The Bay review (Blu-ray)

The Bay takes place over July the 4th 2009 in a coastal town in Maryland as it falls victim to a dramatic and gruesome outbreak of a lethal contagion seemingly connected to chemical contaminants in seawater. Presented as a documentary examination of the events of the day and the underlying reasons for the disaster, the film stitches together a wide variety of footage shot on phones, video cameras and CCTV as well as Facetime conversations, Skype, internet videos and television footage which is held together by an after the fact video interview with a young journalism student who was filming a blog as events unfolded and has somehow come into possession of this extraordinary array of footage despite it being made clear very early that there has been some kind of X-Files-esque cover up.

In many ways it’s comparable to Stephen Soderberg’s Contagion although taking place over a much more compressed time frame. Like the Soderbergh film this is a multi stranded narrative with a large and very expendable cast. Both films follows an escalating narrative graph that starts at ‘normal’ and goes up to ‘catastrophic.’ In the case of The Bay it’s a much steeper line, and crucially one that is inked from a much larger pool of blood and pus. There is a crucial difference however, The Bay is another in the burgeoning found-footage style of horror movie (and it’s no surprise to see Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli’s name appear as a producer).

Directed by veteran Barry Levinson (Good Morning Vietnam, Rain Man) The Bay marks quite a left turn for a director whose only real foray into horror inflected territory was the unsuccessful Sphere. Levinson knows how to pace a story, and shows a sure hand early on with minimal scene setting before chaos ensues. He is also adept at timing a good jump scare, of which there are several in the film. Where the film comes apart is in the use of the found footage technique. Simply put, there is no compelling reason for this story to be told in this fashion, it doesn’t really add anything and it creates a heap of problems higher than the mountain of biochemically hazardous chicken shit that may be the cause of the trouble.

For starters - and this is a hurdle that many who hate this technique will not be able to overcome - it results in a film that is pig ugly. Blown up mobile phone images look pixilated and grainy, camcorder footage is constantly out of focus, websites display a deplorable lack of design savvy. Often this just results in a smeary mess on screen making it difficult to work out what is going on. Chronicle managed to mount a similar barrage of visual sources whilst still maintaining an aesthetic that didn’t feel like someone was blowing cement dust in your eyes.

Then there is the question of who has obtained the footage and how. The Bay constantly announces itself as a mock documentary but stretches credulity to breaking point. Can you believe that communications between a hospital and the Centre for Disease Control, in-car police law enforcement footage, and off-air television news conversations have all somehow been collected and collated by off camera environmental activists? Even Julian Assange would bow before this. One can only assume we are watching a film made by the Illuminati.

In the film’s worst moment a character turns to another and asks the question “why are you filming all this”, it’s a question that had been running through my head for the preceding hour or so. Found footage is supposed to provide a sense of reality and immediacy, in the case of The Bay it has the opposite effect and creates a barrier between the story and the audience as harmful as a bad 3D conversion.

There are other issues, including some misjudged humour especially in a tiresome running gag in which an American marine biologist repeatedly and deliberately fails to understand his colleague’s French accent. This is annoying the first time, by the fifth you have to wonder why she isn’t ramming his Endoscope somewhere other than down a fish’s throat.

On the plus side, the film is satisfyingly disgusting. There is plenty of gore and oozing pustulous buboes on display. An early scene in which a crab eating competition becomes a bloody vomitorium is a highlight. The eventual reveal of the cause of the chaos is something truly nauseating. As is the norm, all of this is revealed in too much detail in the trailer. However again the found footage style gets in the way, doing a great disservice by obscuring some impressive effects work.

Eventually Levinson looses his grip on the film’s pace as he pursues the various narrative threads to dead ends. The Bay badly runs out of steam in its final third. In order to give the audience a pay-off it drops in a really clunky shock moment right at the end (something that seems to be de-rigour in an American horror film these days).

I won’t deny The Bay made me flinch in places, but it frustratingly squanders a decent premise in pursuit of an in-vogue shooting style to which it is simply unsuited.

EXTRAS ★ Just the eight-minute behind-the-scenes featurette Into The Bay; and the theatrical Trailer

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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