Horror movies depend on two factors: plausibility and proximity. In many modern horror films, these are the first two things to go right out the window. Compare any relatively recent remake to the original. What used to be nondescript suburban homes have become spiderwebbed neo-gothic manors, filled with Satanist symbols and cannibal ghouls. Since no one has one of these houses on their street — unless you’re neighbors with a serial killer, and then you have bigger problems — this removes proximity from the horror and makes it less scary. The second factor, plausibility, is inherently subjective and has some give regardless. Alien isn’t really plausible, but put it on that realistically beaten-up ship and recognizable crewmen and suddenly it is. The audience has to buy into the threat of the horror, or it’s not scary, it’s just some stuff that happened to a bunch of idiots. 2012’s innovative found footage The Bay has both of plausibility and proximity.
The Bay has a surprising pedigree. Barry Levinson, director of The Natural, Rain Man, Good Morning Vietnam and like every movie from the ‘80s, both directed and provided the story to it. I have gone on record before as defending found footage horror movies, and though I acknowledge that the genre is more open than most to both hackery and abuse, The Bay circumvents most of the standard criticisms just by the way it’s structured. The most common — and valid — complaint about found footage is that the main characters might want to drop the cameras and think about running from the giant monster that’s eating them. The film has to figure out a way to justify the camera being present, and The Bay is by far the best of these at that. Instead of following a single protagonist navigating the kaiju distaster/terrible camping trip/slumber party in the old asylum, The Bay is cobbled together from a news footage, a reporter on the scene, Skype calls, text logs, Facetime, a few amateur videos, police dashcams, security footage, and so on. If the film cannot justify a camera being present, then there isn’t one, which ends up producing the most skincrawling scene where the horror is only auditory.
The Bay exists in its own universe as an expose cobbled together to tell the story of a mass outbreak that occurred in Claridge, Maryland on their Fourth of July festivities in 2009. Its framing device is a young woman, who at the time was an intern at a local news station, covering the festival as the kind of low-key fluff reporting newbies get to cut their teeth on. Pretty soon, it looks like there’s a murderer on the loose as horribly mutilated people keep showing up. At the same time, the footage is intercut with images of some kind of disease outbreak. People go to the hospital with blisters, boils, and lesions, and pretty soon the baffled doctors are just amputating limbs willy-nilly. As soon as the film finds a more effective character to tell a specific aspect of its story, it switches over. It’s not completely chronological either, as some later revelations include the first deaths nearly a month before, including some local kids and a pair of oceanographers looking into the pollutants in the titular bay.
The oceanographer scenes invoke the environmentalist horror of the ‘70s and the ‘80s, a genre once again becoming relevant with the rising temperature of the planet. What they determine is that 40% of the bay is dead. Just completely dead. No fish, no plants, no nothing. They believe this is due to the runoff from local factory chicken farms, which dumps steroid-loaded chickenshit into the bay by the ton. Oh yeah, there was also “a small radioactive leak” that made it into the bay as well. None of this would be a problem except for the desalinization plant, shown ominously spewing white smoke in several shots. This plant has not only provided enough water to allow those chicken farms, it also provides drinking water to the town at large.
As it turns out, the problem comes down to parasitic isopods. Isopods are like those adorable roly-polies you find in your yard, except like everything else, the ocean has transformed them into nightmares. There are the giant isopods that live in deep water and more horrifying, there are the ones who eat the tongues of fish and then stick around, figuring that if the fish ever wants to scream in agony, the isopod will be there to make the words. The idea is that the pollution from the bay has mutated a strain of these little monsters, the steroids have made them grow quickly. While adults can’t make it through the filters of the desalinization plant, the larvae sure can, and they’re eating the people of Claridge alive.
The biggest flaw with the movie, from the standpoint of traditional storytelling, is the lack of a clear protagonist and antagonist. The aforementioned intern, Donna Thompson, is the closest thing to a heroine the movie has, though in keeping with the realism, she runs away at the end of the second act. As soon as it’s no longer realistic to have her stick around, she’s gone. It transfers over to a young couple who has been sailing to Claridge through the movie in a bit of slow-burn suspense, yet the sympathy they garner is more for being a young, attractive family than because of character development. Likewise, Mayor Stockman, who ignored the findings of the oceanographers and thus helped bring about the disaster, is the closest thing to a villain. He is barely a character, to the point that when he does get his comeuppance, it takes a moment to realize who he is.
The film is, however, very good at tracking its various characters. Because the cast is so sprawling and the method of telling the story so organic, the film will concentrate on a character intensely for a few minutes and then move on. This makes for effective moments later when these same characters are found mutilated and dead. It shows the real cost of the horror going on around, and it provides a quick and effective end to the character’s arc. They’re not abandoned. They were killed by the impersonal nature of the tragedy itself.
Assuming the movie’s goal is to scare, The Bay is the most effective found footage horror movie I have ever seen. Claridge is everytown enough to have proximity, and the parasitic isopods feel plausible enough. The way it’s told — as a documentary for something like Vice or Wikileaks — the action unfolds the way we as viewers are used to seeing it in the real world. The FX are organic, often shot out-of-focus, as they would be by panicked camera operators.
Nothing could recommend it more highly though, than one simple fact. I watched it yesterday. My skin still itches where I imagine the isopods running over me.