Monday, October 7, 2013

The Bay

The Bay (2012)
Dir. Barry Levinson
Written by Michael Wallach
Starring Kether Donahue, Kristin Connolly

"From the director who brought you RAIN MAN... and THE NATURAL... comes a story... about giant crabs that eat your tongue"

I considered adding a “Found footage clusterfuck” category to my Chainsawnukah checklist this year. After all, the horror genre pretty much spawned this unholy trend in the first place, and it’s been horror which has most thoroughly embraced it. V/H/S 1 & 2, THE LAST EXORCISM, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 1-5, GRAVE ENCOUNTERS 1 & 2, [REC] 1 & 2, it’s remake QUARANTINE, arguably CLOVERFIELD, THE POUGHKEEPSIE TAPES, TROLLHUNTER, APOLLO 18, THE DYLATOV PASS INCIDENT, two separate bigfoot flicks, even George Romero in his inexcusably awful DIARY OF THE DEAD. The list goes on and on. Wikipedia has a list of over 100 movies which fall into this category.

It makes sense, I guess. In theory, anyway, the found-footage conceit actually offers some intriguing and unique possibilities. As I pointed out when I reviewed V/H/S, I think that there’s a certain brilliance to the idea of the camera as a fixed perspective which is directly interacting with the action and hence imprisons the audience in the experience, denying them the usual cinematic escape which would come through editing. Editing is a cinematic tool which has its own unique ability to create tension through artful juxtaposition and rhythm, but as audiences have become increasingly literate in the grammar of cinema they’ve also come to rely on editing as a kind of protective omnipotence, swooping in to rescue the viewer from anything too tedious or unpleasant by cutting away and substituting implication or cinematic shorthand. We’ve come to understand and rely on the certainty of this implied agreement so much that it can be deeply disconcerting when a movie breaks the rules, for example CHILDREN OF MEN with its brutally extended long takes that force the viewer into the trenches with the protagonists and refuse to allow them the the expected release of a cut to a new perspective.

UN CHIEN ANDALOU plays with this concept in a different way in its infamous eye-slicing scene; not in the sense of a fixed perspective, but by undercutting our comfortable expectations about editing. In that notorious scene, the audience is put on edge by the squeamish prospect of an eyeball being sliced by a razor, but then is offered the expected reprieve when the shot cuts away to footage of a cloud drifting across the moon (assuring us that we'll be subjected only to a visual simile, not an actual act of violence). And then, in one of the all-time great acts of cinematic betrayal, Brunuel cuts back to the eye and goes through with it anyway! We’re tacitly promised that the magic of editing will rescue us from situations we truly don’t want to be in, and Brunuel’s trick completely shatters our faith in that regard, yanking away our comfortable expectations of safety for the rest of the runtime. 

Found footage movies don’t always have the same sense of expectations undermined, but they can offer the same discomfort which comes from knowing that we don’t have -or can’t rely on, anyway-- the usual tricks of editing to protect us from experiencing something we don’t want to. Not only does the cinematic grammar change in a somewhat unpredictable way, but there’s a much greater ability (and narrative incentive) to trap us in a single fixed perspective, either through long takes or by holding a single, subjective point of view and consequently refusing the protective omniscience of a typical, neutral frame of reference.

Man, it's like you're really there, wherever "there" is and whatever this is.

Aside from that, the found-footage conceit may, --may-- arguably, have the capability to capture a certain sense of realism, particularly to a generation which has seen so much of it’s reality filtered through amateur media. Not too many found footage horror films have actually been able to pull this off (in fact, the jarring combination of unconvincing human behavior and real-world camera perspectives often highlights the artifice rather than downplaying it, but that’s a problem of execution more than form), but it certainly seems in theory that this could work, and potentially offer a certain kind of advantage over traditional film. And of course, it must be said: found footage films are cheap and easy to make. PARANORMAL ACTIVITY cost fucking $15,000, and grossed close to $200,000,000. Not too surprising that there are more of these every year.

So, considering all that, I considered putting the "found footage clusterfuck" category on there. But then I didn’t, because I fucking hate found footage clusterfucks and plan on watching as few as possible, particularly when they’re just found footage versions of the same old bullshit horror tropes, but now just with a cheaper, uglier, less artful veneer. Despite the unique opportunities to play with perspective, storytelling and editing conventions, it seems like these movies almost never actually take advantage of these possibilities, and instead seem to consider the basic gimmick to be sufficient in and of itself. Rather than inspiring innovation and experimentation, it seems instead to have emboldened a generation of shameless rascals to attempt genre movies which are so utterly bereft of basic competence or even genre content that they'd never fly even as the most bargain-basement Full Moon Video Schlock, using the stupid found footage gimmick as a coward's attempt to justify their worthless existence. But even when the content is actually there, it seems like the conceit tends to be used as a crutch for defending a more amateurish version of the same old recycled beats. V/H/S, in particular, was disappointing in how conventional most of it’s storytelling is. Same old crap, but now it’s hard to see and the terrible acting stands out more? Why would I want to put that in my eyeballs?

