Joseph Conrad did something right when he penned Heart of Darkness (1899). His story of steaming into uncharted territory to find a man lost and consumed by obsession is infinitely malleable. It’s a seemingly perfect template, adaptable to nearly any form. In its perfect incarnation, it became Apocalypse Now (1979). Currently, it’s become the promising horror-adventure, The River (ABC, Tuesdays on 9 p.m. ET).
Created by Oren Peli (writer, director, and producer of Paranormal Activity (2007)) and Michael R. Perry (writer of Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)), The River takes us not into the heart of the African Congo but into the uncharted depths of the Amazon Rainforest. The result is a milieu of supernatural horrors. And while its creeps and scares are predictable and tame (this is network TV, after all), the show manages to be surprisingly entertaining.
Television personality and nature documentarian Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) goes missing on an expedition down the Amazon River. Six months go by, and he is presumed dead—that is, until his location beacon sends out a signal. Cole’s wife Tess (Leslie Hope) is determined to find him, and a television network agrees to fund the trip on the condition that it’s filmed and turned into a documentary. That footage is the show that we’re supposedly watching.
Like the Paranormal Activity films, the entirety of The River is “found footage.” The search team has filmed everything that we see. Because of this style of filming, we get a lot of shaky camerawork, poorly lit scenes, and voyeuristic overhanging shots. It creates a certain sense of amateur realism, which is fine for Paranormal Activity, in which the people filming are amateurs. In The River, we’re supposed to be in the hands of veteran documentarians, who should have a better handle on framing a shot. There’s a learning curve when watching this show because the handheld camera can be nauseating at first. But you’ll get your sea legs eventually.
There’s a problem with the documentary conceit. Rather than providing the lens of authenticity, the show-within-a-show framework is one more hurdle to suspending disbelief. It’s not impossible to enter into the world of The River, but as with most shows and films in the horror genre, the characters often do or say things that feel out of place. Heated arguments arise out of nothing. The improbability of horror and the verisimilitude of documentary create dissonance, which can cast you out of the action and back into your living room. But that’s the nature of horror. Intensity has to be ratcheted up. Plausibility takes a backseat.
The best way to enjoy The River is to watch it as if it were a scary movie. To expect rich, subtle characterization is to be disappointed. Instead, you have to make peace with standard character types: the manipulative producer, sinister mercenary, guilt-ridden mother, reluctant and embittered son, spiritually-inclined ethnic minority, and the “black guy.”
The scares themselves are presented as creepier than they really are. It’s never campy, but there are moments when what’s supposed to be unsettling (dolls moving by themselves, for instance) are funny instead. The spooks are mostly eerie sounds and things barely visible in the corner of the screen. These are standard scare tactics, especially if you’ve seen any of the Paranormal Activity movies.
Still there’s something compelling about The River. The show offers enough mystery to propel it forward. Hopefully, it provides revelations as well. While inevitable comparisons to Lost (2004-2010) arise—both shows include verdant locales, the anxiety of the unknown lurking in the jungle, the rampant daddy issues, and the mysterious vaporous creature trying to kill people—the two shows exist on different planes. Lost has the scope and sheen of a blockbuster. The River is low budget through and through. It raises questions that may never be answered, but it doesn’t presume (at least for now) to want to answer them. It’s more concerned with finding Emmet Cole than it is with exploring an evolving mythology. Time will tell, though, whether The River grows into more than Lost-lite or if it ends up trapped in its own hall of dimly-lit mirrors.