The Bay (2012)
★★★ / ★★★★
Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue) agrees to participate in an interview via webcam about what really happened on July 4, 2009 in Claridge, Maryland where she, as a tyro reporter, was assigned to cover the day’s festivities. The celebration is interrupted by a few residents covered in blisters, boils, and lesions begging for help. Soon, others begin to exhibit similar symptoms which eventually lead to amputation of limbs and gruesome deaths. Since the government confiscated all materials that documented the truth, Donna believes that it is her duty to reveal the cover-up before she can move on.
“The Bay,” based on the screenplay by Michael Wallach and directed by Barry Levinson, is a horror-thriller rooted in the found footage sub-genre but, unlike many of its contemporaries, telling the story through this specific avenue works. Instead of the material forcing us to play waiting games until the inevitable jolts, its downtimes are propelled by real ideas, human fears, and craft from behind the lens.
It is generous in making us squirm. The camera is not afraid to showcase the symptoms on people’s skin: how widespread the rashes are, the intensity of their colors, and the differences in texture between large and small sores. But the disgusting details are not limited what we can find on our own skins. There are a handful of scenes that show menacing-looking parasites found in fish that may very well be related to the contagion in the small town.
The events unspool slowly, at least initially, but there is always a sense of urgency. Even though it is essentially about an ecological horror that triggers a pandemonium, it is focused in terms of how the mystery is dealt with. For example, while handling the first wave of patients, doctors assume that the disease is triggered by some sort of virus. Over time, as more information become available and patterns get clearer, assumptions evolve. Appropriately, there is an overall feeling that dealing with an unknown plague, in addition to bureaucracies and red tape, is an unrelenting uphill battle.
It is not without a savage sense of humor. I was amused during moments when someone off-camera says, “Oh my god, that’s disgusting!” while an infected shows a friend her angry rashes. We laugh because someone in the film voices out what we are thinking. More subtly funny are moments when Donna tells us, in the most deadpan delivery, that a certain someone on screen will be dead by the end of the day. I was also entertained by her many reactions to the horrors around her while out there in the field.
What works less effectively is at times the camera cuts too quickly from something fascinating. My favorite scenes involve two oceanographers (Christopher Denham, Nansi Aluka) making all sorts of grim discoveries about the toxicity of Chesapeake Bay and possible causes of what is happening in Claridge. I relished the moments when we are given the chance to peek inside a fish and what its passengers are doing. I wanted to cover my eyes or look away but my curiosity left me paralyzed.
“The Bay” is compendium of newsreels and interviews; what is recorded via digital cameras, video cameras, phone cameras, hidden cameras; as well as video chats, audio recordings, and radio transmissions. Despite its many “sources” and therefore styles of showing isolated but connected occurrences within a community, it is somewhat of a miracle that the picture is never off-putting.