Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Cinema File #178: "The Bay" Review

Recently I reviewed a found footage movie called The Frankenstein Theory, which I noted was arguably the best traditional long form example of this much maligned genre I've seen so far. That statement is of course qualified by the fact that the vast majority of found footage movies are ball shrivelingly boring, and by the terms traditional and long form, to separate it from another found footage film I enjoyed more, the experimental anthology VHS. I was going to suggest that the movie I just watched, Barry Levinson's The Bay, might have already surpassed The Frankenstein Theory on this admittedly low standard, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if it even qualifies as a found footage movie at all, or if it would be more accurately described as a mockumentary. I don't know what it is, but I enjoyed the hell out of it nonetheless.

The Bay is the story of a small town off the coast of the Chesapeake Bay that is suddenly invaded by a mutated parasite created by local industrial runoff seeping into the area's water supply. The reason I question where this movie falls on the line between found footage and mockumentary is because while the pace and tone of the film is very much in keeping with found footage movies, the structure is clearly meant to convey a documentary feel, narrated by a survivor of a supposedly real incident and solving the problem in so many of these movies of who exactly edits together all this found footage. At the same time, every mockumentary I can think of is a comedy a la the improv films of Christopher Guest, so its just strange to me to even conceive of a mockumentary horror film at all.

Whatever you call it, The Bay is a solid example of environmental horror highlighting one of the few believable threats left in the context of nature run amok stories. The movie is basically an adaptation of those Cracked articles that appear from time to time talking about the top five real life parasites you won't believe are eating you from the inside out right now! The tension established by the film works precisely because most people with an Internet connection have seen something like the creatures on display in weird but true tales of foreign encounters with rare lifeforms, and the only jump is that these things could attack domestically and in large numbers, which we all secretly believe is possible in our most paranoid moments anyway. 

The film establishes a sense of foreboding dread from the very beginning as it balances images of peaceful small town life with the retrospective threats of tragedy and carnage to come. When the outbreak finally hits, the ramifications of this plague are instant, intense, and chilling, never losing its sense of realism even as things spiral out of control in ever more conveniently absurd ways. The turmoil of the townspeople and the stalwart efforts of a local doctor and a duo of scientists trying to unravel the mystery of the parasites is played off against the stymieing force of government incompetence clearly evoking the uncaring example of FEMA's reaction to Hurricane Katrina. The partisan in me who has seen so many ensuing disasters handled deftly thanks to a president smart enough to actually staff the agency properly chafed a bit at the dated representation, but as a common horror trope I must admit it works very well.

Overall, The Bay is a kind of horror movie you don't see all too often anymore, grounded in a reality familiar enough that it can maintain a level of tension no matter how outlandish it gets. If I had to cite one major complaint, I would say the environmentalist message is a bit heavy handed, but then I don't really see how it couldn't have been under the circumstances, as the documentary format requires that the footage be assembled with an agenda, and seeing that argument made only lends an added level of authenticity to the presentation. By the end, an image of something as typically innocuous as someone drinking from a tap is frightening, as the drinking water has become the enemy. Whether this is a found footage movie or a mockumentary, or something in between, its the easiest I've been able to become invested in a film of either genre, and the fairly simple premise is effective and pays off in a way so many other movies of both genres rarely do.

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