ABC’s The River: First Impression Review

Sorely lacking in any shred of realism that makes “lost footage” horror films compelling, ABC’s new “Paranormal Activity”-inspired series “The River” runs dry.


It’s relative, as evidenced by ABC’s new horror series, “The River”, created, produced, and written by Oren Peli (“Paranormal Activity”). To better aquaint myself with the documentary- horror genre made popular by films like “The Blair Witch Project”, and experience for myself what it was that made essentially identical movies either succeed or fail to frighten, I spent the previous nights watching not only “Paranormal Activity” 1 and 2, but even the mockbuster film “Paranormal Entity”. Needless to say, it was a mind-numbing four hour experience where I could have become genuinely more terrified of the prospects of angry spooks and lurking boogeymen by watching a single twenty minute ghost-themed rerun of the 1990s series “Unsolved Mysteries”.

Paranormal ActivityParanormal Activity

I can honestly say that there were elements of the first “Paranormal Activity” that impressed me, but none more than the ‘slow burn‘, the underlying threat of extreme violence and horror that continually escalates, making the mind run circles around itself in a fit of anticipations and frustrations while the great horror bides its time. I believe Alfred Hitchcock compared the technique to an audience watching a conversation between two people while a bomb under their table ticks closer to detonation. “Paranormal Activity 2” on the other hand bored me to tears because despite its multi-million dollar budget, it lost its tension and the pacing crawled to a halt, and in the process continually reminding me that it’s a movie and I could fast forward to the scary bits, if any were to actually be found. The mockbuster “Paranormal Entity” was another bit of crap that immediately threw me into a sense of disbelief mostly thanks to the unconvincing acting.

Over the course of the four hours I’ve made the conclusion that proper execution of these documentary-styled horror videos revolves around one single factor: Believability. After all, that’s one trick that (in my childhood) “Unsolved Mysteries” had repeatedly haunted me with. The guise of every Blair Witch and Paranormal Activity breed of movie is the audience’s assumption that the events they’re watching on these rolls of ‘lost footage’ was something that either HAS happened in real life (as was the popular mythos of The Blair Witch Project) or by simply being so well grounded to reality that it spawns a deep fear that the events on the screen COULD happen in real life. When an audience is introduced to a horror film that’s in the guise of a raw-footage chronicle of a terrifying event, it’s not hard to get them to turn off their sense of disbelief. If the first Paranormal Activity movie was an underground film that was ‘mysteriously’ replacing DVDs at the video rental store, and circulated around like The Ring video, there’s little doubt that the majority of the population could be fooled into believing that the events were real, and thereby evoking a deep sense of terror. HOWEVER, the minute that “Paramount Pictures” is slapped on the cover, or audiences line up in their local theaters to see this “legendary lost tape that disappeared from a police evidence locker” the mysticism of believability evaporates like a drop of water on hot cement. The sense of disbelief gnaws on your ear from the minute you see the television commercial to minute you walk out of the theater.

It’s only in appearing to be grounded in reality do these horror documentaries have a refuge where they can bait the hook and try to draw an audience back into a state in which they freely give themselves over to the possibility that the videos ‘could be real’.

And this is where “The River” runs dry.

Does this look like a realistic-looking group of people whose presence makes the illusion of the "lost footage" horror angle more believable, or is this the cast of a soap opera, "General Hospital: Burma"?Does this look like a realistic-looking group of people whose presence makes the illusion of the “lost footage” horror angle more believable, or is this the cast of a soap opera, “General Hospital: Burma”?

“The River” follows a television crew searching for world famous nature television host Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), who has disappeared in the unexplored, maze-like tributaries of the Amazon River in Brazil. After his GPS locator beacon was reactivated six months after his disappearance, a television crew decides to turn a search for Dr. Cole into a reality television show. Brought along for the search mission is Dr. Cole’s wife and son. Dr. Cole’s wife, Tess (Leslie Hope) and her son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson) have a very unconventional relationship with one another, and with the missing husband/father. It’s revealed that Tess Cole had an affair, and that Tess’s search for her missing husband is, in her son’s opinion, out of guilt for cheating on his father. Lincoln Cole was obviously screwed up by his mother’s affair, and the compounding daddy issues revolving around Emmet Cole’s extended absences is doing him no good, either.

