Thus, everything anyone does is seen through a camera.  So when the crew finds a room welded shut we can watch as they begin trying to cut if open because a frantic Tess is sure Emmet must be in there. We know that it's too early to find the lost explorer and anything that's been welded inside a room should be left alone. 

The classic horror movie template consists of skeptical characters foolishly ignoring the warnings of those who believe in unseen dark powers and proceeding on to encounters with sinister forces they don't believe in—think your typical Dracula film, for example. In The River, the warnings come from Jahel, the daughter of the ship's captain. Sure enough, she's ignored, and right on schedule, something evil, a flying black cloud, that had been locked inside escapes to look for blood. 

This is about the time that Quietly discovers a cache of tapes taken by Emmet Cole that shows just how native the explorer had gone in search for real magic. We see footage of him standing on the river's surface, then in a native village holding fire in his hands and other bizarre clips, so it's plain that these video bread crumbs will lead the search party into a strange and dangerous heart of spiritual darkness.

Indeed, the first three episodes follow the same pattern of establishing where Emmet might be, leading to a search into an eerie location that they are warned to avoid, followed by horrific manifestations of evil forces. Driven by Tess's love and/or guilt, or really great television imagery that will ensure great ratings, the Cole party risks blindness, death and worse both on board their floating haunted house/boat and in the jungles.

The found footage technique, used ever since The Blair Witch Project to suggest real events, continuing in such films as Cloverfield, allows narratives to create a building sense of dread, and The River has moments of chilling suspense and sudden, "what just happened?" shocks where you have to freeze the frame or replay at slow motion to see if that really was a hand reaching up out of the mud to grab someone's leg. This makes for about as intense a series as is on network television. The production values look expensive and location shooting in Puerto Rico is more immersive than another show that was known for tropical wilderness weirdness, ABC's earlier Lost, which The River resembles in several ways, perhaps too much for some viewers. 

The question of course is how long we will keep buying into the show's premise and watch the cast again walk into forbidden realms against all sense. The biggest surprise of the show is that it's only slated for eight episodes this season, an un-heard departure from broadcasting's usual target of a 22-episode season. I can't see how the Coles' search could keep trying to scare us for a full season but I am willing to stick with this mini-season of and then wait to see what happens if it's renewed for another. 

*This review first published 2/24/2012

**Watch The River Tuesdays on ABC