An Environmentally-Unfriendly Visit to ‘The Bay’

When I was a teenager, I did a three-year program called the Chesapeake Bay Governor’s School. Part of a larger initiative all throughout the state of Virginia, the program was, essentially, a way for select students to take college courses and pursue some higher education while still in high school. It was an amazing experience, one that prepared me for my actual college years better than pretty much anything else ever did, and that allowed me to do a lot of really cool stuff that a geek like myself who lived in the middle of nowhere otherwise never would have had a chance to do.

The curriculum covered a lot of the basics, from advanced chemistry, biology, and mathematics, but was anchored around a primary focus on marine and environmental science. Being in the Tidewater region of the state, the vast majority of the course load was centered squarely on the health of the Chesapeake Bay, and its surrounding tributaries. We took frequent field trips, monitoring the water quality of various sites around Virginia, and studied everything from the geological events that formed the estuary to the environmental impacts of the farming and fishing industries in the surrounding areas. I’ve forgotten more than I ever learned in the near-decade of time that’s elapsed since I attended the program, but some of it has miraculously managed to stick with me through the years.

So, needless to say, because of this (and because of the fact that I grew up in and around coastal Virginia) I’m pretty familiar with the Chesapeake Bay area, its people, and the problems that come along with it. Imagine, then, my delight and surprise when I stumble on to a horror flick recently that’s actually set on the bay, and tackles a lot of the same academic and scientific material that I spent some of the more interesting years of my education studying; A film of my favorite genre set in my own backyard.

And the best part: It’s actually good.

If you’re like me, you spend more time browsing for movies than you do actually watching anything, thanks to the sheer volume of subpar choices available on every streaming service nowadays. And in your scrolling sessions, passing by rows and rows of D-grade dreck, you may recall seeing this image before:

That’s the poster for The Bay, a 2012 found-footage horror film by – of all people – Good Morning, Vietnam and Rain Man director Barry Levinson. I’ve seen The Bay countless times, aimlessly filtering through Amazon Prime, Tubi, and HBO Max, and have always gotten the impression that it was some mind of low-budget schlock. I have no idea why I thought that. Maybe I read a disparaging review at one point, or maybe I just confused it with something else. Who knows? My brain does dumb stuff sometimes. Either way, I’d been intentionally ignoring it for quite a while now.

And yet, in my recent deep dive into lesser-known found-footage films, I kept seeing The Bay crop up in list after list of favorites and critical darlings. It even has a respectable 77% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is relatively high for a horror film in this particular style. Eventually, in the face of overwhelming evidence, I had to accept that I maybe I had the wrong idea about the movie. My interest was piqued even further when I read the synopsis for the film, and discovered its familiar setting. So I decided to give it a go.

And man, am I glad I did.

I love found footage films, if you couldn’t already tell, but they have a tendency to tread familiar ground. They rely on a lot of the same tired tropes and tricks, and due to their often-low budgets, they can be somewhat cheap and amateurish. But The Bay falls into none of these traps. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that it may be one of the most effective uses of the format ever.

The Bay doesn’t adopt the usual “Guy with a handheld camera filming something horrific” angle made popular by The Blair Witch Project, instead opting for more of a mocumentary feel. If you’ve seen Savageland (or read my piece on it), you’ll know what to expect here: A hyper-realistic, methodical breakdown of a fictional event, presented as historical fact, but with a gruesome twist. The style gives the film an air of legitimacy and relatability, especially for someone like myself who has a history with the area.

Without spoiling anything major, the film follows a journalist as she lends context to a series of amateur and official footage from the mysterious events that left an entire small town in Maryland dead on July 4th, 2009. The footage had been previously suppressed by the government, for reasons that eventually become very apparent, and has been released online by a group of hackers and environmental activists.

This lets the audience know the boundaries of realism for the film very early on, showing that this is a fictional world in which groups like Anonymous actually make themselves useful. Truly, a fantasy land that stretches the boundaries of the human mind.

The events portrayed by these home videos, taken from the deceased, paint a grisly but frighteningly plausible picture of a town suffering from the mistakes of its greedy leadership: The small town’s mayor had been covering up massive amounts of pollutants that had been deliberately fed into the bay, ranging from chicken farming waste to chemical runoff and even nuclear materials. This potent cocktail of toxins have combined over the months and years, slowly altering the life within the bay, and rendering a large portion of it uninhabitable.

