Review: The River (ABC) 1×1-1×2

Paranormal Blair Witch Activity up the Amazon

The River

In the US: Tuesdays, 9/8c, ABC
In the UK: Available on iTunes. Not yet acquired by a network

Found footage‘ is a storytelling method that’s become very popular over the last decade or so in horror movies, mainly thanks to the success of one particular film: The Blair Witch Project. Although you can trace FF’s roots back to Cannibal Holocaust in the 70s, it’s largely because of the worldwide success of the TBWP that the likes of REC, Paranormal Activity, Cloverfield, Apollo 18, Diary of the Dead et al were given the green light over the last few years.

In essence, FF is simple – a found footage story is one that purports to be real TV or film footage recovered from cameras, usually after the people taking the footage have died, and what you’re watching is purely a documentary record of how they were haunted, hacked to death, eaten by zombies, attacked by monsters or whatever.

But despite the popularity of the genre at the movies, it’s somewhat surprising to discover that The River, ABC’s newest show, is only about the fourth TV show to ever exploit the style. It’s maybe not that surprising to discover, though, that it’s from Oren Peli, creator of Paranormal Activity, Michael R Perry, co-writer of Paranormal Activity 2, and Steven Spielberg (exec producer of Paranormal Activity).

The plot looks relatively simple at first: famed explorer and TV host Dr Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) has got lost up the Amazon, so his wife (Leslie Hope) and son (Joe Anderson) go looking for him. The only catch is that to get the funding for the trip, they have to agree to have the whole thing filmed by a documentary producer (Paul Blackthorne). And we get to watch what they filmed.

Suffice it to say that what they find isn’t just a slightly derivative, not very frightening combination of Paranormal Activity and The Blair Witch Project, it’s like American Horror Story. Maybe they should have called the show Amazon Horror Story, since that would at least have been more interesting than The River.

Here’s a trailer. It’s misleadingly exciting.

Plot
Dr. Emmet Cole is missing.

The beloved host of The Undiscovered Country, which brought the wonder and magic of the natural world into our homes for so many years, has disappeared in the wilds of the Amazon. Gone for six months now—and believed by many to be dead—his emergency beacon went off two weeks ago. Now Dr. Cole’s wife and frequent co-host of The Undiscovered Country, Tess, has begun the search for her husband. With the help of her son, Lincoln, and crew members Lena Landry, Emilio Valenzuela and his daughter Jahel, and Captain Kurt Bryndilson, Tess is looking to be reunited with her husband and save the rest of his missing crew.

Documenting the journey will be Dr. Cole’s long-time friend and collaborator on The Undiscovered Country, award-winning Producer Clark Quietly, and a team of renowned camera operators including AJ Poulain.

But the search for Dr. Cole may provide more questions than answers. Where have he and the missing crew been? What mysteries of the uncharted Amazon did they capture on film? Can this family that was torn asunder six months ago be miraculously reunited? The world holds its breath as we wait to find out just what became of Dr. Emmet Cole and his crew.

Is it any good?
So you saw the trailer? Okay. That’s all the exciting bits from the first two episodes plus a few bits that aren’t in those episodes. All of them. So two minutes from an hour and a half of content. Got that?

My point isn’t that The River is very boring. Because it isn’t. As with most horror stories, a lot of it is about building tension and The River spends a commendable amount of time working on character and building up plot.

The trouble is it in then misfires with the horror. It doesn’t quite work. Whether it’s the tinkling background music ruining the atmosphere, the fact that the explanation for the horror is always just the wrong side of the dividing line between ‘spooky’ and ‘silly’ or that the directors simply show too much – dolls blinking and turning their heads can be scary, just not when you watch them doing it in a silly way – when you’re hoping for scares, you’re getting inadvertent laughs. It doesn’t help that the two Latinos are the ones who always know all the superstitious cobblers, are easily possessed, speak poor English, etc, thus firing the ‘racism radar’ at every point they turn up. Neither does the fact that the boat seems to have more secret compartments than a Lament Configuration Box.

I suspect the problem is that there simply isn’t enough time for tension to build properly when you have to have an advert break every 10 minutes. That just doesn’t work.

One other big problem with the direction is that it breaks the cardinal rule of FF – it includes footage that couldn’t have been taken by any camera, thus ruining the metaphor and taking you out of the show.

In common with American Horror Story, The River seems to have a different monster each episode, with an associated movie style to match. So episode one is very definitely Paranormal Activity, with a weird demon shoving people around violently and the survivors having to enact rituals to get rid of it. Episode two seems to start off the same, with accelerated camera footage and a possessed woman staring at someone in bed a lot. But then the rest of the episode is a great big camp in the woods, Blair Witch-style, with everyone running around in circles, finding weird things hanging from trees, all while the camera is never pointing at anything useful. But at the end of each episode, the Amazon weird thing of the week ends up defeated or exorcised and our intrepid group of travellers is free to head off down the river to find the next weird thing.

There is, of course, a story arc and as of yet, at least, Bruce Greenwood hasn’t been found, so his story is largely told through found footage – yes, there’s found footage within the found-footage series. That means he largely has to interact with himself or in flashbacks with Hope. Or by manifesting as a dragon fly (don’t ask). But also part of the arc is the question of who Hope cheated with (I’m guessing Blackthorne), what the cool but untrustworthy German security guy (Thomas Kretschmann) is really up to, where Greenwood really is and what’s got him, why he likes to manifest as a dragonfly and why Lena (Eloise Mumford, last not-seen in Lone Star), the daughter of the lost cameraman who’s come along for the ride, has a mysterious mark on the back of her head that matches a special medallion that Greenwood Jr is wearing.

Acting on the whole is fine, although Greenwood, Kretschmann, Blackthorne and fellow Brit Shaun Parkes (last seen in Identity) are head and shoulders above the others. But plotting, dialogue, direction and music are just off and cliched enough that I spent most of the two episodes bored, not frightened, occasionally laughing and hoping the episodes would end soon. It does have some good points and it’s so refreshing to have an actual horror TV show on network TV. I just wish it was better. And didn’t make me laugh.