The River chronicles the life and disappearance of famed explorer Dr. Emmet Cole who turned his life, and the life of his family, into a weekly TV series combing exotic locales aboard his boat ‘The Magus’for the ‘˜magic’that he was convinced existed in nature. Now missing for six months after a mysterious solo quest to find ‘˜real’magic, Cole has been declared dead. Is he? When Cole’s rescue beacon is activated deep in the Amazon River, Cole’s family, and a TV crew, embarks on a mission down a forgotten tributary hoping to find Cole alive, along the way they find a trail inhabited by terrifying supernatural forces and mounting evidence that Dr. Cole’s journey turned into an apt representation of Edgar Allen Poe’s ominous proclamation: “be careful what you wish for, lest it come true.”
Shot in the style of ‘˜Found Footage’that has become the boon for series co-creators Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity) and Michael R. Perry (American Gothic, Law & Order: SVU, Paranormal Activity 2), The River is part Blair Witch, Part Heart of Darkness, and all authentic horror adventure with an aura of mystery that sucks you in like some kind of evil inescapable gravity. To evoke another of Poe’s macabre idioms, The Imp of the Perverse, The River is loaded with moments where you know you should look away, but you just can’t. A tension that is paid off with some very effective scares over, and over, and over again.
Without great characters The River would easily be just a schlocky creep-fest. Everyone from Bruce Greenwood’s Emmet obsessed Emmet Cole to Daniel Zacapa‘s ship mechanic Emilio brings their A-Game to the series with characters that beg for exploration and mesh with one another despite whatever mysterious motivations might be peering out from beneath their personas.
‘Nothing is what it is on The River,’Joe Anderson, who plays Emmet’s son Lincoln Cole on The River, explains to me. ‘That is the best way to describe it. ‘
A fitting description that will make a lot more sense when you watch The River tonight on ABC. ‘˜The Unexpected’is the domain of The River, combining Peli’s perfection of the ‘found footage’ model with the visceral horror fantasy of EC comics, and the Warren Creepy and Eerie mags, and throwing in occasional bits of modern suspense and even a little Cronenberg inspired body-horror, the writers of The River know their horror, and they know it well. The River is the scariest show on television as a result.
Anderson’s Lincoln Cole is in many ways the engine of the character ensemble. He has a lot of conflict both inside himself and with those around him, and carries a gargantuan chip on his shoulder. At the same time, he is intelligent, well on his way to becoming a doctor, and not exactly a novice at this whole adventure thing having grown up on the decks of the Magus. So he’s not simply an angsty guy, there is some legitimacy behind that chip. ‘From the get go Lincoln has spent six-months putting his father to rest. He’s been missing for six months and declared dead. Lincoln had to do the memorial service, and his mother wasn’t there, and then the beacon goes off and he’s being told come on, the network won’t pay for a rescue mission unless you come along so they can film it to have some drama.’Anderson explains. ‘[Lincoln] thinks straight off the top that that is something immoral; it doesn’t sit right with Lincoln, the idea that my father could possibly be dead and this television company wants to extort that and make a TV show out of it. So the chip on Lincoln’s shoulder definitely comes from that at the beginning, but once he’s there, and once he’s on board, and once there is no turning back that chip will fade. Not too quickly, but it will fade.’
As for the experience of filming The River in the ‘˜found footage’style of Peli’s megahit franchise Paranormal Activity, Anderson described some of the challenges involved. ‘There’s millions of cameras all over the place so you’re covered 360 degrees – up, down, left, right — so you have to be on your game all the time. One of the bigger challenges is the fact that you’ve got an actor shooting you. It’s not a cameraman it’s another actor who’s holding the camera, so they’re having to learn incredibly quickly how to become camera ops. By the end of the season I would hear the director or the producers say ‘˜Well, we don’t need to bring the real cameraman in because that was just fine.”
Those who are a little nervous about taking the trek up The River with Anderson and crew for fear of getting lost in a complicated serial needn’t worry. There are certainly over-arching plot elements, but as Anderson explains The River is just as enjoyable for casual viewing as it is for those who love a deep mystery. ‘Each week will have an individual story for sure, but over the season there will be storylines that run throughout and larger themes explored. Ultimately what we find within each episode there will be pieces that, if you add them up over the eight episodes, will provide with the information you need to make the realization you need to make as an audience. If you’re just going to flick on the TV and watch it you’re going to get enough, and if you watch the whole season you’re going to be blown away. Either way, it works.’
Tune in to The River Tonight on ABC at 9PM.