daniel ferrer reviews the found-footage suspense series …
Returning to the found footage style that he popularized one whole decade after The Blair Witch Project, Oren Peli makes his first foray into TV horror with The River. Co-created by Emmy winner Michael R. Perry, The River emerges this mid-season with one of the single most intriguing premises of the year. Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) is the adored host of the show within the show, a nature documentary called Undiscovered Country. Emmet goes missing in the Amazon without a trace (as foolhardy explorers are wont to do), but just as soon as he’s been declared dead, his wife Tess (Leslie Hope) discovers a beacon emanating from the Amazon. One deal with Emmet’s Machiavellian producer later, and they’re off on an expedition to find him. What follows is a ghost story that starts with an abandoned ship and leads the crew into the jungle. It’s unique enough to be interesting, but familiar enough that it needn’t be taken seriously. Oh, and Joe Anderson is kind of the lead as Emmet’s estranged son Lincoln, but he’s more frustrating to watch than Donald Trump eating pizza with a fork.
I don’t want to accuse Oren Peli of being a one-trick pony, but he’s not giving me a whole lot of options. The fact that he managed to create the most profitable film of all -time from scratch is no fluke, but at this stage in his career, he’ll do well not to let a lightweight gimmick become his trademark. Found footage is an excellent format for horror films. There’s something about the grainy imagery and the cold, detached camerawork that makes for some easy, life-like scares. The River benefits from that. There’s a perpetual sense of tension that makes every edit unnerving, and even the deliberately predictable spooks come as a real shock. Unfortunately, there isn’t any real necessity beyond that. It makes for a fairly lean sort of story. The camera isn’t ruled by emotion or aesthetics. It needs to be controlled. There has to be logic in every shot. Each and every scene has to look accidental. This is fine for Paranormal Activity, a film designed primarily to unnerve and terrify its audience, but it does so at the cost of intimacy with the character and their conflict.
It’s a lot like adding rusty links to a chain, gradually making it longer and more complex yet easier pull apart with each one. The old ship is impossibly wired with functioning security cameras, high fidelity microphones, and top-notch mood lighting. Even the trees have cameras, for Christ’s sake. A dose of suspension of disbelief is in order, but it’s hard to concede when the problem can be so easily circumvented.
A bigger problem, however, is that show deals in scares rather than character. It’s not the worst thing. The worst thing would be a horror program that fails to be scary. But that’s not much of a step up from a story that aims to shock and never to compel. Take a look at the “defining character moments” in the pilot. There’s an early scene in which bodyguard Brynildson, a Neeson-level badass (Thomas Kretschmann), relentlessly beats a man and throws him overboard. “Touched my guns,” he explains with no remorse. That’s it. There’s no further explanation. The show just moves on. It’s a feeble attempt at a humorous exposition using cold-blooded murder. There’s a later scene, when the ghost first appears and attacks Lincoln’s old friend Lena. It’s up to Lincoln, a doctor, to treat her badly gashed leg. Subsequently, he punches out the cameraman for filming the scene rather than stepping in to help her. Yes. Shame on you, cameraman. Shame on you for doing your job and expecting someone with a formal education in medical treatment to treat people medically. Scenes like these are there to elevate the characters to something a little higher than victims in a horror story, a necessary goal that never comes to fruition.
Despite an unbalanced start, The River has potential to become a great suspense. This season will be limited to just eight episodes, which means we can expect Peli and Perry to fire quick and deadly, like a real horror ought to be. There’s also a full arsenal of Chekov’s guns in this two-hour premiere, some that might be worth watching even if the characters aren’t.