As the crew ventured deeper down a forbidden tributary known as “Boiuna”, they track down the GPS signal to Dr. Cole’s ship, the Magus, where they investigate. During their investigation of the Magus they stumble upon the Panic Room of the ship, a sealed steel door that, when opened, releases a ghostly creature. They sift through Dr. Cole’s video cassettes where he is depicted in wild contrasting states of mind between paranoia and wonder. In one scene he’s seen with a native tribesman who seems to be teaching Dr. Cole pyrokinesis (creating/controlling fire), and it’s at that point that the entire “realism” and “lost footage” angle gets thrown out the fucking window, and my disbelief burns as brightly as the flames between Emmet’s fingertips. Dr. Cole’s tapes also reveals that the ghostly creature that they accidentally released from the Panic Room was apparently the soul of the ships captain who returned to try to kill off Dr. Cole and the Magus’s crew, before being trapped in a soul trap, an object that looks like a giant pistachio.

Following in the footsteps of creator, writer, and producer, Oren Peli’s most notable creation, the horror movie phenomenon “Paranormal Activity”, “The River” is a documentary/amateur camera horror series shot in the same raw footage camera style… mostly anyways.

Compared to the original “Paranormal Activity”, which sparingly shifted between a handheld free-roam camera and a single static location (overlooking the bedroom), “The River” is schizophrenic and omnipresent in the way that it seamlessly jumps between multiple cameramen and a seemingly infinite number of scanline-laced, obscurely angled static security cameras that would put the “Big Brother” house to shame. Absolutely everything is shown and at multiple angles, making the entire production look like more of a daytime soap opera rather than “spooky homemade footage” where large gaps in the timeline and spotty camera work is commonplace. “The River” tries to follow in the documentary horror style but, strangely enough, the production values are too high to look like anything but a contained, controlled, and well produced television series, reality television or otherwise.

the river ghost abcHere’s the spooky ghost from The River Episode 1. Your curiosity is quelled, enjoy the remaining 44.9 minutes of your life you’ve saved.

My final complaint is the casting, which never ceases to look out of place for a horror genre rooted in the illusion of “reality”. Going back to Paranormal Activity, we’re introduced to a young, very NORMAL LOOKING couple who gives the audience a sense that this is Joe and Jane Average living their lives in Anytown, USA, which only deepens the audience’s suspension of disbelief because the movie simply doesn’t look like a movie. If the roles of the couple in Paranormal Activity was the glamorous cast of Twilight, the illusion of “anybody, anywhere” would be instantly broken. No longer would it be the eerily realistic friendly neighborhood couple who you’ve seen mowing their lawns and shopping in the same grocery stores as you, they would be the high-stature couple that looks down on you from the cover of People Magazine. You may have some admiration to the attractive and airbrushed people, but on a subconscious level you also have an equal emotional detachment.

Instead we’re presented a cast of actors that at the first glance appears to conform to the Hollywood idealisms of beauty, rather than a cast that resembles the wide diversity of different physical traits, imperfections, and quirks that make everyday people unique. i.e.: Realism.

The audience’s willing suspension of disbelief justifies the use of fantastic or non-realistic elements in works of fiction, but it becomes nearly impossible to suspend the aforesaid disbelief when every element in a work of fiction is fantastic and non-realistic, while in the guise of a work of non-fiction. It’s my opinion that had “The River” been filmed without the documentary or missing footage style of Oren Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” and instead became a “Lost” or “X-Files” knockoff, it could have been a decent show. Instead Oren Peli was probably ordered by ABC to stick to the film technique that made him famous, and in the process of trying to make “The River” lifelike he consequentially discarded vital elements of the documentary horror film technique, and ended up sucking the realism and horror out of it like a vampiric ghost.

I doubt I’ll be watching the remaining seven episodes.


The loveable lunatic with the foul mouth and the iconic laugh, Laughingman is the founder of CCS. With more coffee than copper in his bloodstream, he's a full-time website developer by day, and a gamer, editor, and fiction writer by night.

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