Eco-horror has been around forever, and the premise propelling the genre couldn’t be simpler or more primal: man tampers with nature—or worse, ruins nature—and nature bitch slaps man. Films adhering to that golden formula first started cropping up in the 50s, when nuclear anxieties were reaching a fever pitch. As such, eco-horror was born as a slew of “nuclear monster” movies—we got Them!, we got The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, and, yeah, we got Godzilla.
Between then and now, we cycled through eco-horror classics and schlock alike; from The Birds to The Toxic Avenger, from C.H.U.D. to Jaws. The latest installment in the Americn eco-horror legacy is The Bay, a new entry in the genre from Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Diner). The film depicts a single horrific day in a small Maryland town on Chesapeake Bay, after (spoiler alert!) industrial pollution from the town’s factory farm mutated sea creatures into flesh-hungry parasites that invade the town’s water supply through its desalination plant. It features the found footage aesthetic that’s been popular in horror for the last decade and a half, but in this case it’s footage from the entire town, rather than a couple cameras.
Something struck me as I watched this modern eco-apocalyptic fable: Over the years, we’ve been methodically downsizing our eco-villains. In the early days of the genre, filmmakers imagined that our technological hubris would loose gigantic beasts capable of crushing civilization beneath their feet. Our nuclear bombs would awaken Godzilla and mutate ants into huge bloodthirsty beasts; massive mushroom clouds begot massive, monstrous terror. The scale and nature of the horror we felt capable of visiting upon the planet and each other was reflected in our horrific cautionary tale-telling.