The most frightening thing about The Bay is that everything I just said has already happened to the Chesapeake Bay, in our own reality. At the time the film was made, pollution and overfishing had made a disturbingly large amount of the bay completely deadly to anything living, decimating the population of crabs, oysters, and other once-plentiful sea-life. And for a region that relies heavily on these species for both their tourism and their economy, it could very well have been a death sentence.

Director Levinson was originally approached to make a more straightforward documentary detailing the plight of the Chesapeake Bay area, but turned down the job once he realized that it had already been covered in great detail by other filmmakers. Instead, he opted for a more creative approach: A horror film, fictionalizing the environmental disaster by taking it to more fantastical extremes, but keeping the basis of the film’s terror firmly grounded in the real-life dangers brewing in the bay’s brackish waters. Levinson sought out to make a film that was “80% factual information.” And from what I can tell, everything in the film’s backstory and exposition sticks to that pledge, with only slight exaggerations.

Now, of course, this being a horror film and all, events begin to stray past the realm of realism a bit once the bodies start to pile up. But the grounded framework of the film serves to enhance these more fantastical elements in a way that I’ve rarely encountered in a flick like this, found-footage or otherwise.

The Bay is largely shown as a progression of events in real-time, chronicling a violent outbreak of some initially unknown pathogen as it sweeps its fictional town’s population. Citizens begin to develop bloody, oozing sores and lesions, which worsen by the minute. People begin to drop dead in the streets, and those that don’t die immediately start to exhibit even worse symptoms. I won’t spoil them, but if you have a weak stomach, maybe avoid this one.

All the while, we get updates from the town’s mayor and police, who attempt to cover up the events and encourage the townspeople to continue enjoying the festivities. In post-COVID times, this hits much, much harder than I suspect it was originally intended to. In the midst of the growing chaos, a doctor in the increasingly-overwhelmed local hospital pleads for help from the CDC, who are baffled by the events and largely powerless to stop them. All of this is shown via phone recordings, Skype calls, and other assorted bits of recovered data, all being given explanation and context by one the few survivors of the day. It’s harrowing, it’s disgusting, and it has a few genuine moments of white-knuckle scares that had me incredibly on edge.

It’s a film that contains a lot of familiar elements. There’s shades of films like Jaws, Contagion, The Crazies, and Korean monster movie The Host, as well as other films in the found-footage genre like Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. Yet The Bay manages to feel fresh and unique in a sea of similar movies, even with its influences worn plainly on its sleeve, by presenting itself with an impressive sense of competency and plausibility. It’s not just a horror film: It’s a cautionary tale, grounded and tethered to a very real and very foreboding environmental tragedy.

I can happily report, however, that the real-life version of the Chesapeake Bay has yet to spawn any nigh-apocalyptic plagues from its murky depths, at least to my knowledge. But that isn’t to say that the region is out of the woods: Although by most accounts, the bay is on a steady (if gradual) incline as far as its overall health is concerned, it still has a long way to go. Pollutants still flow into the estuary from every one of its major tributaries, and recent political inaction in regards to climate change certainly haven’t helped matters either. The Chesapeake, much like the rest of the planet itself, may never recover fully from the damage caused by years of corporate greed and individual carelessness.

Which is why films like The Bay are important. They’re fun, sure, and can provide a great couple of hours full of scares and suspense. But they also can spoon-feed an otherwise uninterested public with valuable information about the perils of the very real world around them. Whether or not they absorb that information is a bit of a crapshoot, really, but it’s a noble pursuit nonetheless. A truly admire a film that can deliver on its message without beating the audience over the head with it (ahem, Don’t Look Up), tricking its audience into learning against their will like hiding medicine for your dog inside a piece of bologna. It’s the mark of clever, inventive writing and strong, purposeful direction, both of which The Bay has in spades.

If you’re an environmentally-conscious horror fan, congratulations! Here’s a movie tailor-made to your specific interests. But if you just want something to watch that’ll get your blood pumping and that won’t treat you like an idiot, The Bay should serve you just as well.

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