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TIFF Review: 'The Bay'

Oscar-winner Barry Levinson delivers… a found-footage eco-horror film?

By James Rocchi Sep 13, 2012 5:52PM

Rating: 3.5/5

Written by Michael Wallach and directed by Barry Levinson -- of "Diner," "Rainman" and "Homicide: Life on the Streets," "The Bay" bowed in the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival last night. There are a few difficulties with "The Bay" -- a lot of point-of-view narration from a narrator whose work as the p-o-v character is undermined by too much narration with no p. instead of just letting us v. the footage, and a eagerness to circle back and re-make every plot point as if the film were laboriously showing its work instead of hoping we had followed along. But those two things aside -- and with some recutting, "The Bay" could be a classic instead of a nice bit of fright -- it still works, splendidly, as a low-fuss, high-pleasure B-movie, one that involves the media-saturated nature of our modern age while still managing to evoke "classic" eco-horror cheapies like "Day of the Animals."

                                                     BING: Barry Levinson | Toronto's Midnight Madness

Levinson's in what you might consider less-than-familiar territory here -- unless you dislike Dustin Hoffman overacting, it's hard to call any of his movies a 'horror' film as such -- and, at the same time, Levinson delivers with a seasoned, smooth sense of how to work a scare, how hard to push, where to let the silences serve as a fuse for the explosion of a scream. They say there's no pro like an old pro; Levinson proves that here, handily. Ostensibly recounting the events in Claridge, Maryland, a beach town, on the Fourth of July three years ago -- we're told that the Feds confiscated all the video footage from that day, but this is what's leaked -- our narrator Donna (Kether Donahue) explains that 700 people died in the town that day, and she's going to walk us through what happened and how …

Levinson shoots with iPads, Androids, surveillance cameras and underwater scientific footage -- as he mentioned last night, "nothing as high-end as a Red camera ..." with a minimum of effects that are tastefully used and a horror-hook that takes a real phenomenon and turns it up to 11, sprinkles on some pseudoscience and allows for plenty of gore and terror as the festive events turn into a feeding frenzy. The joke already is that "The Bay" is "Jaws" meets "Contagion,"  but I for one was reminded of the 1983 film "Special Bulletin," especially because while Levinson is certainly motivated by earnest concern -- he was originally approached to do a documentary about the Chesapeake Bay's polluted 404 depths before deciding to have a little fun -- he also knows how to build suspense and, yes, character. (When a mom, dad and their infant set off in a yacht to go see her folks in Claridge, you can hear the audience groan; a sequence where a reconstructed audio tape plays while we can hear -- but not see -- what's happening in a mostly-dark house is terrifying.)

With a little massaging, again, "The Bay" could have been a classic; at the same time, it's miles better than most "found footage" horror films, which these days seem to mostly involve nothing more than, as critic Scott Weinberg has pointed out, "a director, a vehicle and four very hopeful actors." But as a smart, scary time-passing horror film designed to have you Googling the scientific information it's built on, satisfying your curiosity while roiling your guts with terror, "The Bay" has the will to thrill and the skill to scare. 

("The Bay" is slated for release in November; check out more on movies at MSN Movies Facebook or through the MSN Movies Twitter.)

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