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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

HubrisWeen 2, Day 2: The Bay (2012)

Story by Barry Levinson and Michael Wallach; Screenplay by Michael Wallach
Directed by Barry Levinson

Nancy Aluka:  Jaquline
Christopher Denham:  Sam
Stephen Kunken:  Dr. Abrams
Frank Deal:  Mayor Stockman
Michael Beasley:  Officer Jimson

Man, there's a lot of fads in horror movies. I'm guessing it has something to do with a large section of the fanbase outgrowing them every few years--there will always be diehards that stick with a scene (I'm sure there are some 40-and-older completely sincere fans of the Power Rangers who never stopped watching those shows either) but it seems to me that the middle teenage years is the time that most casual horror movie fans watch a bunch of 'em and then move on to other pursuits. So you get your franchise masked-maniac slashers and the responses to those, a spate of killer puppet movies, a moment in the sun for zombies and other not-technically-living-dead-but-doing-stuff-zombies-do movies influenced by them, cannibal rednecks stalking city-dwellers in the wood, and half a dozen other trends that came and went that you're probably thinking of RIGHT NOW. There's a binary system of reasons for this--the first is that moviemaking is a business, and businesses like to turn a profit. If superhero movies are profitable, studios will keep making them until they aren't (and horror films can be made cheaply, so they're likelier to succeed than something that might need name actors or expensive location shooting or lots of special effects). The second reason is that Hollywood careers are born and sustained by being the second one to do something original.

Which brings us to the "found footage" genre. The gimmick with this movie is that the viewer is watching events unfold in the first person, through the lens of a camera that the movie characters are using. There are examples of the conceit being used back in the 1970s and 80s (and some day I really do want to see 84C MoPic, the found footage war movie), but Cannibal Holocaust is a movie legendary among horror fans and virtually unknown outside of the fandom. The film that introduced the concept to mainstream audiences was The Blair Witch Project; it was a cheaply made independent horror movie with no stars (please look to the previous paragraph and its comments on horror films being made with an eye towards profitability), and a killer ad campaign using the nascent movie-fan scene on the internet capitalized on the novelty and the quality of the film to the tune of a quarter of a billion dollars. And once there's a proven market for something novel and original, what is the film industry to do except shove a hand up that goose's ass and reach for more golden eggs?

That's actually a lot harsher judgment than this film deserves. But the general point still stands--after the worldwide smash success of the first Blair Witch film there were a whole lot of people jumping on that bandwagon and hoping for a profitable ride. And thirteen years later the guy who directed Diner made his own entry into the genre. It's actually quite good, and specifically avoids one of the most irritating flaws in some found footage horror movies, which is that if you're being attacked by a monster you should drop the camera and run away.

The Bay is presented as an Edward Snowden-style file dump, edited together from several sources not available to the general public. That's a real plus for the film, because it means that anyone can die (a bonus when you're making a horror movie); just having the camera doesn't mean you're going to be around for the end credits. It also means that the plot doesn't have to progress in a linear manner from A to Z and finish neatly at the end. Not all the characters have to be in the whole movie. In short, the movie can be more cinematic than a Blair Witch Project imitator would necessarily be. And that's a very, very good thing. It probably doesn't hurt that Barry Levinson, as a filmmaker, really knows what he's doing. I don't know that he necessarily wanted to be making a killer parasite found footage horror movie in 2012, but he shows himself to be the directorial equivalent of Donald Pleasence or Michael Caine by committing to the premise and delivering his best efforts rather than just phoning it in.

The film starts with what might well be actual news footage of a gigantic fish die-off; I don't know if the footage is real or a digital fake, but there's also a score playing behind it so whatever the source of the images happens to be, we're watching something that's being presented as a narrative film. There's a notice that "Those events were covered by the media. The following story was never made public". We get a Skype-style view of a young woman being interviewed; her name is Donna Thompson and she says she was covering the 4th of July festival in Claridge, Maryland for a journalism class. Intercut with the present-day interview footage we see panic in the streets on a bright sunny day and an older white man yelling that no cameras should be allowed while an ambulance moves into frame, lights and sirens on. There's a voiceover from Donna saying she was a witness to the events and breaks off. There's a second take, and she says she tried to expose what happened three years ago but was ignored by the world at large.

Using the plausibly named she got her hands on lots of confiscated digital footage from the event in 2009, and the film purports to be the reassembled look at exactly what went down on the holiday. Since it's a horror film, we can safely guess that it was nothing good. This contrasts with the journalism-class footage where Donna is interviewing "Miss Crustacean" and showing off restaurant row. Oh, more doom-laden foreshadowing when we're told that it is, or was, a town of 6200 people. There's also a nice contrast between the footage of Donna Thompson in the past, where she's happy even when screwing up a take for her journalism class and in the present where she's haunted and very self-contained. All kinds of cues are being dropped for the audience to realize that some really, really bad scenes are going to go down.