That having been said, I did decide to give THE BAY a try, because it sounded a little bit different and unique, and because I was kinda curious about Barry Levinson directing a horror movie. Levinson has to have one of the most unpredictable careers of any big-name director working today, having written for Mel Brooks (SILENT MOVIE, HIGH ANXIETY), directed plodding insipid Hollywood crapola (RAIN MAN, SPHERE), endearing slice-of-life ensembles starring Steve Guttenberg* (DINER), charming old-fashioned kid’s adventure stories (YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES), the classiest rape-revenge thriller ever made (SLEEPERS), Oscar-winning historical pieces (BUGSY), utter pieces of inexplicable shit (ENVY, a movie so utterly ill-conceived that it almost challenges MY SOUL TO TAKE), and now, found-footage environmental horror films. What’s this guy’s deal? He’s obviously a competent craftsman, but I would never have figured he’d be interested in this type of genre fare.

Wheel him out quietly. It's best that the Children don't see him. Not into the Kindergarten!"

The verdict? A perfectly acceptable, if nonessential, take on a slightly different flavor of horror movie than the usual ghosts n’ slasher types. There’s nothing supernatural here, it’s closer to one of those “nature’s revenge” type movies like DAY OF THE ANIMALS or THE LONG WEEKEND, where humans’ arrogance towards nature results in a fairly brutal lesson about who’s really in charge here. In this case, the answer is cute little rolly-polly isopods (don’t worry, it’s not much of a spoiler since they figure out the culprit pretty quick) who note-so-cutely decide to grow really fuckin big and start incubating inside human bodies, ALIEN-style. Isopods (a real, primitive crustacean) are more cute than scary if I may say so, but fortunately they’re more of a macguffin, and the real horror here is the ever-escalating apocalyptic scenario in a small Chesapeake Bay town (actually shot in Maryland!). The film is set up as a documentary being produced about the incident, allowing Levinson to edit together different video sources in a way which tells a somewhat fragmented, but plausible-feeling, tale of a bloody epidemic which starts innocently and ends with piles of corpses in the street.

They're like the hamsters of the sea.

Since this is intentionally presented as a work edited together from different video sources, Levinson gets to use some traditional editing but in a found-footage context, i.e. we’ll see parts of a scene through a first-person cameraphone, parts of it through footage from a nearby security cam, part of it as audio-only from a recorded phone call. This helps them beat the usual “why the hell are you still recording this, drop the fucking camera and save yourself you asshole” question which sucks the plausibility right out of otherwise reasonably convincing stuff like CLOVERFIELD. With a cast of mostly unknowns, footage which (almost) all seems plausible, a not-especially-flashy monster and a believably small scale, THE BAY may well qualify as the most credible found-footage debacle I’ve seen, which makes you take it perhaps a modicum more seriously and makes the deaths sting a little more. If anything, THE BAY may actually be a little too grounded, lacking many big showpiece scares and sometimes feeling as much like a particularly icky disaster movie as it does a horror story. Still, a careful production design eventually builds a nice apocalyptic atmosphere, and by the film’s last sequences there’s a palpable sense of dread hovering around (not to mention some gruesome carnage littered about).

As to whether this kind of solid work justifies the scourge of found-footage horror, I’m somewhat ambivalent. You certainly could make this film without the found-footage concept, and probably make it better on a technical level. But on the other hand, the found-footage angle has the somewhat unexpected effect of seeming to let the story unfold around you, the viewer as a participating witness, which I’m not sure a traditional film would have been able to capture and which is absolutely essential to it’s success. I think a possible analogy would be to first vs third person literary narration; they’re both ways of telling a story, but with a unique sense of the audience’s involvement in and relation to the proceedings. Cinema has been trying to find it’s own version of the first-person narrative since at least LADY IN THE LAKE in 1947 (surely there are earlier examples, too) and maybe found-footage is destined to occupy that place. The moderate but admirable success of THE BAY is convincing enough to demonstrate that this kind of thing can be used artfully and successfully in ways that traditional film wouldn’t be. It just usually isn’t. And it’ll take more than one decent effort to convince me that this sort of thing should be common enough to earn a place on my checklist. Your move, V/H/S 2.

Edit 10/15/2013: VHS 2 most assuredly did not convince me.

*Who makes Steve Guttenberg a star? We do!

"I die happy... knowing my last tweet got 2 my peeps 4-eva"


  • SEQUEL: Nope
  • REMAKE: Nope
  • SLUMMING A-LISTER: Academy award winning director Barry Levinson
  • BOOBIES: Nope
  • DECAPITATIONS OR DE-LIMBING: It's bloody, but I think all limbs stay on.
  • ENTRAILS? Yeah definitely.
  • CURSES: No
  • OBSCURITY LEVEL: Low. Hit theaters last year

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