I love horror, fantasy, and science fiction movies. I’m mixed (at best) on horror, fantasy, and science fiction movies made in the “found footage” style popularized by The Blair Witch Project, which has been recycled for better ([REC], and its US remake Quarantine, Cloverfield) and for worse (The Devil Inside) far too much on our screens. And outside of a few shows (the current incarnation of Doctor Who, the original runs of The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker, bits and pieces, so to speak, of The Walking Dead, and a handful of others) I’m not real keen on horror, fantasy, and science fiction on TV.
Which meant The River, a horror show that brings the found footage gimmick into our living rooms, had two strikes against it going into Tuesday’s two-episode premiere. And any program hyped and hyped (and hyped some more) as as the “next TV phenomenon” automatically prepares me for a letdown, particularly when it arrives hot on the heels of Monday’s “next TV phenomenon,” Smash, both of which are executive-produced by Steven Spielberg–whose Terra Nova, fall’s “next TV phenomenon,” was a complete non-starter with me (and it takes a lot to make me not want to watch a dinosaur show.) Color me skeptical.
Spielberg is only along for the ride on The River, though. The captain of this ship is producer Oren Peli, whose Paranormal Activity film series is a genuine phenomenon (which, like all the rest, owes a certain debt to 1980′s notorious Cannibal Holocaust, repaid ever so slightly here). I fast-forwarded through two of them; video cameras trained on bedrooms for an hour-and-a-half, with a “boo” moment at the very end just before you lapse into a coma from the wooden acting and non-existent production values, aren’t my bag. Still, such things are proven to scare the easily susceptible into tizzies, and The River splashes these across a broader canvas. We’re in the Amazon, on the lookout for beloved explorer Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), who became lost in uncharted territory in his never-ending pursuit of “magic.” His son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson, a co-star of the similar horror flick The Ruins), never felt much magic from dad, and has made peace with Cole resting in peace. Not so mom Tess (Leslie Hope, 24), who based on a beacon signal from Cole’s boat, the Magus, gets a reluctant Lincoln to join her on a search mission that will be funded–and, natch, filmed at all moments–by the explorer’s former producer, Clark (Paul Blackthorne, The Dresden Files, if you recall that Sci-Fi Channel shortfaller). Joining the hunt are Lena (Eloise Mumford), whose father also vanished with Cole, Emilio (Daniel Zacapa), Cole’s staunch mechanic, AJ (Shaun Parkes), a determined photographer (an important job on a show like this), and Kurt, a cool-as-ice security expert. (He’s played by Thomas Kretschmann, the Teutonic actor you get when Jürgen Prochnow and Christoph Waltz are unavailable.)
Most important, I’d say, in the grand scheme is young Jahel (Paulina Gaitan), who seems to be in touch with the unquiet spirits that are soon found to be haunting the river. Every “reality horror” needs to put a kid in ambiguous jeopardy, and by Episode 2 Jahel was spitting dragonflies. Some viewers who had signed on for a look-see, however, missed that spectacle–no surprise, as long before that the two hours had established a not particularly interesting rhythm, of lots of shakycam slinking around abandoned cabins and leafy jungles, with ominous music playing and the characters screaming “What the hell is that?” and so on seconds before the Hyundai and credit card commercials rolled.
Advertisements are real thrill killers for shows like The River, and I give the uneven Walking Dead credit for keeping us off balance from episode to episode; we’re never quite sure where in the hour the “walkers” will show up. Some find the waiting dull–but it keeps us on our toes, whereas the barrage of would-be scares during The River has us crying uncle by the end of the hour. Tuesday’s director, Jaume Collet-Serra, of the bigscreen thrillers Orphan and Unknown, is a servant of horror, not a master, and it might be that only a real magus could energize this format. You’d think, at least, that as one of the producers he’d have tried to straighten out the British Anderson’s marble-mouthed American accent, which was as distracting as the “soul traps” and other diversions on our way to what Cole (played unflappably by Greenwood, who is obliged to act to no one in particular in video segments) calls “the source.”
On your way, I should say. One-quarter down The River and color me gone. The good news is that there are only six episodes left, a minimal order that should keep the show focused on “the source” (unlike the attention-deficit chills of An American Horror Story, which like every Ryan Murphy show jumped the shark every 20 minutes or so) or from succumbing to subplot sprawl (like The X-Files, a good show detoured into banality). Explorers, take heart–maybe, just maybe, some actual magic will be found in all that footage.