Ecological Terror May Be Our New Monster

'The Bay'

by W. Scott Poole

20 March 2013

Given our culture’s obsessions at this particular moment in history, our monsters are likely to be monsters of disease and the digital frontier.
 
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The Bay

Director: Barry Levinson
Cast: Kristen Connolly, Kether Donohue, Christopher Denham

US DVD: 5 Mar 2013

Barry Levinson’s 2012 The Bay offers both the best of this new genre and one of the finer found footage horror films available. In fact, its strength comes from its departure from the simple template of video footage or house cameras. Levinson instead pieces together a story of a viral crisis gone viral. News reports, police video, YouTube, home video, email, text messages, Facetime and all manner of social media assemble the narrative fragments into a story of things that come from the deep to destroy a community.

“Wash your hands or keep your gloves on or something.” The police officer that floats this concern has it right. Something has crawled out of the Chesapeake during the Fourth of July crab festival. A parasite (that may or may not be the result of waste from the local chicken plant) causes vomiting, blisters, lesions and bleeding that seem to come from the pores and every orifice of its victims. Something is crawling around inside the good folks of the bay. And trying to get out.

Levinson does a wonderful job of ratcheting up the terror, in part by using the medium of talk radio to allow the public to express their fears. Conspiracy theories abound and callers speculate that, of course, terrorists are at work or maybe “biological weapons from Iran” are being used to “get people out of Guantanamo.” Or surely, someone suggests, its drugs or a satanic cult. Creating this atmosphere of moral panic works perfectly, especially since the causes of the pandemic are much less fantastical than any of the callers imagine.

A lot of small touches increase the feeling of cinema verite. One character consistently misunderstands a French oceanographers accent, we learn little bit about the relationship of two teenagers before they are consumed by something in the water. Much of the film is built around the work of an American University journalism student. A family with a new baby takes a Fourth of July boat ride into the horror and provides one of the final, and best, scares of the film.

These small scenes owe much to Levinson’s amazing skill of working with a variety of equipment (he films on Skype at one point, we learn from the audio commentary). Much of the credit must go to the unknown actors whose reactions drive the film. Almost 80 actors make up the cast of The Bay, most of them delivering their brief moments exactly the way confused and fearful people might act in the midst of a creeping horror that’s literally ripping their peaceful town apart.

The Bay owes something to JAWS and, in fact, a few observers suggest that some of the deaths in the water might be bull shark attacks. The film also manages to capture some of the better elements of the zombie genre. Although the victims of the parasite don’t become cannibals, they do become shambling horrors desperate for help and stumbling through an increasingly post-apocalyptic landscape.

There’s something Cormanesque in The Bay, in fact Levinson succeeds in ways that Corman never really did with the effort to combine horror with social satire. The Bay suggests that unplanned economic development and cowboy entrepreneurialism are responsible for poisoning the water. A political candidate early in the film tells an applauding audience that, “we need to develop the hell out of the bay and then pay to clean it up.”

Or maybe that’s not what’s happening. We never get clear answers and this opens the film up both to have both social commentary and straightforward terror from the deep. In other words, if you loved the original Piranha or the original The Crazies, you’ll love The Bay even more.

The DVD special features are rather sparse. Other than trailers, we get a “making of” featurette. We learn from this some of the found footage in the film is, in fact, actual found footage. Levinson pulled stories of animal die-offs directly from the news to create a feeling of veracity and to provide an even stronger feeling of veracity.

Levinson’s director’s commentary helps explain how he ended up doing a horror film. Approached to do a documentary about the Chesapeake, Levinson took the eco-horror of the highly polluted Chesapeake (steroids plus chicken excrement) and made it into a horror film. In fact, the horrific parasite at the heart of the horror actually exists. Unfortunately, much of the featurette (that centers on Levinson) repeats some of the best of the director’s audio commentary.

Every era seems to have its very own monsters. Given our culture’s obsessions at this particular moment in history, our monsters are likely to be monsters of disease and the digital frontier. Our fear of swine flu, bird flu and pandemics of all kinds are as omnipresent as our cell phones and Ipads. Levinson has managed to bring our terrors and obsessions together. These are posthuman terrors and, as the conclusion of the film (and Rise of the Planet of the Apes) suggests, maybe the natural world is weary of our toxicity and has decide to end us.

The Bay

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