As of 2014, there is definitely something to be said about the gimmick of ‘found footage’, especially in relation to the horror genre, which is well known for indulging the band-wagon mentality among the film makers. I don’t know exactly when and where the trend started, but it might be safe to assume that the first successful film in that sub-genre was “The Blair Witch Project”. Sure, one can argue “Cannibal Holocaust” doing that way earlier, but nevertheless it was the ‘noughties’ that brought the true onslaught of the found footage variety.
As with any genre (or sub-genre for that matter), the truly outstanding examples always come with some fresh angles and twists that make them successful and memorable. You can certainly point your finger toward the “Paranormal Activity” series, “The Last Exorcism”, the aforementioned “The Blair Witch Project”, or “Cloverfield” as the prime examples of how to build on the genre, elevate it and come up with interesting results. But now, at this very point in time, we are in a situation where the peloton of hacks and semi-skilled craftsmen have caught up with the times and as a result, every other horror film nowadays has to be either found footage, or a fake documentary, which in my view means that the trend is about to collapse upon itself. In other words, we are at ‘The Grudge 3 stage’ of the J-horror timeline.
Released in 2012 and directed by an Oscar-winning highly acclaimed director Barry Levinson, “The Bay” is the best diagnostic that the found footage horror needs to be put to bed immediately. Being more of a fake documentary, this film tells a story of a fictional outbreak in a small fishing town on the American east coast, narrated and allegedly edited by one of the survivors of the epidemic, Jaquline (Nansi Aluka). It’s all very straightforward: during the Independence Day festivities all hell breaks loose, as multiple people all across the town start developing horrible-looking rashes and boils. It eventually turns out that what is responsible for the horrifying outbreak is something completely unexpected – a tiny marine parasitic organism, which (with a helping hand of the toxic poultry wastes from the nearby farms) evolved into a flesh-eating bug-like creature lethal to virtually every living thing.
Contrary to what you’d expect from your usual found-footage horror, “The Bay” doesn’t really have a character-driven narrative. Rather than seeing the hand-held shaky account of somebody’s ordeal during the outbreak, we are presented with a more polished material taken from various industrial and on-street cameras, police cameras, random people’s home video, mobile phones, TV cameras (which is what sews the entire thing together) and the like. As a result and quite expectedly, there is nobody in the film you could cling onto. You know straight away that the journalist is going to survive, because she is narrating the whole thing and just about everybody else is going to become cannon fodder. And that is a real problem, as it kept me removed from anything that happened on the screen. We don’t get to spend more than five minutes with each character before they are gone one way or another, so I couldn’t help being completely indifferent to the events in the film.
Quite honestly, “The Bay” does not even attempt to compensate for the lack of characters to root for with anything else and keeps every single genre trait exactly at the middle of the road. You would probably expect a film about an infestation of flesh-eating bugs to be violent, gory and difficult to stomach. Well, have I got bad news for you – almost every single bit of gore and horror takes place off-screen, and whenever it’s shown, it’s either out of focus or very brief. It looks to me that somebody out there didn’t want the audience to get uncomfortable while watching it and if it weren’t for a few scenes here and there, “The Bay” could probably have a reasonable shot at getting a PG-13 rating. Seriously, “The Walking Dead” is more violent than this thing and it runs on TV.
Let’s recap: no suspense, no characters, very limited gore… So, that’s not good at all. Though, you’ll find a few jump-scares in “The Bay” scattered here and there… Well, four of them exactly, though one of them was pretty effective I have to admit. But on the whole, “The Bay” has nothing to offer in terms of pure entertainment.
In my opinion, films like “The Bay” should be seen as nothing more than a sign that we are scraping the bottom of the barrel of the found footage sub-genre. The film is a blatant run-of-the-mill hack-job that honestly shouldn’t have left the editing room. If anything, it shows that it’s not enough to shoot some low-quality video, cut it into a Michael Moore-esque documentary with similarly paced voice-over narration (which here looks more like a dateline NBC shockumentary), put a dozen of random strangers in front of cameras and make them vomit fake blood to produce a half-decent film. “The Bay” sure does convey the sense of chaos one would expect from a situation like this, but it is just too boring, uninspired, and bland to get you even mildly affected. It takes way too long to take flight and when it does, it’s over after two minutes. I mean I like a good foreplay, but this is simply wrong.
I realize this kind of films is usually done on the cheap and the studios might not really care that much about what they’re associating themselves with, but I can’t believe everyone was happy about this film during production. Could it simply be an old man’s whim and desire to feel young and hip again? After all, it’s almost always the young and unproven guys who helm those projects. Nevertheless, I expected more of an effort from a man of that calibre. When a guy like Barry Levinson can feel free to slap a few images together and produces something as appallingly dull as “The Bay”, it means one thing, and one thing only: maybe it’s time to find another bandwagon to jump onto, because this one is broken beyond repairs…