My first experience with ABC's found-footage horror show The River didn't begin all that auspiciously: can we just agree now that the found-footage style of filmmaking has been one with rapidly diminishing returns, a crutch for no-budget filmmakers to tell stories that don't necessarily have to be well-lit, staged, or edited? From its start, this eight-episode series trucks in some of the same, well-worn (tired) tropes: the cocky, often borderline personality disorder narcissist camera operator (The River is graced with no less than three in the first episode); cycling through cameras only for—shock—something unexpected and perhaps horrible to creep by. It's all the same as it ever was, and you can feel the fingerprints of series creator Oren Peli, the auteur, as it were, behind the Paranormal Activity movies.
And now that I've sufficiently talked trash about the type of show, The River is, I can take a breath and confess that I didn't hate it and would go so far as to say more often than not, I felt the same kind of allure for this show as I did for the outsized hysteria of An American Horror Story: that is to say, both are very much shows about horror, AHS mining decades of haunted house movies, while The River is pretty much every found footage horror movie you've ever seen in the service of a pretty compelling mystery.
And here, we get into mid-to-late 80's Clive Barker material, with the intrusion of "real" magic into the real world. Specifically, the series follows a documentary crew as they seek out missing television naturalist Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood, impossible not to watch), beloved host of the long-running series "The Undiscovered Country," who took his boat The Magus up the Amazon in search of what we gradually learn is the secret of magic. He and his crew disappear and after six months missing, he's declared dead.
Left behind are his estranged son Lincoln (Joe Anderson), who simply got tired of a life on-camera with the old man, and his seemingly indefatigable wife Tess (Leslie Hope) who absolutely believes the good doctor is still alive. They're roped into an expedition down the Amazon, into the mysterious Bouina region to search for Dr. Cole, as a multi-camera documetary. And almost immediately, what they find is murder, madness, and the very hostile supernatural. Dr. Cole's catchphrase for "The Undiscovered Country" is "There's magic out there," and each subsequent time we hear him say it, this sounds like less a promise and more of a threat.
The series' creators boast in the special features that all of the action in The River is something that could be plausibly captured by one of the ubiquitous cameras in the series. They're everywhere: on doors, in hall ways, on the exterior and interior of the boat, on characters' shoulders, and even in an eye-in-the-sky RC-helicopter mounted camera. And for the most part, the show is pretty honest, although I doubt some of the characters would permit the intimacy of some of the cameras intruding in their quarters.
I mentioned that the show is outsized and nuts in the same vein as An American Horror Story, and oh man is it: not only do we get the present-day supernatural stuff, but thanks to footage that the crew unearths later as well as archival footage from "The Undiscovered Country" along with home videos, cell phone cameras, and security footage to provide context to the modern events—and by context, I mean melodrama. The Coles are dysfunctional family in their way and there was something broken and maybe even a little Colonel Kurtz-esque about the good Dr. Cole.
The construction of the series is very solid, particularly given the demands of the particular verite conceit. And while I wish I could clap my hands and kill the instinct of every budding writer out there to craft another maladjusted camera operator who seemed designed solely to be punched by characters who simply want the camera out of their faces... well, that would just be fantastic. The rest of the cast is pretty game, though with Anderson's Lincoln character getting the largest share of the show's attention. There's something special about him (or at least we're lead to believe so) and he acts as the cast's moral compass as they drift down the river.
The scares are of the jump variety, so expect lots of things off to the side of the frame, or popping up with a loud music sting. If that's your thing, The River will be for you. While the series doesn't exactly create any kind of sustained tension, the central mystery is super-compelling and the more we learn about Dr. Cole's journey down the river, the more intriguing the show becomes. While each episode tells us that the videos were left behind by the characters and we can assume that they problem won't come to any sort of warm and fuzzy end, there's a second season on the way which promises to expand on the mystery.
The eight-episodes come on two discs with deleted scenes, a making of featurette, and commentaries for the premiere episode "The Magus" as well as the finale "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."