And what are those bad scenes? Well, several of the stories intersect and some of them don't. And two of the characters are dead six weeks before the July 4 catastrophe, but their segments are edited into the film in order to push the narrative along at dramatically appropriate moments. In order to help the audience figure out which sections fit together and which don't, there's the occasional caption or voiceover, but beyond that Levinson makes sure to keep the film stock varied--the footage from the pro-quality camera in the journalism scenes plays differently than the two teenagers with a digital camcorder, which looks different from the Skype call from a doctor's office which doesn't resemble the dashboard camera in a cop car. Every time the cinematography gets changed up the audience realizes that the viewpoint has been changed, and that something horrible will happen to a new character (or at least their doom will be teased for a while).

The stories, intersecting and otherwise, follow:

Donna Thompson and her cameraman get a front-row seat to mayhem and contagion at the Claridge 4th of July festival. What starts out as a puff piece or human interest story turns sour--Donna tells the audience via voiceover that one person's entire family died that day. While the future Donna is telling us how bad things are going to get, the one in the past is pointing out Claridge's downtown, its big chicken farm (a source of jobs and revenue in the town), restaurants and summer tourism based around the Chesapeake bay. Her interview with Mayor Stockman--and by the way, I love that the inevitable "we can't close the beaches" political figure is named Stockman--has more future-Donna voiceovers saying that at the time, she didn't realize how much blame the mayor deserved for the coming catastrophe.

Meanwhile, somewhere else and six weeks earlier, a pair of oceanographers studying pollution levels in the bay are found dead after being missing for a day and a half. On the police video, their bodies bear massive gaping wounds to the torso and limbs; their data was tracking pollution runoff from the industrial chicken farm and their footage shows that in six weeks or so the ocean currents were going to carry a massive and unprecedented toxic plume from the chicken farm into the bay near Claridge. And since we know things went bad six weeks later, it can safely be said that the scientists were right (not that it will help them or anyone else).

A now-defunct website called "Eco Spy" has night-vision footage of someone sneaking around the chicken farm showing a gigantic pile of chicken feces. The eco spy says forty-five million pounds of chicken shit get dumped in the bay every year from that farm alone. Or at least he would if his web site hadn't been pulled off the internet on July 5, 2009. There's also footage of a press conference blaming the EPA for pollution and mocking dumb hippies for being wrong (and dumb). There's talk of a desalinization plant that Stockman pushed for as a source of clean water for the town--and since we're watching an eco-horror movie, it can be safely assumed that whatever filters are in place, they're not up to the task of protecting the town from whatever's in the water.

Back at the festival, a woman who got dropped into the water in a dunk tank has quickly developed massive blisters on her body and panics, asking people around to call for help and to get her to a hospital. Kids in a pool start to show similar blisters. And then that scene concludes with a group food-poisoning incident at the annual crab-eating contest (this is where the "no cameras!" footage from a moment earlier came from).

The next character to be introduced is a doctor making a video diary, getting into frame and trying to call the Centers for Disease Control as his emergency room is being overrun with dozens of people seeking treatment for massive, unexplained and rapidly growing blisters. Another voiceover explains that Dr. Abrams would treat more than 350 patients on that July Fourth (there's some security camera recordings of the waiting room filling up played over the exposition; another different aesthetic for another source of found footage). Neither Abrams nor the CDC knows what's going on at first, and the federal coordinator gives Abrams a list of questions to ask people so they can try to narrow down the disease vector and figure out how to treat it. One of the questions has to do with contact with livestock, so perhaps it's thought to be some kind of anthrax at this point.

Right after finding out that the authorities have no idea what's going on and that whatever contamination or disease this is has spread to hundreds of people, it's time to check in with two bickering police via their dashboard camera. They find the first onscreen fatality lying on the ground, covered with blood. And after that, Alex and Stephanie Talbot are on a boat, making their way across the bay with their infant daughter--they're going to visit Stephanie's parents in Claridge. Donna's voiceover says that Alex "was a dentist", so start the clock ticking for his inevitable and horrible demise. One more character gets introduced in her own scene--Jennifer, a child, is sending a FaceTime message to a friend because she's developed massive blisters on her arm. Her parents are out--she doesn't know where--and 911 is jammed so she can't get through and try to get help. In the middle of all the "horrible shit is happening to everyone", the writers still manage to find lots of different ways to elicit sympathy from the audience; knowing the scientists are doomed in their flashback footage is one thing but knowing the same thing about a frightened and isolated child is so much worse.

