by Tony Dayoub
The most surprising thing about the disturbing The Bay, the first of the New York Film Festival's new Midnight Movie entries, is the fact that Barry Levinson (Diner) directed it. Cobbled together from a wide range of digital video "found footage," The Bay draws on recent reports of parasitic isopods infecting fish just off the Jersey coast. As one recent report says, "There's a horror film waiting to be made about this thing." And so it has been—The Bay is a harrowing, nerve-jangling trifle from a once popular director all but written off in recent years.
However, The Bay relocates from Jersey to environs Levinson is more familiar with—Chesapeake Bay, a tourist location ripe with possibilities for maximum carnage. An ill-timed combination of climate changes, nuclear waste, and waste runoff from hormone-injected chickens causes the typical isopod (or sea lice) to mutate into a larger, deadlier version. This creature burrows into a fish, eats its tongue and lodges itself in the tongue's place, eventually eating its way out of the fish as well. Tired of just infecting sea life, The Bay's isopods begin doing the same to humans. And, wouldn't you know it, they begin during the fictional Claridge, Maryland's annual 4th of July celebration.
Sound familiar? Well, I didn't say it was original. The Bay is Jaws crossed with Contagion with a bit of George Romero's found footage horror film, Diary of the Dead, thrown in for good measure. But the usually genial Levinson mixes things up by diffusing all of these film's elements, including the prominence of its protagonists. The closest we have to identifiable heroes are split among The Bay's multilateral plotline—the film's narrator, naive cub reporter Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue); the overwhelmed doctor at the local hospital, Jack Abrams (Stephen Kunken); and Stephanie (The Cabin in the Woods' Kristen Connolly), a new mother and former Claridge resident back for the festivities. Each heads up their own arc presented through surveillance videos, security cams, Skype calls, etc., allowing Levinson to build a tapestry of parallel storylines that create a sense of both dread and suspense as we slowly grow to appreciate the scale of Claridge's epidemic.
The Bay isn't necessarily that innovative a stab at horror films. But since its not part of the festival's main slate, it really doesn't need to be. What it is is a deft showcase of Levinson's creative abilities. The veteran director, better known for light-hearted dramas, manages to shock and creep us out more often than most other recent filmmakers who've made trendy "found footage" films their particular wheelhouse (The Bay is produced by Paranormal Activity's Oren Peli). As an unexpectedly frightening throwaway from a once respected filmmaker, The Bay fully deserves its inaugural NYFF Midnight Movie slot.
The Bay is playing at the 50th New York Film Festival as part of its Midnight Movie sidebar at midnight Saturday, September 29th at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center's Howard Gilman Theater, 144 West 65th St (south side between Broadway and Amsterdam), New York, NY 10023; and at 9 pm Sunday, September 30th at the Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center's Francesca Beale Theater, 144 West 65th St (south side between Broadway and Amsterdam), New York, NY 10023. For more ticket information go online here, or call (212) 721-6500.