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In praise of the mockumentary

Ten films without which Barry Levinson couldn't have made The Bay.

Barry Levinson
Barry Levinson, director of The Bay (Photo: Getty Images)

Anyone who goes to see The Bay because of their appreciation for its director’s past work may feel like demanding a Barry Levinson inquiry. An eco-horror, found-footage mockumentary about a bacterial virus decimating a Chesapeake Bay community is hardly a predictable step for the gentle comic talent behind Diner and Tin Men, or even the Hollywood manipulator responsible for Rain Man, Good Morning, Vietnam and the sexual harassment thriller Disclosure. But Levinson does a creditable job of a project which has about it something of a Frankenstein’s monster feel, all disparate body parts sewn together hurriedly with the seams still showing and the internal organs peeping out.

As Levinson explains in this interview, The Bay started out as a straight-shooting documentary about “dead zones” in Chesapeake Bay. But that format came to seem inadequate for dealing with the scale of the horror. The film incorporates (fictional) oceanographers' video reports, local news bulletins, CCTV footage, with its unifying narration provided by a cub reporter reflecting on the outbreak via Skype. Appropriately for a film which has a lip-smacking, exploitation-movie interest in gory biological peculiarities (at times it’s like flipping between Alien and an episode of Embarrassing Bodies), its own DNA is intriguingly warped. Here are the ten films without which The Bay might not exist in its current form:

The Blair Witch Project

The 1999 horror mockumentary has perhaps been equalled (see Paranormal Activity, below) but never surpassed.

An Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore’s documentary took the environmental movement successfully into cinemas. See also The 11th Hour and Food, Inc.

Outbreak

Wolfgang Petersen’s 1995 disaster movie about the spread of an Ebola-style virus is a trashy hoot. Best of all is the brilliant sequence depicting the virus turning airborne in a cinema full of coughing, spluttering moviegoers; you really haven’t watched that moment properly until you’ve seen it in your local multiplex.

The Blob

The enduring 1950s monster movie, and Steve McQueen’s big break, is typical of the sort of scare-ride which influenced Levinson. “The facts [about Chesapeake Bay] were frightening,” he said, “and making a documentary didn’t interest me enough. But the facts stayed with me. So we made a sci-fi movie like in the 1950s, which used science fiction to deal with the real fears we had.”

Alligator

Equally important was the later wave of monster movies cooked up by Roger Corman and his prodigies, among them Lewis Teague, who can be almost be heard drooling from behind the camera over the carnage that ensues after a baby alligator is flushed down the toilet by its unthinking owners. In the sewers, it feasts on the waste from biological experiments, growing bigger, meaner and hungrier.

Smile  

The horrors are of a different stripe in this prickly comedy about the world of beauty pageants, but you can see some of the same satirical intent in the scenes in The Bay featuring the reigning Miss Crustacean, or a crab-eating contest that descends into mass vomiting, Stand By Me-style. See also: the beauty-pageant mockumentary Drop Dead Gorgeous.

Paranormal Activity

This home-video ghost story’s writer-director, Oren Peli, is credited as a producer on The Bay, and it’s possible to detect beneath the new film’s disaster-movie hysteria something of the creeping panic of that disquieting horror smash.

Long Weekend 

Nature turns against a couple of inconsiderate tourists in this sometimes ridiculous but weirdly persuasive 1978 Australian thriller. One for the Rough Guide generation. See also: The Birds, Antichrist.

Redacted

Several years before Levinson turned to the found-footage technique, another established US filmmaker, Brian De Palma, departed from his usual style with this scattershot Iraq War drama. Top marks for effort and experimentation; black marks for contrivances and heavy-handedness.

Dawn of the Dead

Although the unfortunate townsfolk in The Bay are not technically zombies, the distinction is an academic one: they still stagger around the streets bleeding profusely, wearing gormless looks on their faces and popping out from the back seats of cars to savage unsuspecting drivers. The undead hordes of George Romero’s 1978 zombie horror would consider them spiritual cousins.