Director: Barry Levinson
Writer: Michael Wallach
Stars: Kristen Connolly, Jane McNeill, Stephen Kunken, Frank Deal, Will Rogers and Christopher Denham
Environmental catastrophe is back in the headlines this week, and The Bay delivers a doozy, a plague of fish-eating parasites mutated to the size of kittens courtesy of the steroid-soaked run-off from a factory farm.
Once fish stocks start dying off these creatures must seek another host species and Man is definitely the next best place to hide.
Academy Award™ regular Barry Levinson constructs a found footage narrative around this scenario that’s believably and consistently scary. It purports to represent the government-confiscated audio-visual material culled from the tiny Chesapeake Bay resort of Claridge, July 4th 2009. Phone cameras, CCTV, text messages, Skype and Face Time chats, actual news footage and 9-1-1 recordings are pieced together to form a chronological account of The Day The Town Died. The plethora of perspectives shows the annual festivities disintegrating into chaos as the townspeople fall victim to rashes, necrosis, gastro-enteritis and finally start hatching isopods (tongue-eating crustaceans) from under their skin.
It’s gory stuff, all the more unsettling because it takes place in present-day Maryland, not in a galaxy far, far away. Levinson and the writer, Michael Wallach (a former State Department political analyst), weave genuine environmental anger and authentic footage about the toxicity of Chesapeake Bay into their fiction. Thanks to centuries of pollution, the Bay is home to flesh-eating bacteria that can kill an infected swimmer within 24 hours. 40% of it has been categorized as a marine dead zone, incapable of sustaining life. It’s not implausible that something very nasty might one day crawl from this toxic soup and make a beeline for the human buffet sunning itself at the water’s edge. As a horror movie, The Bay is all the more disturbing because there’s no need to suspend your disbelief at the door.
The narrative is framed as a documentary edited by angry activists who want to expose the government cover-up of 700 deaths. The sometimes-unwilling commentary duties are performed by student reporter Donna (Kether Donohue), who had the misfortune to be covering the parade and the crab-eating contest for the local TV news channel. Some of the images she hasn’t seen before, some she knows all too well. Her perspective makes the nightmare personal. She cringes as she looks back on her lost, innocent self (“Why didn’t anyone tell me my pants were too tight?”) doing perky stand-ups to camera at the beginning of the day. Like the audience, she now sits outside events that only gain meaning in retrospect. “We should have known,” she wails, as she watches sequences of happy holidaymakers splashing around in the noxious water, unaware that agonizing death is only hours away.
As the day heats up, Donna’s path intersects with other players in the tragedy – Claridge is the kind of place where eventually, you bump into everybody. Levinson does a great job of depicting a town that can’t get over its small-mindedness. In classic genre style, no one figures out what’s going on until it’s too late, even when the mutilated body count starts to get silly. The police deputies graduate from believing they’re dealing with domestic violence to thinking they have a serial killer on their hands – but that’s as far as their TV fueled imaginations will go. There’s more than a nod to JAWS in the form of Mayor Stockman (Frank Deal), fiddling the environmental rulebook even as Claridge burns. And there’s Alex (Will Rogers) and Stephanie (Kristen Connolly) the perfect young couple sailing with their baby towards what they think will be a fireworks display but turns out to be the end of the world.
Perhaps the most chilling scenes of the movie take place outside Claridge, in the offices of the CDC. The agency is contacted by Dr. Abrams (Stephen Kunken) once thirty or so patients have rolled up in the Claridge ER all displaying the same symptoms. As thirty becomes sixty becomes several hundred, Abrams becomes ever more wild-eyed and desperate. His contacts at the CDC aren’t helpful. They shrug. They have no idea what’s causing the problem. The only solution they can offer is quarantine; they send in the National Guard, drop a cordon round the town, and block all cell phone and wireless internet transmission. And they act like they’ve done it many times before.
As well as unspooling the events of July 4th, The Bay recalls the drumbeat leading up to the disaster; the dire warnings (and mysterious deaths) of two oceanographers conducting tests in the water, the shoals of dead and mutilated fish floating to the surface, the triumph of commercialism over common sense regarding the site of the chicken factory, the blissful ignorance of the townspeople about their water supply, the continual pollution of the Bay by boat-owners. This material is ripped from headlines so commonplace that we have ceased to notice them. Shit happens and we go about our day. Then, a perfect storm scenario like the one explored in this movie happens, and shit gets real.
Most found footage films hinge around the idea that the hapless camera bearers have no idea what they’re getting into, and the horror stems from their well-intended activities taking a nightmarish turn. Levinson operates from a wider, more authoritative perspective here, presenting the catastrophe as inevitable and the victims as culpable. The casualties at Claridge should definitely have known. They paid the price because they chose to ignore the consequences of decades of indifference to their environment. Never subtle, the movie serves as an cautionary tale extraordinaire, far more thought-provoking than a straight documentary on the topic would have been.