I swore off found-footage films after the horrific (no pun intended) showing of V/H/S at Sundance and yet I found myself drawn to watch The River, a new ABC series based on the same genre. This series comes to us from the minds of the Paranormal Activity movies, though, and as I really do like those, I caved.
The River tells us the story of Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), a famed television explorer, who went missing after his last mission into the uncharted Amazon. Six months after his disappearance, he is pronounced dead, although his body was never found. Then the signal to his beacon starts going off and his wife, Tess (Leslie Hope) and son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson) go in to the Amazon in search of him with the help of Dr. Cole’s producer, Clark (Paul Blackthorne) and a team of cameramen.
The story sets up the premise of found footage in a way that’s more plausible than most. As Dr. Cole is an icon due to his popular adventure t.v. series, the search for him will be recorded. This is a pretty refreshing take on the genre, especially for t.v. Watching The River almost feels like watching the Discovery Channel, such is the camera work.
A bonus, too, of the series is the great cast of actors. I was sold when I saw Paul Blackthorne’s name on the credits (even though he’ll always be Harry Dresden to me), but Bruce Greenwood is also a particular stand-out, shown to us in past footage from his television series. Leslie Hope brings strength to the character of Tess, Dr. Cole’s wife, her reasons for finding him far beyond what we originally think. The rest of the cast are equally as believable and give a strong presence to the roles they possess.
These characters are also smarter than your average horror movie players. In fact, they don’t spend time arguing over the belief of evil spirits when one shows up (why does that always happen in movies)? They get down to the nitty gritty and figure out a plan to get rid of the spirit instead, saving their skins in the process. But a lot of this movie is like that: it’s about the characters reacting to the horror and craziness that happens once they get aboard Dr. Cole’s abandoned ship. There isn’t a lot of dialogue arguing about what’s going on, it’s just all action and reaction. And that keeps the pace of the show moving quickly. There is rarely a dull moment.
Best of all, though? This show has a bit of a scare factor. Although I’m a big fan of American Horror Story, I find it more creepy than actually scary. The River, though? It has those genuine jump out at you moments that go so well with this kind of plot. And the weird and creepy visuals (I’m thinking of a monkey and a tree of dolls) lend themselves to keeping the hairs across the back of your neck raised.
The critics going on about the predictability of the show? They’re useless. Sure, there are a lot of the normal horror movie trappings here in the writing. But the cast carry these off so well that it all still feels original, especially watching it on t.v. There are also moments where the predictable becomes the unpredictable and this seems to be something this series does well.
The River also has a lot of Lost-like mystery, which is something I really like. I had expected a show like Alcatraz to deliver that, but The River leaves it behind in the dust in that department. There are so many questions here and each time one is answered, five more are asked. It’s a puzzle that’s begging to be put together, but we know that the results are probably going to be less than desirable.
The character of Dr. Cole is famously known for the slogan “There is magic out there.” I would like to say this show gives us an idea of what that magic is, although we find out it’s a lot darker than anything Dr. Cole or the rest of the characters in this series had imagined.
I am looking forward to seeing where the show is going. I think there’s plenty here to keep a series interesting for at least a few seasons, but with the right writing, this may be the next big break-out hit for ABC.