What happens when you take millions of pounds of steroid-laced chicken poop, as much chemical pollution from agricultural runoff, add a radioactive water leak, and throw it all into a bay inhabited by carnivorous isopods that shouldn’t be there? Who knows! But, with such a mixture of really bad things, no outcome could be good. Adding to this is the fact that these are the mostly true details of an all-too-realistic found footage film that is, as the director says, based 90% on facts! Oh, and I almost forgot that 40% of Chesapeake Bay really is a dead zone due to pollution! Wow! I smell a lot of horror ahead!
“What’s this all about?” you quickly think, wondering what breaking news you somehow missed. Seeing the DVD’s behind-scenes special feature, with the movie’s director Barry Levinson, is enough to alarm you more after the fact, making the movie all the more terrifying in retrospect. As Levinson says, he was asked to make a documentary film about all of the environmental hazards truly affecting Chesapeake Bay. In an ingenious approach, Levinson decided to go a step further to grab public awareness, rather than produce something to be lost amongst the myriad documentaries of the kind. After all, people in general do become too-often numb to such things that don’t concern them directly. What is better than using the facts, as horrifying as they are, in the context of a could-be situation where nature runs amok, affecting people (possibly you) in the most visceral, deadly ways? After watching The Bay, I say that, in fact, little else could be better! And, by the way, don’t miss that featurette interview with Barry Levinson on the DVD. It’s worth every second of its 11 minute running time.
Oh, and I’m sure that more than a few of you are still scratching your heads about isopods. Don’t be ashamed to admit that you don’t know what they are, because, in fact, most people don’t. Public ignorance of these real-life monsters is as rampant as isopods really are, unbeknownst to us, truly spanning the spectrum of human unawareness. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself. Take a survey starting at your local Walmart and ending on the campus of your closest college. Ask this simple question: What is an isopod? You will afterwards feel not so bad, or unique, not to know.
“Enough with all the facts about isopod ingnorance!” you say. “What the hell are they? Okay, okay, here is the official definition from www.thefreedictionary.com: “Any of numerous crustaceans of the order Isopoda, characterized by a flattened body bearing seven pairs of legs and including the sow bugs and gribbles.” Still can’t quite put that scientific definition to mind, can’t fully paint that metaphorical picture with words in your head as a visual learner? Does the word “gribbles” have you scratching your head yet again? Okay, the visual aid below (an actual photo also used in The Bay) should put your confusion to rest and heighten your interest in the realistic horror film this article reviews. As you observe, and to make matters worse, keep the word carnivorous in mind!
Yes, that isopod must be nearly 2-foot long! Wow! And, “Did you say that isopods are carnivorous?” you are now thinking again. Yes, they are! They begin life as a parasitic larva that eats the host from within, and, if that’s not enough, remains a parasite that eats the host from the outside as well! Yes, these guys don’t care which way they’re eating as long as they’re eating. Proof of that, if necessary, is visible in all its horrific reality below. (Yes, they are eating these fish alive, and they LOVE fish tongues–the one in the second photo below is feasting on one already!)
“Okay, those are fish,” you say. “I’m not a fish, I don’t live in the ocean, so why should I care?” Oh, but think again, my overconfident terrestrial friend, too concerned with yourself and not as impulsively wise as your Homo sapiens latin label suggests. Please don’t forget that this is a horror film based on “90% fact” as the director states. Yes! The high percentage of truth here–pollution, steroids, radiation (and even chicken poop)–is everything necessary to mutate such a real-life monster into something truly affecting Homo sapiens (ironically here, man the wise–possibly not so wise at all). Yes, what if this carnivorous creature of nightmares mutated and preyed on us, because of us?
Why did I go National Geographic on you from the start of a review, hitting you hard with horrific facts about a film said to be 10% fiction? That minimal amount of fiction in such a terrifying tale is precisely the reason. Yes! Just when you think the fact-to-fiction ratio should be reversed in a horror film, it’s not! As jaded fans, we too often overgeneralize the fiction in films out of habit, rather than fact. Too often we assume that the monsters are not real, that the plot is not possible, that the people don’t act enough like real people–being too stupid, not running when they should, not killing the killers when they can, not double-tapping, not informing the authorities, ad infinitum–all to further the plot of a stupid movie that couldn’t exist without being stupid.
“…something really bad happened! God she is bleeding!” ~ 911 Caller, July 4, 2009
In The Bay, the typical dumb movie traits don’t exist, and nothing is flawed. Anything like stupid behavior is, in fact, darkly humorous (if not clever) commentary on the reality of humans and the problems with bureaucracy–especially in times of emergency. (I’m thinking specifically of the failure of the CDC and other government agencies in the chain to react to earlier reports of a problem as well as those of the moment; without being too political, it’s simply too typical. In all ways, Director Barry Levinson has taken the utmost care to make the The Bay as realistic and true as possible, within the boundaries it sets for itself, along with reality in general. Speaking of reality, it’s time to drive the point within you, deeply (no pun intended) showing you the images (closeup and medical), making it all the more careworthy to you…personally. Yes, as we watch and say, “This could happen to me,” suddenly, we begin to care. Selfish fear is fear nonetheless.
Getting on with the details, the story takes place in the small seaside Chesapeake Bay town of Claridge, nestled on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, of course thriving on its natural water resources. The arguable main character Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue), is one very green (no environmental message intended) reporter who delivers the details of the disaster, panic, and fear, after the fact, in a an information-leaking documentary she is surely not supposed to be producing. She is doing this by putting available footage together (from news cameras, personal camcorders, surveillance cameras, police dash cams, etc.), in the best chronological order, with the best continuity possible, to make another (don’t hate me for saying this) found-footage film/mockucumentary.
