Review: 'The Bay' Is Eco-Horror Done Right

“Martin, it's all psychological. You yell barracuda, everybody says, ‘Huh? What?’ You yell shark, we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.”

-Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton), “Jaws”

The dear mayor from “Jaws” never got around to addressing the effect isopods might have on any given seaside town, but that doesn’t stop “The Bay” from imagining its own nightmarish 4th of July scenario, complete with neglectful government figures and a more modern found-footage touch.

The film opens with a barrage of news coverage regarding unexplained swaths of animal deaths before informing us that the 2009 story we’re about to see was never made public, the result of leaked government files assembled by communications major/TV news intern/survivor Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue). We jump across a variety of media captured by the population of Claridge, Md., as a rash of bloody blisters breaks out on anyone who’s come in contact with water. These external skin reactions are soon matched by creepy crawlies growing from within, leaving men, women and children alike to lose their tongues, limbs and lives while the authorities struggle to find an answer or deny any awareness of pre-existing pollution having a detrimental effect on the local environment.

The narrative cuts between Donna on the beat, a married couple on an inbound boat, doctors communicating via Skype, family members keeping in touch with Facetime and text messages, freakouts in broad daylight uploaded to YouTube, surveillance cameras at hospitals and dashboard cams on police cruisers, even intercepted voicemails. The sheer scope of the story is both convincing and commendable, cleverly rationalized by first-time writer Michael Wallach and impressively executed by Oscar-winning director Barry Levinson (“Rain Man,” “Wag the Dog”), of all people.

Also Check Out: Director's Cut Q&A With 'The Bay''s Barry Levinson

The unease of initial discovery is bolstered by earlier, dismissed reports from now-dead oceanographers who had already come to realize what the unchecked run-off from nearby chicken farms was doing to the bay’s isopods (creatures understandably exaggerated in size for appropriate effect here, but creepy enough as Very Real Things That Exist). Familiar faces and digital tricks are few and far between, making it easy to get caught up in the small-town cover-up at hand, although the sensationalist approach lent to the film by Donna’s plaintive narration and the select addition of score, slow motion and montages can be a bit too convincingly amateurish at times.

The touches of mournful hindsight sometimes come at the cost of the immediate, bloody disorientation that comes with mounting widespread panic, and even at just over 80 minutes in length, the proceedings can feel a bit monotonous as we play the waiting game with a few surely contaminated characters. However, like those pesky isopods, “The Bay” is often an effective mutation of the familiar on a frightening scale, and it confirms something that we’ve all suspected for quite some time: never trust the judgment of seaside mayors.

“The Bay” opens in select theaters and will be available On Demand on Nov. 2.

Grade: B-