I won’t hide my fanboy love for Oren Peli’s horror juggernaut Paranormal Activity, so keep that in mind while indulging in my ponderings on Peli’s silver screen debut. “The River” is undoubtably a different creature from Paranormal, only because there are rules in mainstream television. First off, you must keep the audience hooked, so right off the bat we have to know even a two-hour premiere won’t hold many answers. Next, the show can’t just play to the horror community like Paranormal did, instead ratings would have to be from all demographics, aka, this project was covered with a safety blanket from the start. So three episodes in and halfway through Season 1, is “The River” scaring up enough commotion to be recognized against recent TV horror hits like “The Walking Dead” and “American Horror Story?”
Peli once again dives into the found footage genre, presenting us with tapes chronicling a desperate family searching for their lost explorer father. Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) was once a famed television nature icon, but vanishes off the face of the earth on his last expedition to the Amazon. When his GPS beacon activates out of the blue though, the Cole family jumps into action aided by Emmet’s old producer, a survivalist guide, two camera men, a local mechanic, and his daughter. Trudging down the Amazon river, Emmet’s boat is found washed up on the bank, complete with his own old records of the events leading up to his disappearance. We watch our characters analyze Emmet’s clips and attempt to locate jungle landmarks seen in the video, but start to suspect some higher power dwells in the terrain, standing in the way of the party and their mission. Adventure, legends, curses, and suspense all await our travelers every week, facing new challenges testing their will to find Dr. Emmet Cole.
Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood): Missing Television explorer who disappeared along the Amazon river, only to have his distress beacon activated months later
Lincoln Cole (Joe Anderson): Son of Emmet, accompanying mother in search for his father
Tess Cole (Leslie Hope): Emmet’s wife
Lena Landry (Eloise Mumford): Daughter of Emmet’s cameraman Russ Landry
Clark Quietly (Paul Blackthorne): Producer and friend of Emmet’s, creating a special out of Emmet’s rescue
A.J. Poulain (Shaun Parkes): Clark’s cameraman
Capt. Kurt Brynildson (Thomas Kretschmann): hired protection for crew, combat specialist
Emilio Valenzuela (Daniel Zacapa): Emmet’s old boat mechanic
Jahel Valenzuela (Paulina Gaitan): Emilio’s daughter
So far all my fears and inklings have been confirmed in the sense that “The River” is very softcore horror, and is more fantastical than scary. In the first episode, one of the minor characters does die, but we get a very vague, dark, and flurried kill that barely grants any recognition. Again, mainstream television and a 9pm time slot isn’t going to award any slasher worthy deaths, but the kill felt empty and useless with such censored presentation. The second thing that immediately popped in my head was “The River” provided a kill in hour one to keep real horror fans watching in hopes for more, but I’d put money down all the crew is left standing till the season finale, with at most one more axed off in the final finale minutes. The Amazon is surprisingly a horrifying place, but at the same time apparently beatable like an hour long Legend of Zelda puzzle.
With that said, it’s fun getting a break from the overplayed sitcoms and CSI spin offs for something different. A breath of fresh air if you will, something to get lost in and experiment with. I don’t tune in to “The River” expecting jumps and spooks, instead wanting the magic and mystery nestled deep in the luscious foliage. The mystical healing trees, the ghostly indigenous warriors, the tormented spirits; after three episodes I’m hooked anticipating what new Amazonian tale will haunt the crew next. Nitpicking though, sure, it was eerie when the doll’s head blinked or the Morcegos were looming, but the sense of danger is always missing from “The River.” Paranormal Activity was horrifying (again, opinion) because it was shoot in camcorder style focus. A tad grainy, not very steady, realistic microphone work…but the audience was always kept in the moment. “The River” fails to deliver the same atmosphere via all too crystal clear filming, always pitch perfect quality, overzealous made for TV acting, and the inevitable scripted love triangle because hey, it still is a TV show, and people just can’t get enough drama. Admittance, for a ABC guided TV show, “The River” provides more lore than expected. The horror lover in me can’t help but wonder what crazy story telling Peli could accomplish on FX or Showtime, killing me with hypothetical situations imagined in my own mind.
Again, these are only the innate ramblings of a first time watcher. Three episodes in doesn’t mean diddly because “Dexter” couldn’t officially win me over until season 2, which solidified our Showtime competition as a season after season winner. What I’m really excited for is my “The River” season recap, which will contain my full critique of Peli’s TV brainchild. Television is completely different from film, requiring numerous episodes to build on potential because the first few always have to be relatable enough to reel in the most amount of viewers possible. Look at season 1 of your favorite show and now; see the difference? Play it safe early, earn the respect of all, THEN go balls out. I can only hope and pray Peli finds the same set of cojones to follow suit. If not, “The River” can be cited as an example of weak horror trying to baby new audiences. But who knows? We’ll see in a few weeks…