In his thirty years as a feature filmmaker, Barry Levinson has never directed a horror film. The closest he’s come was 1998’s Sphere, a Michael Crichton adaptation with some supernatural elements, and that critically reviled effort certainly didn’t indicate any particular adeptness for the form. So when the initial trailers popped up for The Bay, a “found footage” horror effort that appears much closer to the work of producer Orin Peli (Paranormal Activity), there was cause for skepticism; Mr. Levinson’s last few narrative theatrical features (What Just Happened, Man of the Year, Envy) haven’t exactly set the world on fire, and the move to a low-budget genre effort seemed to smack of desperation. The joke’s on me: The Bay is the best movie he’s made in years, a tense and thoroughly disturbing little thriller.
The film opens with a montage of recent (and real) oddball environmental disasters: shores covered in dead fish, dead birds falling out of the sky, etc. “Those stories were covered by the media,” intones the on-screen text, solemnly. “This footage was never made public.” Said footage, we’re told, was mostly shot in the tourist enclave of Claridge, Maryland, on the Fourth of July 2009, when a mysterious virus took over the town and killed most of its inhabitants. Some of the footage was shot by Donna Thompson (Kether Donahue), a local TV news reporter, and one of the few survivors. Now, all of it — hers, other home movies, Skype calls, government conferences, etc. — has been uploaded to a WikiLeaks style website; Donna provides commentary.
So what we’ve got here is not a fake “found footage” movie in the de rigueur Blair Witch or Paranormal Activity style. It is a mock documentary assembled from fake “found footage” materials. That’s a tiny distinction, but an important one — because that additional layer of manipulation allows Levinson to call upon his skills of traditional narrative. Before the events of the Fourth, a pair of oceanographers studying peculiarities in the bay were discovered dead in its waters, and Levinson masterfully uses their video diaries as occasional “flashbacks” to fill in blanks and provide information as it’s being puzzled out over the course of that deadly day. Early on, an attractive young couple with a baby departs, via boat, for the long trip to join her parents in Claridge; their clueless approach is intercut with the carnage that awaits them.
And Donna provides the framework, via a Skype interview and voice-over session in which Levinson slyly acknowledges the staged reality of his construction. He shows her restarting the interview after flubbing the first pass, and later shrugs, “Maybe you should’ve gotten a voice actor to do this or something.” He’s faking this whole thing, sure, but acknowledging the presence of fakery even within our accepted “reality.” And let it be said that the fakery is very, very good: the framings are often imperfect, the white balance is frequently off, the dash-cam videos are too pixillated, there are digital hits, the Skype connections keep breaking up. Those touches of authenticity help soften our knowledge that the central notion is still very hard to swallow — as the film demonstrates, real-time documentation is so pervasive that the kind of suppression the tale hinges on is all but impossible.
But you’ve got to grant a movie its premise, particularly when the film is as taut and effective as this one (its release two days after Halloween is, to say the least, puzzling). There aren’t than many big scares (there’s a few though — there’s enough); it’s more that Levinson casts an overall spell, via the crispness of his editing and the believability of his performers, with a big assist from Marcelo Zarvos’s creepy score. Found footage horror gets a bit of a bad rap these days, its critics pointing to lesser efforts like The Devil Inside and the Paranormal Activity sequels as proof that it’s a refuge for sloppy filmmakers and lazy thrills. But this stuff is harder than it looks, and The Bay is a good, tight, scary movie. I’d have never guessed that Barry Levinson had it in him.
The Bay is out today in limited release; it’s also available on demand.