Director Barry Levinson mined the intricacies of the male mind in "Diner" and maximized Robin Williams' outsized talents in "Good Morning, Vietnam."
The veteran director has no idea how to make a horror movie, apparently.
His first attempt, "Sphere," proved a sorry fusion of horror and science fiction. Now, he's going for the jugular with "The Bay," available in theaters, via pay per view and on iTunes starting Nov. 2. The film finds the director embracing the tricky found footage horror genre.
The format poses little problem for Levinson. The film pastes together footage from cell phones, surveillance cameras, home video cameras and Skype interactions, creating a cohesive look at a small town crushed by an eco-disaster.
The director neatly drains much of the story's tension within the first few minutes by revealing a chief villain along with the fate of many people in the doomed hamlet off the Chesapeake Bay. Levinson's film also lacks compelling characters and narrative momentum. "The Bay's" big scare moment takes place near the end of the film.
The Maryland town's woes begin with the mysterious death of two divers. From there, "The Bay" goes from 0 to 60 in record time, as the villagers start keeling over from a series of seemingly unrelated illnesses all connected to the nearby bay. The town's mayor, an avuncular sort, is quickly shown to be a fraud. The deluge of chicken poop streaming into the not-so-pristine waters is the likely culprit.
Consider an episode of "Columbo" where the rumpled detective enters the murder scene, fingers the killer and the weapon of choice and then shuffles out of the room. Fade to black.
Levinson serves up a series of grisly scenes, often made the more discomforting thanks to solid special effects, and we jump from one soon-to-be deceased character after another.
Fledgling news anchor (Kether Donohue) walks us through the unfolding horrors, both as a narrator and via video snippets of her interviewing the harried towns folk. She's less than convincing in both roles.
"The Bay" is hopelessly cynical, but it's also sloppy at its core. Much of the story is teased together from text messages, YouTube clips, email and other modern tools which send information instantly across the globe. Yet we're led to believe, by the film's opening text crawl, that the story we're watching was never made public.
Levinson deserves credit for tackling a genre ignored by most "name" directors. "The Bay" shows he's a poor match for it all the same.
Follow Christian Toto on Twitter @TotoMovies