A glimpse of the post title shows that The River can be easily described as Survivor: Amazon meets Bear Grylls meets Paranormal Activity meets The Reaping meets [REC] meets my knuckles in my mouth because it’s creepy to me anyway.
Another ghostly adventure for a chicken like me!
I didn’t know The River existed until Ray told me I should pay attention to this freaky episode on Channel 5 about a vampire-like creature terrorizing a bunch of people in the Amazon. When described like that I was like, “Wuh?” I was tired, so I pretended to watch as I drifted in and out of sleep. The week after, I happened to chance upon the show again while channel surfing and caught the very exciting second half of the second episode. Being one of those idiotic people who embrace the whole voyeuristic camera thing going on, I was perfectly fine with the show’s format of gazing through the lens of the seemingly unlimited amount of cameras mounted within the ship (sometimes like a peeping tom), on mini-helicopter droid-cams and the shaky shoulders of the TV crew. A 44-minute non-playable FPS without the guns can be legit. So I sat down to rewatch the pilot and the rest of the series in one sitting.
The show treats its setting with great respect and gives the Amazon river an incredible personality – like Lost did with the Island. I have to admit that I don’t know jack about the Amazon other than your elementary school basics – longest river, dense jungle, most animal species per square feet, largest source of freshwater and so on – exotic and mysterious, an entity of its own, home to all things strange, creepy and magical. Coming from a culture rife with urban legends and spiritual mythology, the South American folklore (fictionalized or not) attached to each episode’s main supernatural arc were as different and rich as the Chinese occult’s for me to keep interest. More importantly, they would be what made the uncharted bits of the Amazon Basin we’d travel for 8 episodes one big giant monster of uncertainty and scariness.
A show like this can’t be viewed with logic. It must be viewed with primal emotion to really sing. As wondrous and terrifying the Amazon and its metaphysical mysteries are, the most interesting bit of the series is how it is set up to bring all its characters to South America in the first place. Famed adventurer Dr Emmet Cole suddenly disappears on a final quest of ultimate exploration. His TV catchphrase is, “There’s magic out there,” which at first instills child-like fascination but later on as it is reviewed on tape by others, sheds a special kind of eerieness to it. Footage found of him is disturbing and fascinating: he is seen communing with tribesmen and partaking in their ceremonies, then performing miracles like walking on water or conjuring flame with his hands.
One day, his emergency beacon goes off, to which his wife Tess and estranged son Lincoln respond to immediately. Their expedition is completely funded by the network, and get this, the ex-producer of Emmet’s TV show is spearheading the documentary team accompanying them. Pinpointed at the mouth of “the Boiuna” part of the Amazon River, our cast pierces the invisible veil of this otherworldly universe of nature and spirits, descending into its purgatory-like depths.
The production is a mish-mash of Big Brother and your standard documentary fare. We’ve got the talking heads cut together with B-roll, fly-on-the-wall access to the ship’s many, many cameras, and the actual filming of the action. It’s the perfect way to draw out tension, with the non-traditional camera angling and disjointed edits that shouldn’t work, but do, because of the whole fake-docu-video-diary thing. We get treated to shots that have little nose room with focus on the background to make you think that something’s going to leap from the shadows, or see violently swaying foliage indicative of movement behind unsuspecting characters pointing the camera towards themselves.
I love that you don’t get to see any of these mysteries. They’re mostly faceless, soundless, creeping, enigmas, sometimes lightning fast. There is an episode that lets you see one of their creatures in the face; I remember backing up into the wall from my bed making incoherent noises because it was that jarring to suddenly look upon its empty-socket gaze as it quietly slipped into frame. High and wide shots lend an uncomfortable openness to scenes, corridor cameras create a paranoia of corners and doorways, while fast forwarded outdoor surveillance makes for a scary watch when it finally slows down and you catch the subtle form just at the edge of the frame.
Your eyes are constantly led to look at a certain spaces on the screen, creating anticipation/anxiety even when nothing is to come of the moment. This was what kept me on edge the whole time – I didn’t quite know if I was being lured into a false sense of security or if I was correct in assuming that there wasn’t going to be a jump scare. And there aren’t that many jump shocks. You get the kind of horror that walks up to you from the end of the hallway, whether or not you’re ready for it when it arrives. As it approaches, the level of intensity piled onto you is purely dependent on you. I’m easily affected psychologically because of my crazy imagination, so I found the way they delivered their horror elements to be effective. There was many a time that “what the” was uttered.
I have to nitpick on the character development, though. It’s choppy. Sometimes we’re given great emotional moments, but other times I feel like the writers forget that these characters are more than the archetypes they initially present us with. Their actors are very capable, very real. I saw them as regular people taken from the streets and put on camera for a bigger purpose without the obnoxious reality TV personality (but it doesn’t mean that they’re without some irksome personal flaws). I felt their anxiety as they inched closer towards the truth of what happened with Dr Cole. While you do get to see them stretch their acting chops, at times I felt like in order to move the story forward, they had to sacrifice the depth of their characters.
Like Jahel. She’s so great to watch. Her dialogue (mostly in Spanish) powers through scenes like a locomotive, and her eyes are so expressive. All we know of her is that she’s sensitive to the supernatural (she could be a medium) and that she’s extremely well-versed in South American legends. But that’s just what we know and are allowed to have of her. Sure, I was treated to moments when she proved herself in a crisis. She was a super cool mechanic on the Magus like Kaylee is to Serenity. But sadly, the show has a habit of making her the go-to encyclopedia of everything supernatural, and it overshadows all that coolness under the pretty face. Just as I’m on the cusp of seeing her have a great character moment, she’s shoved into the folktale master role again. I want to discover who Jahel is, where she’s from, what she is, but damn it with all this helter skelter stunting her. It’s like this with many of the other supporting characters as well, with whom we get lovely bite-sized ‘origin’ scenes. These were the stories that were set in reality, making the fantastic all the more magical because it displaced them.
The River was cancelled about 8 episodes in, much to Ray’s and my collective dismay. My nitpick may have been unwarranted because they could’ve had character-centric episodes planned for the future to round them out for all I know. But as usual, ABC pulled the plug on it for low ratings. Guess we’ll never know what happens to the gang. Kind of frustrating, really. It seemed like they squashed a lot of story potential. I’m not saying that it was stellar television, neither was it terrifying to the point that I couldn’t look at white noise or a mirror in real life. It didn’t have perfect continuity, but I’ve seen far worse bullshit have a longer lifespan. I’ll even say that it’s miles better than Supernatural ever was (as a whole series, even). I genuinely liked the show, because it was moderately scary, and I didn’t grow tired of the journey to finding Dr Cole. I actually wanted to know what happened during the time he was missing. It was exciting stuff, reviewing old tapes with the crew, and indulging in the illusion that I was part of them.
You might also take comfort in the fact that The River somehow miraculously tied up loose ends and answered the important questions before its untimely demise. The episodes get better (or more ridiculous, depending on how you see it) as it goes on, until you realise that it’s the end and there’s no more of it left. But you know what? It’s only 8 episodes. Catch it during long toilet breaks or during travel. The addiction only kicks in when you don’t tie your usual crazy expectations of the horror/supernatural genre to the show. Then sit back and absorb it. I think you’ll be entertained.