Michael C. here, returned from having my skin properly crawled at the NYFF’s Midnight Movie series.
Barry Levinson's The Bay is the type of movie you would get if Al Gore decided to forget the whole PowerPoint documentary thing and made a movie where global warming boils everyone’s brain and brings on a zombie apocalypse. Levinson says he was first approached to make a documentary about industrial pollution killing Chesapeake Bay, but opted to direct The Bay instead. The premise involves a breed of sea lice - which look like those bed bugs you always see magnified in pest control ads - mutating into a creepy crawly menace after they find their way into the toxic chemical soup that is currently the Chesapeake.
Levinson says he and screenwriter Michael Wallach worked hard to keep the story grounded in reality. “85% based on fact” is the figure he used. Considering the majority of the film concerns itself with mutated ocean parasites eating Marylanders from the inside out that is not a comforting figure. At one point during the film a CDC official is presented with the image of one of these isopods grown to the size of a Doberman Pinscher. The CDC official can’t believe his eyes. “Tell me that’s Photoshopped!” It was found “trying to chew its way through the side of a submarine,” he is informed.
“That’s a real picture,” Levinson helpfully explained during the Q & A following the movie. The story about the sub? Also true. It was as if Danny Boyle came out on stage following a screening of 28 Days Later and said, “Oh, yeah. Scientists are totally working on a rage virus,” and then produced on stage an infected monkey, straining on its leash trying to bite audience members.
So, yeah. Disturbing.
Beyond its unsettling basis in fact, The Bay is a modest, well-crafted creature feature that breathes new life into the found footage device. Levinson describes his technique as “an archeological dig” which culls video from every available source to reconstruct the timeline of the outbreak. In classic disaster movie fashion we follow the stories of several characters over the course of the day, and Levinson and the cast of unknowns do a first-rate job simulating amateur footage without calling attention to the gimmick.
The Bay may disappoint casual viewers who wander in looking for the usual horror movie thrills. The trailer sells it as a sort of zombie movie, but the infected do little more than moan and beg for medical attention. The sea lice could potentially make for terrific movie monsters, but Levinson refuses to crank up the gross-out moments to Fangoria levels. By keeping it all on a more plausible scale The Bay prevents us retreating behind the comfort of familiar movie beats to avoid the story's implications. As a horror film The Bay is a solid entry. A scrappy low budget Contagion with sea lice instead of germs. As a piece of subversive environmental agitprop, on the other hand, it is scary effective. B
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