When it comes to mockumentaries there are two types of people: those who can easily accept the fakery and those who can't help but pick it apart. I'm in the second camp and I'm not proud of it. I just can't shut off the part of my brain that asks, "Why is there a camera inside the closet? Who is filming this intimate conversation between two characters? How long do those camera batteries last, anyway?" But I don't think this mindset is necessarily my fault. Found footage as a device is meant to somehow circumvent our suspension of disbelief by declaring "This happened for real," thereby practically daring us to find faults that we wouldn't look for if we were watching something that was filmed traditionally. For me a mockumentary has to be especially well-made and believable in order for me to look past logistics and get into the experience, and movies like Blair Witch Project, [REC], and Paranormal Activity have all (mostly) achieved that. The River, in contrast, is as insanely unbelievable a mockumentary as I've ever seen. Seriously, I've seen episodes of CSI: Miami that have seemed more plausible as found footage than this thing. Somehow, though, it still works!
The River centers on Dr. Emmet Cole, the missing host of a long-running nature program (think Steve Irwin) and a team of adventurers who are searching for him deep in the heart of the Amazon. Headed up by Cole's steely wife Tess (think Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio from The Abyss) and his bitter, humorless son Lincoln (think Gareth from the U.K. The Office), the group also includes a shady TV producer and his camera crew who seem much more concerned with filming America's next big hit than with actually recovering Cole. The team is rounded out by a hilariously tough German mercenary with a suitcase full of guns, the gorgeous blonde daughter of an also-missing cameraman, a salty mechanic and his psychic daughter, and a metric ton of raw footage left behind by the original crew. The characters are mostly unmemorable in a horror movie archetype sort of way and in the case of Lincoln, exceptionally unappealing. (Seriously, casting directors?)
But whichever ABC executive decided to premiere the first two episodes of The River on the same night deserves a raise. While the pilot does a serviceable job of setting up the premise and providing a good scare or two, the fact is it was sort of lousy? No, it was very lousy. It had a bad case of pilot-itis in which the story regularly ground to a halt so that we could have some expository "know your main characters" moments that would never, ever have been filmed by a documentary crew, or, you know, spoken aloud by actual human beings. Impossibly ham-fisted and poorly acted scenes kept transpiring between Lincoln and his mother about whether the father was even alive, why exactly they came to the Amazon, and whether Tess had been faithful in her marriage. Those sorts of scenes MIGHT fly if this were just a traditionally filmed drama, but they rang incredibly, jarringly false in the found footage premise. Just awkward.
Fortunately the pilot got down and dirty pretty quickly after the discovery of Emmet Cole's riverboat (the Magus) deep in a forbidden, off-the-map area of the Amazon. Apparently the Magus was equipped with seemingly hundreds of fully operational (and mic'd) security cameras in every room and on every surface—seriously, I counted at least eight different angles in Cole's quarters alone, including a camera mounted inside his closet. There was also a camera mounted to a spotlight on the hull as well as many attached to doors? It's the kind of set-up that the producers of Big Brother might call overkill. While it wasn't quite explained exactly why a nature documentary crew might need THAT much coverage (was there an After Dark version of the nature show airing on Cinemax?), it came in handy when the supernatural elements came into play. Upon arrival aboard the Magus, Tess and her team immediately heard spooky noises below deck and discovered a compartment that had been welded shut from the outside. After instantaneously leaping to the conclusion that Emmet Cole was probably inside (what?) the team cut their way through the door only to discover a tiny wooden casket filled to the brim with ANGRY BANSHEE. Which then escaped.
After several acts of our characters running around the ship avoiding a whooshing black entity (with lighthearted banter in between encounters), the psychic daughter of the salty mechanic broke down the monster's backstory. It was a disembodied spirit of a former crewman whose improper burial loosed a blood-thirsty apparition into the jungle. After Lincoln sliced his palm to entice it, he trapped it back inside the tiny coffin and threw it overboard, but not before the spirit helpfully communicated to Tess that her husband was indeed alive. Proof! Anyway, it all sounds so dumb to talk about, but the real value of the episode was in the creepy footage of people being terrorized by an unseen spook. As fake as the concept was, it wasn't hard to get into the terror they were experiencing.
Whereas the pilot was laughable but occasionally entertaining, the second episode was truly great. Not only did it tone down the awkward exposition and feel more organic in style, the supernatural threat was significantly scarier. I mean, come on:
The episode began with a frightening sequence straight out of Paranormal Activity (whose director Oren Peli is an executive producer here), in which Jahel became possessed by the spirit of Emmet Cole via a dragonfly that crawled into her mouth as she slept. Then she stalked the boat watching people sleep and then finally woke up Tess by speaking in a man's voice. Yikes! But that wasn't the truly scary part of the episode. Later in the jungle the team came across a graveyard left by some 19th century English explorers and then decided to camp out beneath a tree covered in hundreds of DOLLS:
And p.s. some of those dolls MOVED:
After unseen spirits rattled them in the night (the use of fast-forwarded footage was another call back to Paranormal Activity) the team ended up high-tailing it into the darkness only to find themselves running in circles and getting attacked by THIS thing:
Then, in a very Poltergeist moment, Tess was dragged into a hole in the creek bed and she disappeared into an otherwordly ether. That's when Lincoln realized he could only get his mom back by trading the evil little girl spirit the bones of her dead mother. That's right, Lincoln dug up one of the explorers' graves and carried a desiccated corpse into the river as an offering. The entire sequence was capped off by an awesome scene of Tess crawling out of the muddy grave to return to them. SO GOOD.
The events of the second episode were so exciting that I barely ever considered the production logistics; I was just too wrapped up in the nonstop nightmare imagery. So that's a huge credit to the episode's entertainment value right there. Suddenly The River went from a slightly cringe-worthy chore to something I can't wait to watch every week. Add to that the knowledge that this season is only eight episodes long (which means they've hopefully got the stories thoroughly mapped out in a satisfying way), plus the tantalizing promise that each episode will feature a new supernatural element. Found footage is nothing new to the horror genre, but it's certainly new to network television. Regardless of its occasionally spotty logistical flaws, The River deserves huge points for being one of the gutsiest concepts ever broadcast on ABC. I don't know about you, but I'm definitely on board for THIS trip:
... Did you enjoy The River?
... Are you the kind of person who can look past a mockumentary's logistics and enjoy the show, or do you feel compelled to pick it apart?
... Who's your favorite character so far?
... How many hidden cameras are necessary in a single bedroom?