This week in movies you missed: Barry (Rain Man) Levinson gives found-footage horror an ecological twist.
What You Missed
On the Fourth of July, 2009, something bad happened in tiny Claridge, Md., on the Chesapeake Bay. So bad that the government covered up the story, we’re told. It took an intrepid, Wikileaks-like organization to bring us this collection of rescued footage documenting that day.
Our narrator is Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue), who was the only media presence in Claridge on the Fourth — a college intern posting video to a local TV station’s blog. When a mutilated corpse appeared, and then another, she thought she was documenting Claridge’s first serial killer.
As Fourth revelers flocked to the hospital with ugly boils, it became apparent the town was actually dealing with a smaller and more prolific murderer, originating in the polluted waters of the Bay.
Why You Missed It
Despite solid reviews and an Oscar-winning director, The Bay only reached 23 U.S. theaters.
Should You Keep Missing It?
If you like found-footage films, The Bay is a find — one of the stronger examples of the genre.
It manages to combine gross-out horror right out of Piranha with topical and thought-provoking aspects, and it uses its format creatively. While it’s far from perfect, that’s still way more than you can say for Paranormal Activity 4.
In a featurette, Levinson explains why he decided to work in a genre not frequented by established directors. He’d been asked to make a documentary about pollution from agricultural and industrial run-off in the Chesapeake Bay. But after he watched a “Frontline” episode on the subject, Levinson says, he realized it had already been thoroughly documented, and “nobody cares.”
A fictional narrative, he decided, was the way to get people’s attention. A story with blood and guts and screaming and pretty teenagers thrashing in the water.
The Bay often plays like a B-movie, more laughable than scary, and its science talk feels far from 100 percent authentic. (Here's what some real Bay ecologists thought of the film.) But Levinson manipulates the format to get genuinely chilling moments. The creepy music and coercive editing don’t kill the vérité illusion, as they do in some found-footage flicks, because he’s already framed The Bay as an activist, alarmist “documentary.” Its unseen makers have assembled footage from camcorders, iPhones, surveillance cams and police dashboard cams in a conscious effort to scare the hell out of you.
The Bay also returns to the Blair Witch tradition of reflecting on what it means for people to document events with cameras, and how they help shape events in the process. I liked the sections where the tormented journalist-narrator considers everything she did wrong that day, or where an oceanographer coaches another on how to talk to the camera about the deadly parasite they’ve discovered.
These scenes aren’t just there to pad the run-time; they explore the issue of what it means to live in a world where everybody can be a filmmaker. As Levinson puts it in the featurette, everybody now has “visual aptitude.”
In my mind, that factor makes the film’s premise, that the events in Claridge could ever be concealed, highly implausible. But suspend your disbelief, and it works.
Verdict: A pleasant surprise in the tradition of ’70s eco-horror. Just try not to think too hard about those toxic algae outbreaks in Lake Champlain.
More New Off-the-Beaten Track DVDs
Lay the Favorite (Stephen Frears directs Rebecca Hall in gambling drama)
Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You (coming-of-age indie)
Thorne (British detective hunts psychos)
Each week in "Movies You Missed," I review a brand-new DVD release picked for me by Seth Jarvis, buyer for Burlington's Waterfront Video, where you can obtain these fine films. (In central Vermont, try Downstairs Video.)