Apparently we are not, as a nation, over that whole “found footage” thing. Obviously, after the chart-topping release of the theatrical superhero flick Chronicle and the successful debut of the jungle-clad horror series “The River,” America is still perfectly happy to watch handheld shaky-cam footage of stuff they can’t quite see happening. From The Blair Witch Project to Cloverfield to Apollo 18 to The Devil Inside, Hollywood has worked long and hard to turn “shot-on-video faux documentary” into a genre—mostly because it costs next to nothing to make.
It’s no surprise then to see Oren Peli, creator and director of the popular found-footage ghost movies Paranormal Activity, peddling his wares on the small screen with ABC’s midseason replacement series “The River.” The series follows a documentary crew to the Amazon in search of missing explorer Dr. Emmet Cole (the commanding Bruce Greenwood). Cole was the star of “The Undiscovered County” a family-style version “Wild Kingdom” in which Cole, his wife and young son traveled the world looking for animals and adventure. Ten years ago, Cole’s son Lincoln (Joe Anderson) quit and went off to start his own life. Now, mom (Leslie Hope) has recruited Lincoln’s help in locating the good doctor, who mysteriously vanished while sailing up the Amazon.
The rescue expedition is being funded by a television company that’s demanding a docu-reality series in return. Angry over the reintroduction of cameras into his life, but curious about his father’s fate, Lincoln reluctantly agrees. Before long, our cast is on a rickety boat on a gigantic river searching for answers.
Like the Paranormal Activity films, “The River” frequently mistakes the feeling of being startled with the feeling of being scared. There are endless camera POV shots where we’re staring off into fuzzy space just waiting for something to pop out and go “Boo!” Occasionally it does, and that’s good for a tiny jolt of adrenaline. So far, each episode feels fairly self-contained. Apparently, Dr. Cole was out looking for real magic; and he must have found it, because it’s coming out of the jungle in waves. Each week, our (rapidly dwindling) cast runs across some faintly glimpsed monster or spirit or hoobajoob. The handheld video camera gimmick doesn’t add all that much to the series, but at least there’s a decent excuse for it. (If you can accept the idea that TV producers have lugged, like, 800 remote-controlled cameras into the middle of the jungle.)
Where “The River” succeeds best is in its concept and setting. The Amazon (actually Puerto Rico and Hawaii, subbing nicely) is a dark, foreboding place, and the makers of this series milk it for all it’s worth. The tense family dynamic and the idea that pretty much anything can happen at any time do make for suspenseful viewing. So far, the network insists that “The River” is an eight-episode maxi series and will end at the end of the season. We’ve heard that boast before. (“The Killing,” I’m glaring at you.) If true, “The River” is worth hitching a ride on for the next couple of months.