Production-wise, The River has an awful lot going for it. It’s backed by Steven Spielberg as an executive producer and the head writers (Oren Peli and Michael R. Perry) both have a background in the Paranormal Activity franchise. That, combined with some seasoned television actors, should make for a compelling TV horror story, right?
The answer to that question lies in what kind of horror story you’re looking to get out of the show. There’s the “edge of your seat, kept in suspense at every moment, stay awake for nights” scary story. And then there’s the “creepy crawly, so bad it’s almost good” campfire tale. If you’re looking for the second, then The River might be the right show for you.
My experience with the horror genre is admittedly on the limited side. I’m more of a fairy tales and satire kind of girl--I take my stories with a heaping dose of character development, thank you very much. The experience of watching The River was a really good one for me just in terms of getting outside of my usual norm. That being said, watching The River reminded of why I like what I do. I found my attention wandering off during the show’s flashy two-episode premiere.
The first episode set up the disappearance of Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood). He left a wife and a son behind, as well as a legacy in the form of The Undiscovered Country With Dr. Emmet Cole, a Steve Irwin-esque nature show. His catchphrase was “There’s magic out there.” (There’s a part of me that would be more interested in watching back episodes of that show.) His son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson), is a ringer for a young Gaius Balter with his shaggy hair and daddy issues. Tess (Leslie Hope of 24 fame) is his adventurous wife who clings to the notion that her husband is still alive. They’re approached by Emmet’s old camera crew to see if they can find him. It doesn’t take long before they’re on a boat down the Amazon River.
The cast of characters is forgettable in that I don’t find myself rooting for any of them just yet. There’s a gruff security officer (Thomas Kretschmann), a mechanic and his daughter (Daniel Zacapa and Paulina Gaitan), and an ambitious producer (Paul Blackthorne). The camera man’s daughter, Lena (Eloise Mumford), is also along for the ride. There’s supposed to be chemistry between her character and Lincoln, although we could just as easily establish a series to uncover the mystery of why the chemistry disappeared. Lena was in charge of destroying Emmet’s personal tapes if he went missing, so naturally the first thing that the crew does is to watch the tapes. It turns out that there actually might be magic out there! Gasp! In addition to magic, there’s also a dry spirit that feeds on the blood of people so it can hunt them. They know that because it lurks at the bottom of the Amazon screaming, “Feed me, Seymour!” That, or the seemingly all-knowing teenage girl on the ship tells them as much. The episode confirms what we've already guessed. There's something out there and Dr. Cole is involved.
The second episode relied more on thriller tropes—skeletons, convulsing, and super creepy dolls. Trope-y as they may be, I thought this episode did a much better job at bringing the thrills. When the group explored the surrounding jungle, they came upon a crying child, except the child pulled a switcheroo and ended up being a monkey in a mask. Lincoln summed it up best when he said, “How the bleep does a monkey get a doll’s head out here?” Great question, Lincoln. Oh, maybe it’s from the grotto filled with dolls…including Lincoln’s childhood teddy bear. The most logical thing to do is to spend the night in the forgotten doll camp. (Ask your local park ranger for rates!) We also found out that Emmet is probably still alive because he…wait for it…inhabited the spirit of a dragonfly and crawled into Jahel’s mouth. There’s an obvious mythology that The River is trying to establish, but at this point, I’m not really sure if I care.
There’s so much in the story that I could potentially find interesting—the magic, the relationship between Lincoln and his mom, Dr. Emmet Cole’s history with the Amazon… Heck, even the Amazon itself! I went through a phase as a kid where I was obsessed with the Amazon. I always thought that Amazon Trail was much more exciting than Oregon Trail. In Amazon Trail, you could stab piranhas with spears and the causes of death were way more interesting than dysentery. Where’s that Amazon, Steven Spielberg?
The found footage mockumentary is a perfectly acceptable format for a horror movie, but will it lose its flair over the course of eight episodes? The first season is only slated for those eight spots, which is a great trial and run period to see if this sort of thing could work. The commitment to the show is relatively minimal and I am curious enough to watch the show again so I can find out what really happened to Dr. Cole. There could be magic out there, so let’s see if The River can tap into that source.