Before you lose interest in this assemblage of confiscated footage, let me interject something important and exceptional. The results here are more authentic than most such films get close to achieving, even with the greatest efforts. Whereas most found-footage fare fails in its trite attempt to do what has already been done, with all the contrived angles and objectivity of something too intentional, The Bay does not. Instead, this chapter of cinéma vérité chronicles its events with stark realism (like it or not), making everything true rather than false. Yes, sometimes even I get tired of the shaky camera, especially when it shakes without telling a story I can believe or care about. In those cases, its little more than an obnoxious addition to something already bad. Here, however, we can believe the story and except the limits of its reality. Here, The Bay is most successful.
“I could hear them. They were like cries for help.” ~ Donna Thompson
Back to the story, Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue), our reluctant news reporter/documentarian, adds further authenticity to the story by being believably insecure, imperfect, and genuinely frightened when things get crawling (with ispopods, that is). Donohue hits the high mark, playing Donna as a real person, infusing within her a personality we know, with a humanness that is authentic; we can identify with her, because she is all of us, as we would be in the situation. She personifies our fear as a viewer, making us part of the experience she faces. Donna is even vainly focused on herself, if only for nervous reasons, when anything but that still matters. At one point she even says, “Honestly, why didn’t anyone tell me my pants were too tight?” as she narrates the disaster documentary, becoming momentarily distracted by her appearance, at least to displace her anxiety. How typical and real is that? Lots! Without such a star performance from Donohue, The Bay would have lacked the necessary ingredient of authenticity from the main character telling the story. This is a person we must believe; thanks to Donahue, we do.
Most of the assembled events take place on the town’s 2009 Fourth of July celebration, with a crustacean-eating contest, hosted by none other than Ms. Crustacean herself (the beautiful Keyla S. Childs). Childs is more effective than she should be in her limited role, embodying the spirit of hometown innocence that makes everything even more believable. Yes, there is also an ironic, almost dark-humor ingredient to this slice of most original seafood cinema. Objectively ridiculous traditions and events in small-town U.S.A. become a highlight for outsiders, adding emphasis to the ominous events to come. And what is the fate of Ms. Crustacean in an isopod outbreak? Until I have seven pairs of segmented legs, or until I’m buried beneath tons of chicken poop, I’m not telling. Yes, my Homo sapiens lips are surely sealed, this time living up well to the “wise” latin semantics!
“I think that what we’re talking about here are two separate strains of some kind of parasite–something that is literally eating its way into the body from the outside. There are lesions and boils. Also, there is something eating its way out from inside.” ~ Dr. Abrams
Backing up to months earlier, two researchers find a staggering level of toxicity in the water and attempt to alert the mayor (Frank Deal). However, like the politician he is, with a good-old-boy image so good it stinks, Mayor Stockman refuses to take action fearing that he will create a panic…and threaten another selfish interest I won’t reveal. (No, I wouldn’t want to offend a single extra mutated isopod! There are too many already!) As a result, a deadly plague (or so “man the wise” thinks) is unleashed, turning humans into hosts for a mutant breed of steroid-powered parasites straight from your worst nightmare! And yes, they even have a real scientific name: Cymothoa exigua. (Click on the highlighted nomenclature and see for yourself! These monsters are real!) 😀
Adding more realism to the mix is a doctor’s video chronicles of emergency room events, for the purposes of science and carrying out his hippocratic oath. Dr. Abrams (played by Stephen Kunken) is another character we can believe in a pivotal role. His frustrated attempts to communicate the seriousness of the situation to the CDC are as disturbing to the viewer as they are to the doctor. Kunken plays the part of a doctor with all the genuine devotion and patience we expect from a hero of healthcare in times of disaster; he is a willful martyr of medicine and just what’s needed. Adding more is the uncomfortable reality from the lack of preparedness hospitals experience when dealing with more than a daily dose of emergencies. Again, we empathize with fearful patients (at least selfishly thinking of ourselves) as much as we do with the doctors, nurses, etc. crippled by the government departments that should support them. The patients dying in mass, while waiting in a hospital, are easily all of us in such a scenario; and that is part of the horror. We have seen it before, at least in our nightmares, and to us it is real!
What’s better is that great special effects and CGI create indelible images the viewer is not to shake off soon, sure to remember–possibly long enough to fuel a nightmare or two…or more! The blood and gore is realistic, fleeting, never gratuitous, and always effective; we see only as much as a handheld camera or surveillance video should show, and never more. The isopods, as they scurry out of human orifices and wounds galore, inside of bodies, across the floor of boats, boardwalks, and the like look real and, most importantly, alive. Yes, you will feel these isopods crawl on your own skin, as they crawl across the screen. Trust me! “Making skin crawl,” has never been as literal as it is here!
Of course, I could go on and on writing about The Bay to the point that I give too much away; but I won’t. It’s too much of a bloody good experience to spoil for all the isopodic virgins among us. The movie embodies, literally and figuratively, all of the qualities I include on my rubric for the best horror out there, in there, and beyond. It’s gritty and realistic, revealing the follies and faults of humans, without making them stupid and superficially part of a plot. The Bay is ecological, nature-gone-amok horror at its highest, activating the more intense, innate fears we have as humans. It bites and eats at us from within, becoming a parasite in our system, squirming to be felt. Above all, it reminds us constantly, as we forget, of our vulnerability as Homo sapiens (indeed not so wise as we think). Too often, we don’t fear what we should; too often, we forget what real monsters are and who creates them. The Bay, reminds us.
For a description of Rocket Rating 8, click on the Rocket Meter above!