It's hard to figure which primal fear Barry Levinson doesn't tap into with "The Bay," a horror-thriller in which, it turns out, the problems in the Chesapeake go much deeper than a declining oyster harvest and too much shoreline development.
Of course, there's fear of the unknown, a staple of horror stories since caveman days. But in Levinson's skilled hands, "The Bay" also evokes the fear of science run amok, of nature unbridled (not to mention ticked off), of government censorship, of disease, of unstoppable forces, of darkness, of technology unchecked. And, of course, of the bogeyman.
Shot using hand-held cameras, smartphones, surveillance video and all manner of other populist filmmaking techniques, "The Bay" presents itself as an expose of what really happened in the (fictional) bayside resort town of Claridge on a sunny July afternoon that, by its end, left hundreds of the town's residents dead and the entire community sealed off by government decree.
Our guide to the day's horrific events is Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue), who covered the day's events as a round-faced young TV reporter and, in the years since, has become increasingly frustrated at a government cover-up intent on writing off what happened as an unfortunate anomaly that authorities are still looking into. She knows it was far more sinister and dangerous than that.
To get her warning across, Thompson combines her own footage (shot by a photographer who, along with almost everyone who was there that day, is dead) with streams downloaded from the Internet (before they were removed by government censors) and other video accounts pieced together from various sources. Ignore this, she warns ominously, at your own peril.
As in any good horror film, the devil is in the details, and the details are best left for viewers to discover on their own, not read about beforehand. Suffice to say that what appears at the beginning as little more than a stomach-upsetting virus turns out to be much more. Much, much more.
Levinson, working off a script from first-time screenwriter Michael Wallach, turns "The Bay" into one of the most discomfiting cinematic rides in recent years. A feeling of helpless dread is established early in the film and only intensifies as it progresses.
Other films have relied on hand-held cameras and "found footage" to amp up the horror quotient — "The Blair Witch Project" and "Cloverfield," for example. But unlike them, "The Bay" comes across as less gimmick-laden than narratively rich — probably because the film was "pieced together" from multiple sources and is not one long cinematic monologue told from a limited point of view. There's no omniscient storyteller in "The Bay," and yet Levinson still manages to let everyone involved become part of the storytelling process.
Plus, let's not forget, "The Bay" is scary as all heck. In part, that's because much of the story is based on fact — there is a dead zone, for example, that encompasses some 40 percent of the Chesapeake, and the organism that turns out to be the central villain here does exist, although not in the mutated form presented here.
But mostly, "The Bay" is scary because Levinson lets its horror arise naturally, without forcing anything and without unnecessarily goosing its audience. At times, the film may turn a little too repulsive, inducing groans of disgust more than tension. And there's a mutant-monster payoff that harks back to the monster movies of the '50s (think "Godzilla"), which may not prove a plus for all audiences.
Then again, most people watching "The Bay" may be too terrified to notice. And in an era when vampires have becomes staples of romantic fiction and zombies mainstream-movie antiheroes, it's nice to see a good old-fashioned bogeyman — or, in this case, bogeymite — that's just flat-out freaky.
MPAA rating: R (disturbing violent content, bloody images and language)
Running time: 1:25
Opens: TodayCopyright © 2015, CT Now