage of an event that happened three years prior, Donohue is able to quickly sum up who she is and what she was doing there and get to the point, not unlike Angela in [Rec]. And we don't follow her the entire time; she appears more than most but I'd say only about 1/3 of the movie (including her framing scenes) focus on her. There are a TON of characters in this, some only seen for a single sequence (like the teenagers who go out to a dock for a makeout session only to be eaten by the rampaging parasites), which allows Levinson to get around the most common found footage problem: the "Why are they still filming" question. Donohue and her cameraman keep going because they're reporters and want to find out what's going on, but just about everyone else seemingly turns their camera on moments before they are killed, or are filming specifically to show a loved one what is happening to them.
In fact there's only one point during the entire movie that I questioned why the person behind the camera was actually filming things. After Donohue, the closest thing to a main character is Stephanie, played by Cabin in the Woods' Kristen Connolly (ordinarily I hate recognizing someone in a FF film, but I'm not about to complain about her being in this or any other movie). She is a young mother on a vacation with her husband and infant child, taking a boat to visit her parents who live in the town. So we see a lot of them making a home movie of their boat trip, and then they keep filming things after they get to the town and notice that everyone is missing/dead. Some of it's fine, but at one point the husband puts the camera down in order to film him and Stephanie talking to a friend over Skype - little hokey. It's inside of a store, so Levinson could have just shown what happened over a security camera or something, but still, if there's only one or two moments in a 90 minute found footage film that I'm questioning the interior logic, that's a huge accomplishment.
(The EXTERIOR logic is another thing - I didn't think much of it at the time, but later I wondered: why did the government digitize all of this footage for a hacker to find? Shouldn't it all have been destroyed?)
Plus it's just a good story, another thing lacking in many of these movies. Government coverups, killer fish, a town wiped out... it's all very intriguing, almost more of a good mystery than a horror movie. Donohue's narration is sort of like Stephen King's in a way, where she's constantly telling us who died long before they actually do, but it doesn't deflate any suspense like you might expect. When she tells us that the mayor dies, it's actually a PLUS - since he's a spineless dick, you can enjoy the anticipation of seeing him getting a comeuppance you know he will receive. Likewise, we know that a pair of oceanographers are killed after discovering something, but since the movie jumps around chronologically (and perspective-ly), any time we cut to them making a dive or inspecting something they found, there's great tension to it, as they could die long before the movie's conclusion.
The mystery elements are enjoyable as well; there's a Contagion-esque feel to the proceedings as the CDC and a local hospital race to figure out what's going on before more people get infected and die, and we get a new piece of the puzzle every 15 minutes or so. And since what is in between makes up the bulk of the scares, it makes for a very effective pace - learn something, get scared, learn something, get scared. Levinson doesn't shy away from the gore when applicable, and the FX (courtesy of the Strause Brothers) are incredible - the little bugs crawling around are legit terrifying. The movie offers three terrific jump scares, including one that REALLY got to me as it involves a giant fish and a guy putting his finger inside its mouth - luckily I never saw the trailer for this movie beforehand, since it spoils it (don't watch if you haven't seen it yet!). The infected also take on a bit of a zombie-ish demeanor, so even though it's not a very big element, Levinson is able to milk scares out of the film even when no one is near the water.
Other than the somewhat abrupt ending, the only thing that bugged me was that Donohue occasionally made attempts at levity, which didn't seem appropriate considering she was telling the story of a government conspiracy to hide the truth of how hundreds of people lost their lives. She cringes at her bad outfit for the news scenes and makes other little comments, and while I get the human need to use humor as a shield, they seemed shoehorned in, and distracted me every time. It's not a prevalent issue; I'd say there were only 4-5 in all, but if Levinson and writer Michael Wallach (in his first produced credit) wanted to sprinkle some humor in, the 2009 footage would have been the place, courtesy of characters who were just trying to film their gorgeous summer day, unaware of what was about to happen. In 2012, Donohue should have been too shell-shocked and paranoid to be cracking wise.
Otherwise, it's one of the best found footage movies I've seen in quite a while. The fact that it's not about a fucking ghost automatically puts it above most, but even if it was, the creative approach and careful mix of information and scares kept it from being dull; never once did I feel restless or want to shout "JUST GET TO THE SCARY BITS!" at the screen. I'm pretty sure Levinson is the only Best Director winner to ever helm a found footage horror flick - if this is an indication of how it will turn out, hopefully he won't be the last.
What say you?