Though we, as humans, have always been frightened of the unknown, a potentially more terrifying and disturbing element of life is when the familiar becomes strange. Steven Spielberg’s genre-defining film Jaws perfectly exemplified this facet of the human experience because, for the first time, we were shown a reason to be afraid to go into the water that was, previously, benign as far as we were concerned. Horror films have historically relied on serial killers with supernatural powers (Jason or Freddy, for example), but isn’t it more unsettling to see a brilliant psychologist turn to cannibalism (Hannibal Lecter) or to watch an otherwise normal person transformed into a blood-thirsty killer bent on revenge (I Spit on Your Grave, I Saw the Devil)?   

What if we found that our own bodies were being used against us? That is the premise for director Barry Levinson’s new film, The Bay, an unsettling “eco-horror” story which marks his first foray into the found footage style of filmmaking. While his is one of the most varied filmographies in Hollywood (he has directed Diner, Toys and Wag the Dog), Levinson has yet to shoot a film using entirely digital cameras. More impressive is the fact that all cameras used in The Bay are “consumer grade,” from cell phones to security cameras, giving the images a genuine feeling of authenticity. 

While the film, written by Michael Wallach, has political motivations behind it, those themes never get in the way of Levinson’s storytelling. The story is narrated by Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue) via a Skype confessional for a website which is attempting to expose the truth of the events leading up to and on “that day.” The day in question is July 4, 2009 where a small Maryland seaside town is celebrating Independence Day. Nestled in a quiet cove, the townspeople live their lives as if they are protected from the dangers that lie inland; the water which surrounds their community, though, is another story. 

As the day wears on, people begin to spontaneously break out in boils, lesions and rashes. The hospital is soon overrun with sick patients who begin vomiting blood as a mysterious bacterium of some kind eats away at them from the inside. Donna, a college student at the time, is reporting the events live having originally thought the most exciting part of her day would be the crab-eating contest. With a microphone clutched in her hand and her cameraman’s unflinching eye, Donna is our guide through the awful events that unfold, events for which human interference with nature is to blame. 

Though the first half of The Bay is a surprisingly suspenseful horror film, it soon devolves into another failed attempt at the found footage approach. Levinson can’t help but add a sinister soundtrack or “footage” that, in reality, could have never have been captured or preserved. There have been some very good entries into the genre in the last few years (Chronicle, most notably), but even they become too confined within the stereotypical style of filmmaking. 

That is why The Blair Witch Project will always be the greatest and most successful found footage film. As viewers, we can believe someone simply found that footage those three students left behind and compiled them into the final product we saw in the theater. The film’s narrative is complete and quite frightening, but never once is our attention drawn to an inauthentic camera angle or an image that couldn’t possibly have been captured. There is no soundtrack, no music and no grandiose explanations how the footage could have been filmed. 

Nevertheless, The Bay is effective as a horror film with a little more resonance than the average fare that is thrust upon moviegoers. The acting, from mostly non-actors, is solid all the way through and, at a brisk 85 minutes, the film never drags or meanders away from its central conceit. For that, we can be grateful.