Close to home, a realistic thriller
By Sean O’Connell
Friday, November 2, 2012
Hollywood’s haunted season lingers with us, clogging multiplexes with options for horror-movie mavens seeking a post-Halloween scare. Here’s my suggestion: Skip “Sinister” and “Silent Hill: Revelation,” pass on the “Paranormal Activity” sequel, and dive into Barry Levinson’s “The Bay,” a ripped-from-the-headlines psychological chiller that burrows under the skin with its terrifyingly local twist.
Long ago, Levinson established his career exploring the personal journeys of blue-collar Baltimore denizens in such films as “Diner,” “Avalon” and “Liberty Heights.” He returns to the Old Line State to weave a realistic and profoundly disturbing creature feature set in Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Told through technology-assisted flashbacks, “The Bay” revisits the site of a 2009 ecological outbreak that rapidly decimated the bucolic (and fictional) bayside town of Claridge over the Fourth of July.
Levinson approaches the mysterious attack from the perspective of Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue), a fledgling journalism student at American University who survived the devastation and now feels compelled to tell her story to an off-camera investigator. As she recalls the horrors during an interview via an online chat, Levinson cleverly compiles informative clips from recently declassified materials: An oceanographer’s research video; townsfolk’s home movies; hospital security cameras; Skype conference calls; and the shaky footage captured by this rookie television reporter.
Just as I was prepared to bury the found-footage horror genre, “The Bay” successfully resurrects the overused storytelling method and proves it can be put to extremely effective use when placed in the right hands. Levinson may rely on recycled footage to push audiences into his story, but he and first-time screenwriter Michael Wallach cook up such a riveting eco-horror barnburner that it’s easy to ignore the gimmick and simply hold on to our seats once “The Bay” kicks into high gear.
The found-footage approach also lends Levinson’s film a welcome touch of realism that grounds the credible dangers. Residents of “The Bay” aren’t running from a rampaging, radioactive monster or dodging a disgruntled spirit with a centuries-old ax to grind. The threat posed by “The Bay” exists in the waters of the Chesapeake and was created by man (if you buy into the conspiracy theories vibrating beneath the film’s surface), making Levinson’s slow-burning thriller an intimate, suburban-focused companion piece to Steven Soderbergh’s globetrotting pandemic thriller, “Contagion.”
As opposed to Soderbergh’s sprawling lecture, Levinson squeezes big-time scares out of his small-town surroundings. His actors play convincing amateurs, mugging for personal cameras, unaware of the horrors yet to come. Simple makeup techniques create believable boils, rashes and lesions on victims’ bodies, baffling the local medical community and ratcheting up our fears.
The Chesapeake acts as Levinson’s homegrown Ground Zero for an ecological nightmare, but “The Bay” argues that this type of threat could happen anywhere.
Does “The Bay” actually make us think this might happen? Almost as much as “Jaws” had audiences believing a great white shark might sink his teeth into their legs as they swam in shallow waters. Like Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece, “The Bay” dabbles in exaggerated terrors that are grounded in shades of realism. And like “Jaws,” it will scare you out of the water for the immediate future.
Contains disturbing, violent content, bloody images and language.