For the rest of the film each storyline just keeps getting worse--the journalists document the horrors that they see (including literally chasing an ambulance at one point), using the sources around them to track down the story they've stumbled in to. At first a couple of the bodies are thought to be murder victims--the homicide cop who points out that one body is covered in deep wounds and missing its tongue suggests a domestic incident rather than a monster attack. And the CDC calls that become more and more frightening as they eventually figure out what's going on are a way to show that even the experts aren't sure what's going on. When the doctors in Atlanta at the federal disease control headquarters are outmatched, it's a short deductive leap for the audience to figure out that Dr. Abrams is hopelessly out of his depth as well. And the Abrams scenes also provide lots of nasty, goopy effects shots of limbs festering and oozing as the parasitic damage spreads (one of the better slow-burn scares happens when Abrams performs an emergency limb amputation to save one patient's life and the same sores show up on the victim's remaining leg).

The oceanographers' footage is cut in from time to time in order to show what's happening to the fish in the bay (which is fantastically nasty, with worms and parasites burrowing into their flesh and wriggling around in the boroscopic camera stuck down a fish's mouth--and showing this happening to a fish is a budget-conscious way to tell the audience what's happening to every single human character that was unlucky enough to come into contact with water in the bay. It also means that one (1) scene of exposition showing an animal stands in for every other human character, so a lot of time is saved not watching other human characters putting the pieces together during the crisis).

It turns out that there's more than one problem--the steroid and antibiotic saturated chicken-guano runoff and cut-rate water filtration at the desalinization plant are working with warmer water temperatures to turn the bay into an all you can eat smorgasbord for isopods, tiny parasites that normally feed on fish. The conditions in the bay are also great for bacteria, so the people trying to figure out what's happening to everyone are actually looking for two problems, not just one. People who came into contact with the small parasites get flesh-rotting blisters and the ones who ingested isopod larvae eventually develop salt-shaker-sized scurrying bug creatures eating their organs and eventually tunneling out of their skin. The standout sequences once all the clues are put together properly involve the two cops from earlier. They wind up at a house full of people slowly and painfully dying from isopod infestation and wind up mercy-shooting them (the whole sequence is captured by the police dashboard camera, and the narrative doesn't cheat by using a shot other than the one from outside the house). The audio from the police radios is so garbled that subtitles are needed on screen to explain what's being said and the scene benefits immensely from this. Another common complaint about found-footage movies is that the camera always happens to be in the right place to capture the events, and Levinson is smart enough to make sure that the most chilling moments happen through the power of suggestion and with the use of sound more than image.

Which is not to say that we don't get scenes of bloodied corpses lying around with oversized parasites popping out of their skin and skittering around as well, but the filmmakers were smart enough to keep mixing things up (including one really high-quality jump scare involving a body with wide-open eyes). And the sense of doom keeps building; when the CDC tells Dr. Abrams that he and his staff should give up and abandon the hospital before they get infected, he tells the federal agents that everyone else left twenty minutes ago and that he's the only one still there. And after having seen hundreds of people attacked by the parasites and isopods, he knows exactly what the newly developed rash on his body means...

And Mayor Stockman? Well, in keeping with his role as authority figure and utter son of a bitch, he's going around with the deputy trying to keep a lid on everything. His scenes don't tell the audience anything about the infestation, but they do tell us that he's had the sheriff jam the cell phone towers (which explains why people couldn't get in touch with the outside world and why Jennifer from earlier couldn't reach her parents), and he gets the comeuppance that he deserves, of course. Not the one that you might expect, by the way, but certainly one that can satisfy the emotional needs of the audience. And it happens after the surviving cop from the earlier house of death sequence gives us the second really good sequence in the film, with him babbling and crying about doom and death and making no sense whatsoever to the mayor but the viewer knows exactly what's going on in his head.

There's a lot of the seventies in this movie, from the "damn near everyone is doomed" setup to the environmental message behind the monsters' creation. Which helps things out quite a bit--it's more interesting to see a movie that picks and chooses its influences from many sources than one that just copies a successful ripoff generator. It's not a Jaws ripoff but it's got people getting attacked in the water and devoured by an unseen attacker. It's pinching elements of The Blair Witch Project but making sure that story logic is served and that the story doesn't unfold in a strictly linear path. It's also smart enough to know what its budget can and cannot handle, so the arrival of hazmat suited troops and the dumping of chlorine in the bay to kill the isopods and bacteria is mentioned but not shown. The movie plays to its strengths and compensates for its weaknesses admirably. And hey, I bet you didn't think the guy who directed Rain Man was ever going to make a movie with that many festering boils the size of golf balls in it.

This review is part of the HubrisWeen 2014 marathon. The other reviews for today’s entry are:

The Terrible Claw Reviews:  The Boogens

Yes, I Know:  Beast of Blood


  1. "And once there's a proven market for something novel and original, what is the film industry to do except shove a hand up that goose's ass and reach for more golden eggs?"

    That's a wonderfully expressed truth that reduces a reader to helpless mirth. My wife and I both thank you for the giggles.

  2. Thank you kindly. I often review to movies as "commerce first and art by accident"; that's almost always because of the studio personnel rather than the filmmakers themselves. And thanks for reading--I'm getting comments from people I don't know on the blog now, which is immensely gratifying.