Jason Blum helped produce The Bay because he wanted to work with director Barry Levinson and because he liked the idea of a horror film with a message. We all need to hold our breath and let Blum believe that most horror movies are message free. Horror films are rooted in neurosis and fear, sometimes caused by the legacies of the past but often a consequence of anxiety about the future; that ignorance aside The Bay is a cracking and ambitious production. Ecological nightmares depend on stupidity, corruption, greed and gluttony. The formula appears in The Bay and is believable but it does weaken sympathy in an audience for the victims. Watch The Bay and you wonder if the human race is entitled to concern and the effort. It is, of course, but, for compassion to be merited, at some point we need to get wise to our prospects and responsibilities. Arnold Schwarzenegger worries about the 200,000 citizens of the United States who die every year because of pollution. Donald Trump plays golf and grabs something other than little white balls.
The Bay uses the found footage formula that first appeared in The Blair Witch Project. This time the budget is bigger but Levinson avoids the compromise of complementing the found footage with pictorial landscape filmed on a 35mm camera. Instead he mixes different cameras and technology. The film cuts between scenes filmed on iPhones, location cameras by TV companies, home video and CCTV. There are a couple of stationary shots that offer relief but they all convince. In other films the found footage technique was used to reduce budgets but in The Bay it makes artistic and thematic sense. Most people are aware of economic philosopher Adam Smith and his early praise for the division of labour. In The Wealth Of Nations he described a production line in a nail factory. Self-serving capitalists soon got the point. Our jobs became more specialised, and we became blinkered. Today few of us are capable of understanding or managing the wider world we live in. This phenomenon is caught well in The Bay. Experts struggle to communicate with each other. They doubt what they are being told by both victims and other experts. We exist in a world that is fractured and held together in high-risk fashion by people who have narrow concerns. The human race has been lucky so far but this is how ecological disasters happen, people saying it was not their responsibility. Donald Trump says he has to think about American jobs and that others can worry about climate change. The planet is beyond his pay grade. It is surreal and irresponsible but in a way the coiffured dope has a point.
Cameras give us an illusion we are in control. We half-master technology and capture what is momentary and remote, what used to be beyond our reach. We may be filming more of the world and our lives than we did in the past but what is stored on our electronic devices is telling us little about the world we inhabit and, as a consequence, ourselves. The found footage in The Bay is a record that reveals only confusion. Give us a camera and we become myopic. Faced with death and calamity the victims inThe Bay are inarticulate. Their cameras continue to roll, and the audience is given a glimpse of what the future will contain whatever the result of our negligence, a chaotic collection of disconnected images and daft grins.
The events in The Bay take place on Independence Day. Three and a half thousand miles away from the American continent it is easy for Europeans to imagine Independence Day celebrations as austere and serious, Americans remembering both self-sufficient heroes that secured a nation and high minded men who devoted themselves to cherishing human rights. The Bay soon puts that notion to bed. It is a holiday, and Americans do what everybody else does on holiday. They overeat, drink alcohol and look for sunshine and the sea. This escapist indulgence is afforded by an organised tourist industry. As the various cameras reveal in The Bay, independence and self-sufficiency is a myth. We have become specialists who follow routine processes defined by our job descriptions. A desperate doctor from the hospital telephones the Centre For Disease Control. The bureaucratic expert in the Centre takes him through a standard questionnaire. Told about the bizarre outbreak the expert nods his head. His colleague also nods. They pretend to think, and their sympathy is also pretence. Their main concern is to when concede defeat and call the White House.
In The Wealth Of Nations the author Adam Smith imagined something he described as the invisible hand. The theory is that greed and selfishness will combine to produce a benevolent effect, profit makers will respond to demand and human need. Apart from the brutalised losers that the followers of Adam Smith dismiss as essential utilitarian wreckage, the invisible hand also produces a fractured and vulnerable society. This is because everyone concentrates on his or her increasingly narrow responsibilities. There have been benefits including really small cameras but now it feels like the invisible hand is more like an elastic band ready to snap. No wonder we are happy in our free time to get drunk and point our cameras at nothing in particular. In The Bay the final victim we watch die is a dentist. The occupation chosen by the scriptwriters is deliberate. Successful dentists are rich and have high status. Medicine and the human body, though, they do not understand.
The reporter who is obliged to report the events to the TV Company is an intern. She is clueless but the experienced presenters who sneer at her in an off-camera moment are the really ignorant. They know even less than the overwhelmed intern because they think glamour and smiles qualify them to be journalists. A mayor answers a question from a concerned citizen and quotes statistics that neither he nor anyone else understands. The lake is polluted but percentages rather than clear water are quoted as evidence that pollution is not a problem. The intern narrates the events and appears in the subsequent film collected from the found footage. Her hair is different and she is unrecognisable as the previous employee of the TV Company. She has left the fractured creation that collapsed in Chesapeake Bay, the scene of the outbreak. The intern now has a wider understanding of what happens in the real and complex world, aspects of which the powerful had hidden from view. The intern has acquired purpose and rather than exist as an isolated specialist she has delved into the experiences of the victims and others.
Barry Levinson the director of The Bay has had a mixed career but he has made some interesting films. His decision to use Chesapeake Bay as the location for a horror movie based on an ecological disaster would not have been appreciated in Maryland. Chesapeake Bay is a major tourist attraction. This adds to the impact of the film. Tourists, though, have not stayed away from the resort. Neither is there evidence that the movie has informed the thinking of Donald Trump. The Bay was inspired by real events. The tourists consume food and drink and leave waste. Chicken farms deposit tons of excrement, which pollutes the water and sea life in the bay. Both fish and bird life have suffered. In the 1990s humans who swam in the bay suffered a mysterious skin rash. Efforts have been made to control the pollution, and today well-meaning experts offer reassurances about recognised problems and the serious attempts to achieve ecological balance. Meanwhile there just might be an elastic band waiting to snap.
The carping that The Bay is not a horror film is not justified. Ignore the unintended pun. The film has jump scares, creepy effects, threatening noises and gruesome disfigurement. 700 people die. In fact The Bay is the horror film that Steven Spielberg would have made if he had not chickened out halfway through making Jaws, another unintended pun best ignored. There are references to the film by Spielberg. The mayor is corrupt and self-satisfied, crowds panic and there are three people on a boat. Levinson also repeats the scene where a beautiful girl is attacked by an unseen monster under the surface of the sea. This scene depends on dodgy science but it is also clever and an interesting variation on what happened in Jaws. Near the end of The Bay there is a fine jump scare, and credit has to be given to the person that came up with an original idea for diverting the attention of the audience.
The music in The Bay also needs to be mentioned. Only three records are used to complement the score. Our Town is a classical piece by the great American composer Aaron Copeland and suggests calm and trust. It evokes the sharing of harmonious fate that occurs within a real community. This is more irony. Red Cadillac And Black Moustache is a rockabilly classic by Warren Smith, and Spoonful is great Chicago blues from Howling Wolf. The latter adds atmosphere to a suspense scene. The former is a tale of confusion, mistrust and destructive dependence. The truth is we cannot resist stretching and playing with elastic bands.
Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism. If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.