Permit me, if you will, to ramble.
Who wants to talk about Barry Levinson’s found footage style faux-documentary The Bay? Don’t all raise your hands at once. He brought us some of the most memorable films such as Good Morning, Vietnam, Rain Man, Diner, and The Perfect Storm. His roots in show business extend as far back as the early 60’s, making him one of Hollywood’s most senior writers, producers, and directors. So, how does an old-school filmmaker fare up against a modern sub-genre like ‘found footage?’ We’ve all seen Survival of the Dead, right? Well, strangely, The Bay is one of the genre’s most successful films in terms of technical performance. Unlike so many other movies that have over-saturated the market, The Bay truly feels like a found footage documentary. Also, unlike a typical review, this is an analysis of why The Bay succeeds from a technical standpoint, rather than focusing on story and performances. Let’s dive in, shall we?
In a small seaside town, nestled along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, the humble townsfolk prepare for their 4th of July celebration. Our heroine, Donna Thompson, is a young reporter for a local news outfit who, as part of her internship, is sent to cover the festivities. Unfortunately for her, and consequently everyone else, those who have had contact with the water begin developing large pustules and rashes on their bodies. People suddenly vomit uncontrollably during the annual crab-eating contest, the local hospital is soon amputating legs and arms, the CDC is perplexed by reports of tongue-eating parasites, and the once peaceful, carefree residents of this bayside settlement are dying by the troves. A conspiracy surrounding the improper disposal of chicken waste surfaces, and the sea-faring culprits of this grotesque outbreak are none other than mutated isopods, specifically the cymothoa esigua species.
The entire story is knitted together from various found footage troupes that we’ve all seen already: the family video camera, the phone camera, security footage, news footage, some form of Skype or video chat, the dashboard cam, and nigh-vision cam. However, together they form a documentary. You can argue that any found footage movie is essentially a documentary in the film’s universe, but then you must ask the question: who is cutting all this footage together into a nice cohesive story? If a found footage movie is done well (The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield), it could effectively convince the audience that it was all edited in-camera. When directors start adding obvious edits and switching between multiple cameras, they break that illusion, such as the case with The Devil Inside or V/H/S. In the case of The Bay, we are told that our heroine, Donna Thompson, produced the film. We are then presented with minimalist and restrictive media of the gruesome events.
What do I mean by “minimalist and restrictive media?” With most found footage movies, it seems, the monster/killer is always clear and center stage, despite the cameraman running or hiding, as is the case with these films: The Hunt ’06, Quarantine/REC, The Last Exorcism, most of the Paranormal Activity movies, the V/H/S films, The Devil Inside, Survival of the Dead, Devil’s Pass, The Fourth Kind, Frankenstein’s Army, and Apollo 18. If chaos is exploding around the cameraman, why is the footage so clear and focused on the monster/killer? The Bay attempts to provide a reason: when we first see the mutated isopods with clarity, it’s from the footage of a scientific investigation, which makes perfect sense. This, however, was prior to the July 4th events.
We hardly see the isopods during the initial outbreak (if we do, it’s very quick and restrictive); there is extensive footage of the pustules and rashes, half-eaten faces, and body parts, but we never get that one scene. You know; the scene were one of the protagonists has a one-on-one encounter with a swarm or a singular isopod chasing them down a dimly lit corridor. The side effects and resulting carnage is far scarier than the cause. It’s terrifying to walk into a ghost town with bodies on every corner but never see what caused it. Example: the first victim of the parasites is seen wondering aimlessly, screaming for help. A bystander captures the scene on their camera phone (presumably). The footage is so shaky and rough, we never really see what’s wrong with her but we know something is off. There is blood on her shirt, and maybe we see some kind of growth on her neck and arms. It’s more fun this way because we let our mind make up the rest, at least for now. It adds an air of realism. Even when the carnage is shown up close, it is very brief, and does not linger on it any more than it should.
A clever, and possibly subtle subversion occurs near the film’s climax. We are all aware of the old chestnut: “Keep the camera on! We need to document this!” While the hospital physician does utter the line in the movie, we never see the outcome. A more likely candidate to deliver this cliché is our heroine. For the most part, she is doing her job: she tries to cover the outbreak, and she tries to interview people, so it seems only natural for her to document everything. (Strangely, most of the documentary includes very little of her footage) When her and her cameraman stumble across a dead body (with his face half-eaten) that blinks, she screams and runs away. This is where I would suspect the line to be shoehorned in so that we could see the grand finale. In fact, we never see our reporter again (aside from the narration). She makes a point in her interview that they stopped recording. It’s a clever subversion. The climax itself is quite temperate. It is very bold to have the heroine of your story cower away but it fits with her character.
As mentioned before, when telling a found footage story, it’s hard to reframe from those scenes that over-explain the plot to the audience. They always come off as scripted, expository, and very coincidental. This leads to a common pitfall. With films like Frankenstein Theory and Devil’s Pass, the camera is always conveniently turned on, and properly angled during the crucial moment where a key character divulges important information. In a classic found footage movie (Blair Witch Project), a scene like this should never be this noticeable. In a found footage style faux-documentary, like The Bay, it’s perfectly fine but it should be revealed either in an interview or through alternative media, sort of like an actual documentary. (See Devil Inside as an example of a failed attempt). In the first 15 minutes of The Bay, a montage of footage from various outlets explains the background of the outbreak. It’s done with precision and anticipation, setting the tone for what would be a very haunting, ominous film while servicing the plot. This is how it should be. It comes off as genuine, we avoid the cliché, and we further the impression that this event really happen (or could happen).
In summation, I think all films of this caliber should follow The Bay’s model, or at the very least take a lesson or two. The manner in which the found footage element was handled and presented is one of the many reasons why I consider it to be on my Top 5 of the Year list. Stranger still, I never even made a Top 5 of the Year list. The ultimate irony, however, is that Levinson probably did not want to direct The Bay, and if he did, he probably petition against having it become just another run-of-the-mill found footage flick. If that is the case, how funny is that an older-generation Hollywood filmmaker has a better concept at a modern sub-genre than most young genre filmmakers?