The found-footage horror movie can be traced back to Ruggero Deodato’s “Cannibal Holocaust.” The tale of a team of Italian filmmakers who disappeared in Africa, its violence was so believable that some initially believed it to be a snuff film. Unfortunately, the film relies on genuine cruelty to animals for much of its shock value. Its baton was passed on to “The Blair Witch Project,” which became a surprise blockbuster in 1999.
Just when the craze seemed to be over, “Paranormal Activity” and the Spanish film “[Rec]” revived it. “The Blair Witch Project” used offscreen space and spooky sounds brilliantly, while “Paranormal Activity” was genuinely artless. Still, it proved popular enough to become a franchise whose fourth installment was recently released. “Paranormal Activity” director Oren Peli is one of the producers of Barry Levinson’s “The Bay,” in whichever the “Diner” director goes slumming in the found-footage field and remakes “Jaws” for more paranoid times.
“The Bay” is set on July 4, 2009 in Claridge, Maryland, although it has a present-day framing device. The entire film supposedly consists of found-footage, mostly shot by ordinary people. Due to runoff from nuclear and chemical plants, as well as chicken feces, crustacean parasites mutated to the point where they killed off large numbers of fish and became a threat to people. On July 4th, holiday festivities get underway, but people quickly break out in boils and lesions. The Claridge hospital is swamped, and patients soon die. A young TV reporter (Kether Donohue) captures the whole day’s events and later preserves it for posterity.
“The Bay” was shot on more than 20 different kinds of cameras. It uses every imaginable form of communications technology — Skype, TV footage, security cameras, cameras mounted in police cars, cell phones, and text messages. The film seems like it’s building toward a major point about technology, but it never quite gets there. It’s content merely to represent the pervasive presence of cameras and communications devices in our lives.
“The Bay” introduces itself as a film put together by one of its characters for a Wikileaks-inspired website. However, it’s far too slickly edited to be convincing as found footage organized by the government — or even a student filmmaker. At certain moments, Levinson uses montage sequences to make sure everyone gets the point he’s trying to make. One also has to wonder who added the musical score. Still, the film makes the most out of its gimmick. Only in a genre film could one get away with using such low-quality cameras, as the narrative justifies their use, although “Cloverfield” and “Chronicle” have combined consumer-grade video with elaborate special effects.
Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host” also drew from “Jaws," but added an antiauthoritarian attitude. It centered on a family and seemed suspicious of almost everyone outside that intimate circle, particularly the US government. “The Bay” ups that anger even further. In the film’s press kit, Levinson stresses the story’s grounding in environmental reality and urges the audience to think of it as a cautionary tale.
As a political film, however, its ecological message is drowned out by the sense that it’s foolish to rely on cops, doctors, the mayor, or anyone associated with the government. “The Bay” repeatedly shows authority figures as self-destructive idiots.
The film would have more impact if it didn’t feel so secondhand. Its introduction shows apparently real news footage of ecological disasters. The following 80 minutes combine Spielberg with George Romero’s zombie extravaganzas. The most interesting thing about it is the way it tells a story in a style that constantly tries to impress us with its realism but seems thoroughly artificial, from the special effects to the use of music. Levinson undercuts his political goals and ultimately shows that a shaky camcorder is no guarantee of truth.
THE BAY | Directed by Barry Levinson | Lionsgate/ Roadside Attractions | Opens Nov. 2 | IFC Center | 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com