Review first appeared in Sight & Sound, March 2013
Synopsis: 2012. Donna Thompson offers an eyewitness commentary (over Skype) on a cataclysmic biological event that killed most of the population of Claridge, Maryland during the 4th July celebrations in 2008. Using a variety of confiscated (but leaked) footage and audio recordings, Donna Thompson shows a community misinformed and ill-equipped to deal with the mutant waterborne parasites that devour it from the inside, while also exposing early warning signs that were, whether by mistake or design, overlooked.
When two oceanographers researching local fish deaths are killed discovering a new strain of outsized marine isopods, their surviving documentation is mysteriously ignored – as are reports from environmentalists of runoff pollution from a farm owned by the Mayor. On Independence Day, outbreaks of vomiting and boils disrupt the pier-side pageant, while local police (and student reporter Thompson) mistakenly ascribe some mutilated corpses to a murderer, before encountering the horrific truth up close. Suddenly overwhelmed by dying patients, Dr Jack Abrams finds the CDC no less bewildered than himself. By evening, when Stephanie, Alex and their baby Andrew have sailed into port to visit family, Claridge is a ghost town – and Alex dies soon after from parasites in water ingested just hours before. The few survivors are compensated on condition of silence, and the disaster is officially ascribed to the summer’s high bacteria levels.
Review: There must be something in the water.
Although the horror genre has imagined all manner of flora and fauna, typically in monstrous or mutated form, rising up the food chain in response to the hubris of humanity’s environmental incursions and irresponsible experiments, nonetheless our screens have largely been kept free of micro-organisms, viruses and parasites, perhaps in part because it is in their nature not to be seen. The odd exception – most notably David Cronenberg’s Shivers (1975) – proves the rule. This changed in the Noughties, when a run of icky features – Cabin Fever (2002), Splinter (2008), Contagion (2011) – reveled in the havoc that microbiology can wreak on the human body. Then, just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water, 2012 delivered two films featuring mass outbreaks of aquatic parasites: first Park Jeong-woo’s wormy schlockodrama Deranged (Yeon-ga-si), and now The Bay, the first foray into horror by genre-hopper Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man, Sphere, Bandits, etc.).
Set in the fictional town of Claridge, Maryland on Chesapeake Bay, The Bay borrows familiar tropes from Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic Jaws (corpses discovered in the water with wounds expressly suggestive of a shark attack, a mayor determined to quell any panic during the town’s peak summer season) and more broadly from the nature’s revenge subgenre (environmental pollution engendering a new species of deadly organisms) to create a mash-up of well-worn horror motifs – except that they are all filtered through an elaborate found-footage framework which, without quite refreshing the clichés, certainly muddies the waters. Oren Peli, writer/director of the now canonical found-footage frightener Paranormal Activity (2007), may serve as one of the producers here, but The Bay‘s deft mix of multiple media (television footage, radio broadcasts, Skype conferences, CCTV, home movies, text messages, emergency service recordings, video diaries, etc.) makes for an altogether more sophisticated fragmentation of the film’s story into a mosaic of (not always reliable) evidence. As in George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2007), the ‘found footage’ comes edited and with a commentary – in this case from reporter on the scene Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue), desperate after the event to expose the hushed-up truth of what happened.
The killer here turns out to be Cymothoa exigua, a louse-like sea creature that devours the tongues of fish – only the Chesapeake variant, literally ‘on steroids’ and possibly irradiated, grows at an extraordinary rate, eating its human hosts from the inside. While this affords the occasional short, sharp jolt of formication-inducing body horror, Thompson (and Levinson along with her) are also documenting how information, misinformation and disinformation can spread no less virulently than the flesh-eating parasites in an age of diversified mass media. For even if some kind of truth emerges from Thompson’s bombardment of sources, we also see and/or hear the evolving situation variously mischaracterised as a shark attack, a domestic murder, a bacteriological outbreak, a Satanic rite, a mass drugging, a terrorist plot and a joke. “Let’s not go around scaring anyone with crazy and outlandish stories, that serves no-one’s benefit,” says Mayor John Stockman (Frank Deal) – ironically enough, the film’s chief human villain and a devotee of truth’s suppression. Certainly The Bay is spinning its own crazy and outlandish stories, but the incontrovertible fact remains that during the 1990s, toxic algal blooms resulting from runoff and pollution created a regional panic as fish populations died en masse and human swimmers exhibited mysterious rashes. Even today much of Chesapeake Bay (where Baltimore-born Levinson spent his vacations as a child) continues to be a marine ‘dead zone’. The Bay may be an eco-horror mockumentary, but it emerged from Levinson’s initial intention to make a documentary on Chesapeake’s devastated ecology.
“If this wasn’t a tragic circumstance it’d be fuckin’ comedic!” comments Thompson wryly as she looks back on her clueless behaviour during the event. Much of the (qualified) humour in The Bay derives from the obliviousness of its small-town ensemble in the face of impending – and then utterly overwhelming – disaster. Thomspson has her own strong views on where responsibility lies, but for the viewer it remains unclear whether the catastrophe was a result of deep-seated corruption and malice, or good old-fashioned incompetence. As nature’s revenge, The Bay is somewhat old hat – but as a depiction of an America deaf and blind to her impact on the environment, and woefully unprepared for the potentially fatal consequences, it is as grimly satirical as ‘The Airborne Toxic Event’ section of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise. It may well leave more squeamish viewers open-mouthed – except when they go in the water.