For most of us, the enjoyment of horror movies depends on the sheer unlikeliness of their storylines. Knowing that the average swamp does not contain a slimy monster or that a nest of cannibals would have a hard time surviving in a depopulated desert — at some point, even mutants have to make a Wal-Mart run — is the cocoa that helps us sleep. And that's the challenge for The Bay: This astonishingly effective environmental nightmare is based on reasoning that, if you've been following the science, seems all too possible.
Plunging into the found-footage pool, veteran director Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Wag the Dog) injects this tired genre with sparking energy. Opening with an onscreen conspiracy alert — "The following story was never made public" — he tucks a classical creature feature inside a mockumentary with the skill of someone who has stared down much more complicated projects.
Harnessing a wide variety of video and film sources (cellphones, police cameras, home movies, news footage), Levinson structures them around a Skype exposé by a young journalism intern (Kether Donohue) assigned to cover a fateful July 4th celebration in a small Chesapeake Bay town.
Like Bong Joon-Ho's delirious monster movie The Host, this ecological frightener spins on contaminated water, official scrambling and the courage of the little guy. Unfolding over an increasingly bloody 24 hours, the story (by Michael Wallach, a former State Department political analyst) arcs from millions of dead fish to hundreds of torn-apart humans with relentless momentum. A chicken-eating contest erupts with projectile vomiting, birds rain from the sky, and the reporter and her cameraman, growing more terrified by the minute, race from one 911 call to another. Like the beach in Jaws, the picturesque bay is soon transformed into screaming, gory chaos.
Though the horror itself, despite the film's microbudget, is more than serviceable (there are regurgitating references to Alien and Piranha), the film's real strength lies in the way it builds tension from a core investigative thread. "Research video" from a pair of young oceanographers testing for pollutants intercuts with clandestine footage from an eco-blogger filming massive piles of steroid-enhanced chicken excrement from an industrial poultry farm. At the local hospital, a frantic doctor (Stephen Kunken), abandoned by his staff and surrounded by petrified, boil-encrusted patients, anxiously Skypes a mystified contact at the CDC. Meanwhile the town's mayor (Frank Deal) worries more about loss of tourism than loss of lives.
Shot in Georgetown, S.C., and based on a real-life horror — as well as evidence of the toxic dross that's already killing the Chesapeake — The Bay is a straightforward whatdunnit and a passionate slap in the face for a spineless EPA. Teamed with the producers of Paranormal Activity, Levinson presents his material without winking and with a minimum of shaky-cam disruption, delivering a movie that has more in common with early Cronenberg than the entries on his own resume. You won't hear too many people complaining.