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Griffith Maloney [Film Festival 09.27.12] scifi horror thriller

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If The Bay was a roller coaster, or maybe a flesh eating bacteria themed disney attraction it would be the most exciting thing I've seen all year. If we could just forget about the plot and character development and just put our hands up as our log ride splashed down into an abattoir of blood and guts, The Bay would probably be the best found footage horror fest out there. In the end the style over substance genre combined with the stumbles of a beginner script keeps this otherwise fun tilt-a-whirl from being more than a fun monster ride but it's definitely this summers most exciting movie about huge, tongue-eating, parasites.

The Bay is the latest in the seemingly endless string of found footage films with Veteran director Barry Levinson treating us to every kind of footage imaginable in our post consumer video-camera age. There is cop car dash footage, home movie footage, amateur reporter footage, even painful teen video chats. In the ongoing search for the creepiest possible doomsday movie Levinson imagines an ecological disaster scenario in which run-off pollution turns a tranquil bay into a cauldron of flesh eating bacteria and creepy body devouring isopods. What starts as fun footage of the town's 4th of July celebrations turns quickly into bloody chaos and gross body horror.

We're drawn into this story by journalism student Donna who is narrating her account of the disaster that befalls the sleepy east coast town. The video is slightly out of order, with some exposition on the evils of radioactive-steroid pollution being told via environmental scientist video log while the main bulk of the gore is relayed through tapes of the 4th of July celebration. As the town mayor extolls the virtues of the beautiful clean water things begin to go very wrong. At first its just a few folks with rashes and sores but the local hospital fills up quick and while the local doctor is on the phone with the CDC the first bodies start to show up. These first few bodies look to be the leavings of some deranged killer, intestines dangling and tongues missing. Panic starts to set in as more and more folks succumb to parasites that consume them from the inside.

Levinson is a capable director and his experience counts for a lot here. He produces and directs a new film every two years like clockwork, they might not all be as good as Rain Man but the man knows how to put a film together and it shows in The Bay. In a landscape where home video style footage has become synonymous with a quick cash-grab its great to see an old hand show the kids how its done. The blending of separate found footage sources is flawless and believable, the tension building and action are nerve wracking. Most importantly Levinson knows how to keep things moving, The Bay never overstays its welcome.

Found footage movies are a strange beast. Like epistolary novels they benefit from the veracity of the commonplace. As much as we tell ourselves that the footage we're watching isn't real we can't help but be fooled by it, at least a little bit. The horror genre is especially well suited for this trick, If it resembles the real footage well enough then the audience buy-in is almost immediate. It's usually hard to judge the camera work in a film like this. No one would say that the cinematography of Cloverfield was mind-blowing. I expected the cobbled together scenes of chaos and terror to look obvious but they did not. In fact I'd say that Levinson put together one of the most convincing found footage horror films I've seen.

Judging by the low turn out for the screening there aren't many people out there who want to spend their mornings watching realistic people get their tongues chewed out by monstrous pill bugs. For the people who love that sort of thing this is a definite keeper. The realism of the gore is spot on and the gruesome blood vomiting and flesh melting scenes are nausea inducing. What's really effective is the way these scenes are setup, the chat roulette style video footage of a teen showing her friend the flesh eating pustules oozing up her arm is chilling in its believability. There are a couple of thematic missteps, especially in the rather forced attempts to remind the audience of the environmental and political aspects of the story. If you're making a movie about a polluted bay breeding monsters, you don't need to remind the audience that pollution is bad while mutants eat each others faces, we get the point.

The achilles heel of the film is a weakly written framing device. The movie is presented as the narration of a journalism student over the found footage of the incident but the narration is odd and off-key most of the time. This isn't the fault of narrator Donna, played by Kether Donohue who's long history of voice acting makes her a great choice for narrator, but rather the uneven script humor. One of the greatest challenges in a found footage film is to match the character behavior to the realism of the setting. In a conventional thriller the audience is willing to accept certain inconsistencies because of the nature of film. However, when you're banking on the acceptance of documentary style footage to maximize the scariness of your film the characters need to act like real people, not people in a movie.

This problem is most evident in the attempts to use humor at the beginning of the story. Most found footage situations just aren't funny. So when we start to see humor pop up it seems oddly disingenuous. The script even calls this out by having the interviewer say that Donna is "using humor to cope with a traumatic event." It's always a mistake when the writer lampshades their own script in a movie that's not a parody. The small town hijinks and bald jokes that open the film make it seem more like a rerun of Arrested Development then any horror picture. On top of this oddly placed humor is a exploitative horror trope that I could do with out, namely the "family in danger" gimmick. At the top of the picture we're show an adorable family with little baby in tow who're on their way to our ill-fated town. It’s the worst sort of tension building, it doesn't trust the viewer enough to care about the situation, so they throw a baby into the mix of horrible monsters just to tug our heart strings.

Even with its cheap writing gimmicks The Bay is a heck of a horror ride with some great directing and some gross effects. The movie maintains a good level of tension and excitement for its tight 87 minutes. There's definitely something to be said for a simple, well made horror movie in the summer season. Bring some strong stomached friends and enjoy the ride.

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