[This review was originally posted as part of our 2012 New York Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the wider theatrical release of the film.]
Found-footage films can be tricky. In most of them, there's a single camera meant to capture everything. If you're unable to suspend your disbelief, you wind up asking why the person with the camera doesn't just drop it and run. [REC] 2 at least had an interesting solution around that for the first half of the film -- helmet cams -- before breaking away to a more traditional "Let's film everything with a single camera" scenario.
Barry Levinson's The Bay, produced by the team behind the Paranormal Activity films, offers its own way around the trap of the found-footage movie. Rather than a traditional found-footage feature about a mass infection, The Bay is more like an exposé or news documentary, compiling footage from various sources: news broadcasts, fake websites, Skype, home video, security footage, police dashboard cams, cell phones. Think of it as part mockumentary, part eco-horror, and part muckraking.
It's an admirable play with form and content, and it offers a lot of potential, but unfortunately The Bay breaks down once you start to think about it.
The Bay takes place in fictional Claridge, Maryland, an Anytown, USA just off the Chesapeake. It's folksy, idyllic, Rockwell at the pier; a place where everyone watched you grow up and asks with genuine thoughtfulness about your uncle with the rheumatoid arthritis. The entire community celebrates the Fourth of July together as any Anytown would. There's face painting, a crab-eating contest, dunk tanks, and an enthusiastic local beauty queen. But there's a sudden happening in Claridge. All at once, people start vomiting and breaking out into an ugly, suppurating rash. The locals begin to look like bruised peaches with psoriasis or rotting plums with uncontrollable warts. Almost everyone in town is affected and sent to the hospital, which fills with dozens of groaning townsfolk calling for death. Their insides are liquefying from within. No one knows what's going on, there seems to be no cure, and very few will make it out alive.
Our guide through this horrible day in Claridge is a local newswoman named Donna Thompson (Kether Donahue). She's one of the few survivors of the incident, and she's made a film to reveal the truth of what happened. (The Bay is supposed to be her own work, I assume.) Donna's a newbie at local news, and lots of the Fourth of July footage involves her bungling through puff pieces (e.g., the crab-eating contest, how much kids like candy). She and her cameraman wander through the town capturing some of the horrors in the streets, unaware of what's really happening. In a traditional found-footage movie, she'd be the classic audience analog: in the dark until the revelations at the end. In The Bay, she's both the tourist and the tour guide.
The Bay works best when it's connecting the dots. It's convenient and blatant exposition, but it's pretty effective. Donna shows how the cause of the infection has something to do with shady local politics and a breed of marine parasites known as isopods. She does some detective work and deductive assemblage. The film interweaves news footage with a few other sources, like video of marine biologists investigating the bay prior to the outbreak, Skype conversations between a hapless doctor and the CDC, home video of a family headed to into Clardige by boat, and a little girl's urgent, tearful conversation with her friend via cell phone camera. There's some good tension for stretches of The Bay thanks to this collection of unwinding individual tragedies.
But there are lots of problems with the film's admirable attempt at the documentary/exposé form. Some of problems of form are linked to problems with content. For example, Donna's news footage doesn't look like news footage. The image quality doesn't resemble the stuff on broadcast television. Instead it looks like an indie movie or a student film. But the main reason it doesn't look like news footage are the camera angles and camera placement. The shots are too close, too shaky, too unprofessional to be part of a local news piece on the Fourth of July. During interviews, Donna winds up in the shot, whereas a real local news piece would isolate the interviewee. There's one interview with the town's mayor (Frank Deal) which is shot at a high angle behind Donna. The problem: Donna partially obscures the mayor and the frame is only one-quarter filled. That's a movie shot (and a bad one), not a TV news shot. Maybe the cameraman is the station manager's shiftless, douchebag son, that's the only possible explanation.
There's are also false notes in the other footage. The marine biologists are filming research video logs, but one of them is a little too jokey on camera. He spends a lot of time making fun of his research partner's French accent like a third grader experiencing the early stages of peer attraction (you always pull the pigtails of the girls you love). Artificial comic relief is the easiest to spot -- it's like hair on a bar of soap. Marine biologists aren't always serious, of course, but when researching mass fish die-offs and polluted water, there would probably be some level of decorum. Even Donna's narration tries to force comic relief, which makes the film feel less like a documentary and more like a regular horror movie. She explains to someone on Skype that she makes jokes when she's nervous, but why wouldn't she just redo the voiceover on her documentary?
That brings up one of the big questions about the fake-documentary form: who is Donna talking to? The film opens with her addressing someone on Skype. It's a guy who just instructs her to go on, but it's unclear who it is. We continually cut back to her talking into her webcam to this unseen and unidentified person. This is all part of the documentary she's made, but that doesn't make any sense. Is she streaming The Bay for someone and providing real-time commentary via her webcam? Is all that released as a documentary exposé? Again, the form is a good idea, but there are so many things about the way the form is used that demonstrate a certain wobbliness to the project. It's as if Levinson is trying to eat his mockumentary and have it too.
The Bay is supposed to take place a while after the incident at Claridge has happened. Donna sums up the aftermath, but it's too convenient, too tidy. And once they figure out the source of the infection, they don't satisfactorily answer how they deal with it. This led me to wonder about the world of The Bay. What are the repercussions for breaking this news? Why didn't Donna share her story earlier? Is she in hiding now? And we don't get to hear anything from the friends and relatives of the deceased who live outside of Claridge, who probably wonder why their loved one looked like pimples and eczema during a web chat.
It's a bad sign when a movie gets less enjoyable the longer you think about it. I think it's a sign of how The Bay is only partially realized as a mockumentary and why it isn't comfortably done in this form. If you look at This is Spinal Tap or the underrated Costa Botes/Peter Jackson mockumentary Forgotten Silver, you realize what makes them both effective is a commitment to the reality of the situation. These imagined lives exists outside of the confines of the film in a fully-realized fictional world. A sense of the persistence of the fictional world helps sell an illusion of reality. The fictional world of The Bay doesn't have a sense of persistence outside of the confines of the movie -- the world feels like a work in progress. We can even see the scaffolding if we pay attention.
This all makes me wonder if another filmmaker will take up a fictional topic and approach it with the kind of straight-faced professionalism of a Frontline documentary. Or maybe someone might try to do an Adam Curtis or Errol Morris-style essay documentary about a made-up subject, which would be an amazing feat of connect-the-dots. Those lack artifice, and it's the artifice of The Bay that undermines a lot of its potential creepiness. Without a sense of genuine dread, the film has to resort to jump scares just like any other found-footage film. That raises another question: who puts jump scares in an investigative documentary about an infection? Not just any jump scares, mind you, but jump scares accompanied by sinister horror movie music meant to add some extra jolt.
You know what? Maybe it's best not to think about it.