There are about as many types of horror movies in the world as there are people. Throughout cinematic history we’ve had good and bad slasher; stalker; thriller; action-adventure; psychological horror; suspense; paranormal; torture; exploitation; splatter; science fiction; alien; monster or creature; vampire movies that can cited as having scared the pants off of film fans worldwide.
Some are cheesy, some are shocking, some rely on the same “BOO!” scare tactics as a good haunted house… Some are legitimately terrifying and can cause even the most level headed adult to have nightmares for weeks after viewing them.
This last category is where Barry Levinson’s The Bay falls.
What makes most legitimately terrifying horror movies work on me is that their plot has one foot anchored in reality, while the other foot does a crazy dance and extrapolates upon a theme which takes a normal situation into the frightening realm of “something that could happen.” Or feels like it could.
Such as with the movie Jaws. Shark attacks, though unlikely and rare, do happen. That is reality. A 50-foot man eating Great White Shark in the super chilly waters of the Atlantic off the coast of Massachusetts capable of sneaking up on unsuspecting swimmers in waist deep water?
According to science, not possible. But, fuck it if you’ll catch me going in past my knees in the ocean anytime soon.
The Bay works for those reasons. This movie explores the supposed events of July 4, 2009 when two million dead fish washed ashore* and one thousand dead blackbirds** dropped out of the sky… and, 700 people in the town of Claridge, Maryland were killed and eaten from the inside out by giant, mutant, carnivorous Isopods*** which had infected the brackish waters surrounding the town.
The movie is presented in a documentary “found footage” style and narrated by Donna, played by Kether Donohue – a former journalism student who was in Claridge to report on Fourth of July festivities.
The film touches on familiar, and genuinely very scary subjects like the destruction of the environment, pollution of our water sources, political malfeasance and the cover-up of crimes in such a way that it keeps the outlandish premise of giant, mutated and carnivorous sea lice tethered to some version of reality. Not to mention that the central idea of being infected with a deadly something via activity as innocuous as drinking water is not only a theoretical possibility, but actually happens in some parts of the world. In fact, I believe it is possible to come into contact with flesh eating bacteria in the coastal waters off the southern shores of the United States.
It is rare, but it happens – Google it, I did.
So extrapolating on those possibilities, Levinson – a Maryland native son, perhaps making an intentional statement about the state of the environment on the Chesapeake Bay – subtly weaves together a story which is just this side of believable.
The cinematography is rustic, with nods to The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal Activity, the gore is realistically understated and the commentary of the narrator sticks so closely, for the most part, to an authentic style of journalistic reporting that – as a whole – the movie plays quite successfully as though a documentary of events which actually happened.
There are a few moments which belie the movie as a horror confection – the red-lighted confession of the emergency room doctor as he leaves behind a tape for someone to find after his death; the not-quite-dead, but truly mangled townie jumping up from the backseat of a police car to scare a young mother; the Isopod crawling out of a character’s neck or distending a character’s stomach Alien style; the police officer shooting infected citizens, then taking his own life upon finding he was also infected. But, those moments – which pull from a variety of well established horror tropes – seem calculated and sparing and placed strategically throughout the movie, just enough to convey that you’re watching a fiction.
Though there are no real standout performances, the cast perform admirably as an ensemble and they nail the tone needed for such an energetic genre piece.
I’m very interested to see how The Bay is received in the post Halloween scare season.
The film is currently available via iTunes and Video-On-Demand and opens in theaters across the US on Friday, November 9.
*This actually happened in Maryland on January 4, 2011
**Again, a real event which occurred in Arkansas on January 1, 2011
***Isopods are real animals, known as “sea lice,” they are scavengers and not carnivorous at all, but can reach up to 14 terrifying inches in length. You shouldn’t worry, though, you’re unlikely to ever meet one unless you dive past 560 feet into cold ocean waters.
Kate Kotler has an irrational fear of the ocean which was founded upon having viewed the movie Jaws at the impressionable age of five. To this day, though she lives in Chicago, Il, she will not swim past where she can touch and/or see bottom in anything other than a swimming pool. When not worrying about potential shark attacks, Kate writes the “Geek Girl on the Street Reports” column for Bleeding Cool and is the host of the weekly Comix Chix podcast on GeekNation. You can follow her on Twitter @AdorkableGrrl and read about other things she irrationally fears (besides sharks) on her website.