The end of this pandemic may be in sight, but the Covid-19 will ripple into pop culture for years — especially when it comes to horror movies. However, one of the most frightening looks into a pandemic was released nearly a decade ago, and it’s available to watch now on HBO Max.
No, I’m not talking about Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak or Steven Soderberg’s Contagion, both of which received new surges of interest over the past year. I’m talking about a film that mostly slid under the radar, despite being the work of an Academy Award-winning director. I’m talking about a film that got under my skin so deep I still shudder to think about it. I’m talking about a film that not only explores a devastating, deadly virus but also reveals how government inaction and the greed of a big business allowed such a thing to happen. I’m talking about Barry Levinson’s The Bay.
The Bay is presented as a collection of footage confiscated by the U.S. government. It begins on July 4, 2009 in Claridge, a small tourist town in Chesapeake Bay kept alive by beachgoers and the local chicken industry. The town and its mayor make news when citizens learn that the chicken farm has been dumping excrement and toxins into the bay, contaminating the town’s water supply. Some locals are dismayed, while others look the other way as long as the town’s cash flow keeps coming in. But cash isn’t the only thing flowing from the bay into the town. Parasites abound, and they are quite nasty.
Donna Thompson (Kether Donohue), a young reporter assigned to cover Claridge’s Independence Day celebrations, takes it on herself to investigate the chicken farm’s illegal dumping practices. She doesn’t have to look very far to find the story. A number of the town’s inhabitants have developed strange bulges and rashes on their skin. Soon, a crab-eating competition ends in deadly mass vomiting. To top things off, there’s something swimming in the bay that’s killing teenagers who venture out into the water.
The town quickly descends into chaos as Donna, the cops, the CDC, and a family heading by boat to what they don’t know is a disaster site, all struggle to survive a town that’s literally dying.
Found-footage horror isn’t for everyone, and the film came at a time when the format was on its way out. But The Bay is different. While still being based in the horror you can’t see (as so many found footage films start out), what you can’t see here isn’t supernatural. It’s the plausibility that really gives The Bay its edge. Despite a budget of only $2 million dollars, these parasites look disturbingly real.
The Bay isn’t an expansive film. Levinson originally intended to make an actual documentary before he decided to use the budget to turn his research into a horror film. As a result, The Bay’s parasites are based on 80% factual evidence.
There are lots of neat tricks down with camera footage, sound, and obscured images to heighten the tension, but as far as sci-fi-horror-found-footage goes, this is no Cloverfield.
It all works in the film's favor, creating an anxiety-inducing level of intimacy. Levinson operates like a man on a mission. In 85 minutes he’ll not only scare you and make your flesh crawl, he’ll also make you question where your food and water is coming, and at what cost.
The Bay has a point to make: This could happen. In fact, it is happening. Not with the suddenness that we see in The Bay, but a mix of government negligence, bad business practices, and humanity's inability and lack of desire to sacrifice our comfort is a perfect storm for a pandemic.
So as we head into summer, we have every right to question whether or not it’s safe to go back in the water. It’s entirely possible to enjoy The Bay as just a horror film. But for the more ecologically conscious, The Bay is best taken as a warning. One we should all heed.
THE BAY IS CURRENTLY STREAMING ON HBO MAX IN THE U.S.