As a highly compensated film critic, it is sometimes my forlorn duty to screen a film solely so that you don't have to. I have had the ill luck to watch a set of films recently in the found-footage style. (See my review of Renny Harlin's "Devil's Pass" for extra reference.) I had modest hopes for The Bay despite this because Barry Levinson was attached as director. He has directed such things as "Diner", "Rain Man", "Good Morning Vietnam", and "Tin Men". On films such as "Wag the Dog", "Donnie Brasco" and "The Perfect Storm" he has served as producer or executive producer. I'm starting to get the feeling, though, that the found-footage style might be the kiss of death for quality no matter whom may be attached.
Presented in a faux documentary format as if it were a Wikileaks greatest hits compilation of found video and cell camera recordings, we are asked to believe that the CDC and Homeland Security have the awesome power to suppress the knowledge of an environmental catastrophe that causes the deaths of some 700 Marylanders. (I must not be alone in my reluctance to swallow this central conceit as the reported US gross for this film was a meager $30,000.) The pastiche of footages found will follow about half a dozen story lines to tell the tale. A rookie journalism major from American University in DC who was on hand at the Fourth of July town blowout knits the patchwork together through narration. Three years after undergoing the trauma of the event, she can, you see, no longer maintain her silence. Her story, and that of the stricken village, must now be told.
Exposure to the waters of the Chesapeake, suffused with pollutants such as chicken shit and, why the hell not?, a release of radioactivity from the local nuke plant, produces ugly boils and blisters. Screaming Independence Day celebrants quickly crowd the overwhelmed local hospital. The supervising physician drags in the CDC who uselessly suggest bacterial infection and even fast-growing fungus. But some of the victims have had their tongues eaten out of their heads. Soon icky critters, mutated deep-sea isopods we are told, begin chewing their way out of their bloody victims. By the end the once-happy Main Street will be littered with the dead.
One weakness of found-footage films is that verisimilitude can be destroyed if recognizable, i.e., experienced, actors appear. As the common viewer will have watched perhaps many thousands of hours of movies and television, this means that the casting director will need to reach pretty deep into that barrel to fill out a cast for a film like The Bay. While some of the cast are at least nominally professional, their credits tend to be plumped out with single TV episode appearances as "Third Thug" or "Sitcom Girl 2". Fortunately, this style of movie-making places a considerably reduced demand upon the actors to actually, you know, act.
This is a mutated bug movie, hardly an original core horror plot. What passes for horror doesn't grip you, however, because that documentary style keeps the tragic victims at emotional arms-length. In the absence of acting worthy of the name, real dialogue, or a mortal threat to anyone you would care about, this movie fails in just about every way that could entertain.
The Bay has a contemporary setting in a small Maryland town right on the Chesapeake Bay. Now as your humble reviewer lives in Maryland about two minutes from the Chesapeake, I found this a personal hook. Though the town in the movie is fictional, and though the film was not actually filmed in Maryland, it could easily have been shot in Solomons Island at the southern tip of Calvert County, one of any number of such villages which relies on tourism, sport fishing, and open-air Summer drinking. I personally bestow 1 skull for realistic depiction of small town Maryland. If you lack this personal connection, however, you will want to subtract that skull from the overall grade.