Tongue-eating parasites and internet journalism are your worst nightmares in The Bay

The Bay was produced by the same people who made Sinister, and so I suppose it makes sense that both films are horror stories inspired by viral pictures on the web. While Sinister's scary Mr. Boogie was based on a picture pulled from Flickr, the Big Bad in The Bay is modeled on a famous photo of a real-life parasite that survives by eating the tongues of fish. A few years ago, you couldn't click anywhere online without stumbling across the now-iconic image of a dead fish whose mouth had been pulled open to reveal an eerily tongue-shaped bug with creepy little legs and antennae latched onto the poor fish's lower jaw. This picture shows up a lot in The Bay, a found footage flick that asks what will happen when a mix of nuclear isotopes, steroids, and factory farm runoff in the coastal waters starts causing (you guessed it) scary mutations. The issues are timely, the pacing is snappy, and the grossout scenes are duly gross. But The Bay - out today on VOD - still feels like a passionless, paint-by-numbers tale.

Spoilers ahead.

Director Barry Levinson created moving, memorable films like Diner, Young Sherlock Holmes, and Rain Man, but he also directed the stinker Sphere. And unfortunately he's channeling Sphere in The Bay more often than Sherlock. I think this movie wants to be an exciting cross between Jaws and David Cronenberg's 1970s parasite flick They Came from Within - modernized with references to internet journalism and Skype. Instead, it's just Piranha 3D without the boobs.

Actually, it has boobs, but they are wrapped up in what I think is supposed to be classy package. A young journalism intern, who makes sure to point out to us that she is wearing tight pants, goes to a tiny town on Chesapeake Bay to cover a 4th of July celebration. Years later, at the time The Bay begins, she is being interviewed via Skype about what happened next. (She makes sure to mention the brand name Skype several times, as well as Apple's FaceTime - you know, just like the kids always do these days.) She's put together the events of that day from video taken by everyone from vacationing families to representatives of the CDC, and she's "trying to get it out there" because there's some kind of inexplicable conspiracy to suppress what happened to her and the rest of the town.

With our protagonist's Gray's Anatomy voiceover to guide us, we watch as happy tourists start growing freakish rashes, and showing up at the hospital with their tongues half-eaten. There are several genuinely creepy moments where tongueless people cry out in pain, and we hear their screams carrying across the water to where the journalism intern has realized she's dealing with more than just one or two unexplained deaths. Bodies are piling up. Hundreds of them. The hospital is overwhelmed; the CDC and DHS are issuing platitudes via Skype. Plus, a pair of biologists have discovered some seriously crawly parasites called isopods growing a lot larger than they should in the bay.

Tongue-eating parasites and internet journalism are your worst nightmares in The Bay

Though the isopods themselves may be scientifically implausible, one of the nice parts of this flick is that most of the environmental science is not. Runoff from factory farms - in this case, a giant chicken farm - is in fact destroying coastal waters. Steroids are getting into the water from sewage. And when marine biologists try to raise red flags about these sorts of things, it is far too common for them to be shoved aside by politicians like the city mayor we meet in The Bay. Levinson even tips his hat to one of the biggest problems caused by nutrient runoff. We hear a lot about so-called "dead zones," or anoxic regions in the bay that are killing fish.

Unfortunately for those of us who like hard science fiction, none of these environmental problems would lead to what we ultimately see in The Bay. Still, I give the flick an A- for effort here. It was pleasant to find myself not grinding my teeth every time one of the scientist characters opened their mouths.

That said, nothing about the movie felt fresh or original. It was found footage from Cloverfield, a plot borrowed from the original 1970s Piranha, action borrowed from Jaws, and government conspiracies borrowed from The Crazies and every other "outbreak" movie. On top of that, the main characters were irritating and unsympathetic. We're supposed to cheer on our brave little Skype journalist with her amazing reveals of government corruption, but instead I just kept wanting her to stop with the cutsey faces and start acting like somebody who really had been through hell.

If you're looking for a good parasite scare movie to watch online, I recommend going back to Cronenberg's They Came from Within - or try the amazing horrorshow Slither, where Nathan Fillion has to slay scary psychic worms from space.