I've seen thousands of horror movies. I love the genre, but I can't help feeling a kind of disconnect when they get gory, as I imagine many of you do. I start looking at technical aspects as opposed to just riding it out with the terror and fear of the movie. It's not intentional - it just happens. It comes from seeing horror movies since I was five years old and wanting to know how in the hell the filmmakers did that. Oh, sometimes a particularly gory moment will get past my shields and freak me out, but it's rare.
But horror movies that hint at the gore or disturbing imagery, those get to me. I'm still in shock over certain sequences in THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT, for example, because it's my own mind filling the blanks as opposed to the filmmaker's. That's when found footage really works for me - it's all in the possibility of what you MIGHT see. The anticipation and the build-up are what make a great horror movie, and that ride you take with the filmmaker is my favorite kind of journey as a film fan. Now, Barry Levinson is certainly not the first name you think of when you think of really disturbing horror, but damn if he didn't make a really disturbing horror movie in THE BAY.
THE BAY is an environmental horror movie set in Levinson's beloved Maryland - specifically, Claridge, Maryland, a community that lives and plays off Chesapeake Bay. The movie is made up of footage gathered from news cameras, iPhones, and various other video sources, all collected on July 4th, 2009, as the town enters it's annual Fourth of July celebration. But something is growing in the waters outside Claridge. Something called an Isopod, very real creatures, that due to the contaminants in the water, begin to grow unchecked. As they begin to invade the food and water supply, these Isopods begin to feed on human flesh as well, and what was supposed to be a day of frivolity and happiness turns into one of the worst days in memory. The government has blocked all footage from the public, but THE BAY purports to be that missing footage, released by a Wikileaks-like news organization to make the world aware of the horrors that happened that fateful day in Claridge.
Since this is from the production team that brought us PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, you might be surprised to find that there's more to THE BAY than just scaring audiences. It's got quite a bit to say about environmental dumping and the like, but if you're not interested in the politics of it all, THE BAY still works as just a really effective horror movie. The Isopods are seen just enough - and make their appearances in particularly gruesome ways - and do not overstay their welcome. It also helps that THE BAY is full of characters that the audience feels empathy towards - there are only a few characters that we get to know through the course of the movie, like Donna (Kether Donohue), an intern at the local news channel, or Stephanie (Kristen Connolly), a young mother traveling with her husband by boat to see his parents in Claridge before things start going down. But mostly, we just meet people through their daily lives, until a sudden outbreak of rashes and sickness begin to affect the townsfolk and the hospital becomes overrun.
The ecology of the Isopod is explained in a very detailed manner, so that when the nasty stuff really begins to happen the audience knows why and how. Levinson and writer Michael Wallach take great pains to keep the movie as scientifically accurate as possible (or as accurate as a movie about parasitic water bugs can be). From a personal standpoint, when it comes to gore I can stomach slasher movies or gorefests like HOSTEL or the EVIL DEAD movies. But it's the little things, like needle pricks or small insects, that freak me out, and THE BAY has all of that. One particular jump scare had me rubbing my arms, genuinely disturbed, and that doesn't happen often.
Barry Levinson has obviously never done anything like this before. This is the Oscar-winning director of RAIN MAN, and such classic movies as DINER or THE NATURAL or even YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES, but there's nothing in his roster that suggests anything like THE BAY. That's not to suggest it's equal to those movies in caliber - THE BAY is scary and fun, but it certainly ain't no DINER. But Levinson directs THE BAY with a fierce passion that seems surprising considering its subject matter - Levinson feels very strongly about the environment, and that comes through in the movie, but he also doesn't let that passion override the movie's effectiveness. Like JAWS before it, THE BAY may well be that movie that keeps you out of the water for a while, and also like that movie, you might want to explore the movie's ideas and ecology after you see it. THE BAY didn't have to be as good as it was, but Levinson isn't pulling punches here at all. The last 20 minutes of the movie could be frightening to anyone who lets it in, and I'll admit that THE BAY got me. At times, it got me good.
THE BAY opens in theaters today, but is also available on VOD and iTunes.