When a press release tells you that Barry Levinson is making a horror picture, you listen. It’s not everyday that an Academy Award winning director broaches that back-closet genre we all love, horror. On top of that, Levinson’s career is as much quixotic as impressive. This is the man who brought us “Good Morning Vietnam”, “Rain Man”, “Bugsy”, and…ummm…”Toys”. All of these reasons, as well as the fact the film barely saw theaters and sprinted directly to VOD, make The Bay, the latest by Levinson, an intriguing and apprehension inducing piece of cinematic curiosity.
The Bay bases itself on found footage in the strictest definition of that phrase. Compiled of seized personal footage, along with news and security footage, The Bay follows the sequence of events that leads to a particularly bad day in a small Maryland town during its Fourth of July celebration. This bad day is partly captured, and later narrated by an up and coming journalist named Donna Thompson(Kether Donohue). Her character is not so much our protagonist as the traditional omniscient narrator. Set up as a documentary, Thompson narrates the events with a sense of clinical fact espousal and surgically detailed narrative connections that are rarely found in horror films. In all truth, it isn’t completely clear if The Bay is a horror film at all. It veers into pseudo-expose documentary territory so often that it begins to feel more like “An Inconvenient Truth” than “Jaws”.
The character of Donna Thompson, however, is the closest thing Levinson allows us in the way of a proper protagonist. Though another contender rises towards the end of the film, Thompson is who we are to feel sympathy towards, the one the audience spends the most time with. That fact is an indication of the trap The Bay falls into. It is an example of that strange cinematic creature whose biggest strength is also it’s greatest weakness. In this case, that strength/weakness is The Bay’s realism.
On the biggest strength side, The Bay feels shockingly real. As outlandish, and horrific the film’s events rise to, it never feels outside the realm of conceivable thought. Through Levinson’s stylistic choice of found footage, everything in The Bay looks hyperreal. With the exception of some stoic acting performances, every ounce of this film looks like footage we have all seen before. From the nightly news to investigative news shows like Dateline, we have been exposed to security footage, police car cameras, etc. By using these techniques to capture the events of The Bay, Levinson perhaps uses the found footage container more successfully than any other film to this point. A real sense of unease and nervousness is felt while watching this film. We know it won’t end well, and the film never tries to fool the audience that it will. This leads to apprehension comparable to watching a hostage situation on the nightly news. While this may not elicit true fear, it does result in an unease and worry that makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience.
On the greatest weakness side, though, that unease and worry never leads to a real connection to the story. Through it’s devotion to the documentary and found footage style, The Bay feels so real that no character really emerges for the audience to cling to. It moves from a narrative that a viewer could immerse themselves, straight into pseudo-investigative journalism. While this brand of story telling works for journalism, it is less than engaging for a fictional narrative. Distanced story telling works when we know that story is real, effecting real human beings. It does not work, however, when we know it is fiction, no real stakes for the audience to cling to. This leads to The Bay seeming real enough to engage base emotions of dread and unease, but never making the leap to creating a story that goes further into the human expanse of sympathy and relational engagement. That eventually results in a reaction of blasé stomach butterflies instead of that white knuckle tension a horror film should cause.
The Bay is an effective film, it packs a message of ecological consequences into a lean and well crafted found footage film. On that level alone it’s an enjoyable film to watch, admiring the skill and craftsmanship clearly at work here. Unfortunately, though, when the credits begin to roll the audience will most likely feel nothing but the tiniest twinge of emotional release, followed by a sense of relief this wasn’t a real documentary. That is, until they forget the film altogether.