There are two phrases which tend to get a Pavlovian reaction from horror fans. The first is ‘torture porn’, and the second is ‘found footage’.
I actually just heard a couple of you shiver.
Here’s the thing though, both of them have their place. Horror, like any genre is when it comes down to it, a language with a lot of dialects. You don’t have to speak all of them fluently but being able to order coffee in all of them is probably a good idea. The issue, certainly over the last ten years or so, has been that a couple of the dialects have drowned out all the rest. Torture porn has been the default setting for cinematic horror for a long time and like most sub genres it’s led to some fascinating, challenging, smart movies. The longevity of the Saw series for example, to say nothing of its increasingly intricate chronology and history, is pretty impressive and a good half of that franchise is flat out great. Likewise, although as I write this I haven’t seen it, people whose opinions I trust tell me the Evil Dead remake’s pretty damn good and also, definitively, sits in this sub-genre.
But, as all things do, torture porn’s day in the sun, presumably bleeding profusely and screaming from the salt in its wounds, came to an end. What replaced it was found footage and, once again, a single franchise led the charge up through commercial and critical acclaim to ‘Oh GOD YOU AGAIN?!’. The Paranormal Activity movies have a lot of interesting common narrative ground with the Saw ones, both franchises using the previous movies as building blocks and both franchises increasingly unafraid to take frankly demented chances as the series continued. The one major difference being that whilst there was always the EWWWW factor to Saw, the Paranormal Activity movies have tied themselves in ever greater knots to find new and interesting things to do with basically locked off camera equipment.
And that’s the problem a lot of people have with found footage movies I’ve…found. There’s a sense of them being static, of watching a series of scenes that are happening at us whilst we’re watching instead of being drawn in. Think about the opening of Scream. You’re in the house when the phone rings, standing behind Casey Becker as she realizes, far too late, just how much trouble she’s in. You’re victim and voyeur, in danger and yet completely safe which is what makes that scene, and the very different callback to it at the start of the second movie, so great.
Now think about that shot through the security cameras in the house. You get the tension of seeing what Casey doesn’t, certainly, but the immediacy’s gone. In the right hands this can work brilliantly, and anyone who hasn’t seen Stephen Volk’s brilliant Ghostwatch, a TV drama that horrifically traumatised an entire generation of future horror writers and journalists really, really should. As Patient Zero’s for a sub-genre go, I don’t think there’s better.
But there’s plenty of worse, or at least, stuff enough people believe is worse to begin criticising the sub-genre as a whole rather than specific movies. I don’t think that’s fair, especially as the last two years have seen three really interesting found footage movies. Apollo 18 is a pitch-perfect crazy haired UFO Whistleblower documentary and the stuff about alternate lunar landing programs in there warms the sub cockle area of my conspiracy theorist heart. End of Watch is a very smart deconstruction not only of the cop as action hero but of any kind of romance to the idea of being a police officer and The Bay takes the idea of found footage horror and bolts it onto the very broadcast culture that allows me to do this, to become something much more interesting.
The Bay is told in flashback by Donna Thompson, played by Kether Donohue. Donna’s being interviewed over Skype about her experiences in Claridge, a town on Chesapeake Bay in 2009 and the movie cuts between Donna on the skype call, looking, if not drawn then certainly less than happy, and Donna as a cub journalist covering Claridge’s 4th of July celebrations. This is, of course, the perfect time for something awful to happen and it does. The Blue Crab eating contestants all become violently ill and a woman dunked in a tank for charity walks down main street, sobbing hysterically as her skin is covered in blisters.
This is the moment the film really takes off and we follow Donna as she initially covers the story and leads us to other footage that shows what she didn’t. The genius of the movie is in not just telling it’s story in flashback but having a journalist do it. Donna, as we see her in the present, has clearly been working on the case for years and the footage she’s assembled does two really smart things. Firstly, it provides the movie with an excuse to shift footage and secondly it gives her agency. We’re not looking at a character unable to see what we can, we’re looking at a movie designed to feel like the lead character’s built it. This isn’t a locked off camera, it’s a narrative and that raises the bar in every single way.
It also means you get context, as we cut between footage of an eco-activist breaking into the local chicken farms to find evidence of chemicals being illegally used and dumped, police officers reacting to an escalating number of emergency calls, an increasingly frantic Doctor trying to get the CDC to help him diagnose his patients, a couple sailing into town completely unaware of what’s happening and two local police officers taking progressively more disturbing calls. The movie cuts between them, with the older Donna’s interview as a framing device and in doing so it gives you a real sense of the scale of the disaster.
It also helps Levinson nest some nice call back visual gags into the plot. One thread, involving two marine biologists studying fish death in the bay is particularly nasty, as we know the pair are already dead, their bodies having been discovered earlier in another piece of footage. What really makes this section shine though is the growing tension between them due to how they appear on camera. Similarly, the two police officers anchor much of the movie and the eventual reveal on what’s happened to them is chilling. There’s a second visual gag here too, with the shot from the police car’s on board camera being used to great effect towards the movie’s end.
From the doomed biologists to the equally doomed cops, these are normal, flawed people who make mistakes, are often unlikeable but are always working. No one has the complete picture here, aside from Donna, and that turns the format again, the powerlessness of normal found footage movies sitting with the characters far more than it does the viewer. Everyone knows a little, no one knows enough and only Donna, with years of distance and a journalistic eye can see what’s really going on.
There is a downside to this, and it’s the same down side that almost all found footage movies suffer from. The style is by definition so naturalistic that it’s all but impossible for the cast to stand out. After all, if they are, they’re doing something wrong. That’s true here, which is a real shame as the performances are uniformly strong. Kether Donohue anchors the movie and convincingly plays different versions of the same woman whilst Stephen Kunken as Doctor Jack Abrams does fine work as a man frantically trying to hold the line against a medical incident he can’t even begin to understand. Finally Frank Deal does great work as Mayor Stockman, managing to simultaneously evoke the feckless mayors of all good small town horror movies and give the man some interesting depth. The cast as a whole are uniformly very strong but it’s those three that stand out, despite the challenges inherent in this kind of material.
Those challenges are the very factors that have made found footage movies a whipping boy but here, just as they are in End of Watch and to a lesser extent Apollo 18, they’re worked with and turned into strengths. The Bay isn’t just an off the peg found footage monster movie it’s a genuine attempt to do something new with the tools of the sub-genre and it works really well. Levinson’s eye for detail means the story itself feels more grounded than any movie about artificially enhanced isopods eating people from the inside out should be, and the script, co-written by Levinson and Michael Wallach never lets you forget the human cost of the events. From the clearly traumatised Heather to the chilling shot of Stephanie (Played by Cabin in the Woods’ Kristen Connolley) walking out of town carrying her baby, this is a film that concentrates on the human cost of impossible events. That’s what makes The Bay fun and interesting, something which, ironically, has always lain at the technical heart of found footage movies; focus. If that’s a lesson The Bay’s successors can learn, then this is a sub-genre that, unlike the town of Claridge, will be saved.