Review: Barry Levinson shows off some unexpected horror chops in ‘The Bay’

Barry Levinson did it right.

Feels like it’s been a while since I’ve felt that way.  I don’t have any animosity towards Levinson for his various lesser films.  I think he’s always been a guy who seems like he worked with cool people and he did some really fun things and he made a few classics and he did some really slick commercial work and he’s occasionally gone way off the rails, but I’ve always been interested. And I’ll sit through “Sphere” if it means that same guy also makes “Tin Men.”  “Toys” doesn’t bother me at all because “Diner” is in the world.  He’s one of those guys whose best work more than balances the sometimes wildly ambitious failures he is capable of.

I would have never thought “horror film” when thinking of Levinson, though.  That doesn’t seem to fit at all with the body of work he’s been building, and I have a hard time reconciling his sensibility with the coldly effective tone of “The Bay,” which is in limited theatrical release at the same time that you can see it at home on demand.  Whichever way you watch it, it’s effective and entertaining and has such a different voice than most horror movies that it should really surprise audiences.

I was surprised to see that it’s a found footage film, too.  And unlike many films that are lumped in under that description that are really just mockumentaries, “The Bay” does deal with the narrative implications of this footage existing and how it’s being shared with the audience.  As I mentioned in a piece we ran with some photos from the film, Levinson originally became interested in the subject matter of “The Bay” when he was approached about doing a documentary on the slow death of Chesapeake Bay.  Levinson is one of those filmmakers who has carved out a particular geographical area, Baltimore, as his main territory, his subject matter, the canvass on which he has told stories like “Diner,” “Avalon,” “Homicide: Life On The Streets,” “Tin Men,” and “Liberty Heights.”  I love that the two bards of Baltimore are Barry Levinson and John Waters.  What kind of city produces those two voices?  Since Baltimore is affected by the Bay, the producers who approached him figured he’d want to tell the story of how this body of water is dying.  The more research Levinson did, the more he realized that he could craft something else out of what he was reading, a more populist method of delivering the same ideas to an audience.  Working with screenwriter Michael Wallach, he has built a real-world scenario that is turned up just enough to make it a movie.  He takes real conditions that exist on the Bay and he’s used real reactions from the ecosystem and he’s extrapolated this one next step beyond that… and that’s where the scares come from.  We are certainly capable, as a species, of screwing things up this badly or even worse.

So the conceit of the film, the reason for the footage that is later found, is that someone has collected every bit of video shot within the city limits during a certain day, and we’re looking at a rough assembly of the things we need to see to understand what went down in the small town of Claridge, Maryland on the 4th of July.  The person presenting this information is Donna (Kether Donohue), who was working as as TV news intern on the day of the event.  She was right there in the middle of it, and the footage her cameraman shot is part of the record she presents, as well as video from hospitals, police cars, private citizens, public security cameras, and more.  Levinson uses the device quite effectively, and by the time the movie wraps up, it no longer feels like a gimmick.  Levinson isn’t hamstrung by the conceit, and he doesn’t have to cheat to make it work, either.

Ultimately, the film almost feels like a “Jaws” for a modern age in the way it portrays a small-town bureaucracy that refuses to face a danger until it’s too late, and “The Bay” is a very modern horror film in terms of what it is afraid of and how it relates to our daily lives.  It stakes out a turf somewhere between body horror and eco-horror, and effectively plays on how insecure we are about both of those things these days.  The fact that the isopods, the main creatures in the film, are real things that are just exaggerated to a slight dramatic degree here should make you uncomfortable.  I’ve seen many horror films that are impressively made and well acted and confident and stylish but that ultimately don’t concern anything that I am actively actually afraid of, and that diminishes them to some degree for me.  “The Bay” is one of those films where it has nagged at me since seeing it because there’s enough about it that is grounded in reality that you can’t just laugh it off.  We are perfectly capable of creating our own monsters these days, and it seems inevitable that we are going to make some combination of mistakes that will blow up in our faces, and this may well be the way it plays out.

“The Bay” is currently playing in select theaters and is available On Demand.