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Intersection of Life and Faith

Down the Crazy River

  • Alex Wainer Contributing Writer
  • 2012 24 Feb
Down the Crazy <i>River</i>

ABC has entered the horror sweepstakes and the result is pretty scary. The broadcast network is taking a daring plunge into the dark waters which only a few other series have ventured. Will a large audience want to take that thrill ride?

In television's history, the horror genre is a boutique compared to the big box stores of cops, docs and lawyer shows. The old 60s series, Thriller, hosted by Boris Karloff, though limited by the era's broadcast standards, managed to evoke some chills and maybe a few nightmares. Occasionally, the classic Twilight Zone would move beyond psychological horror to some downright unsettling images and menacing creatures, as did the other experimental series of the era, The Outer Limits

Blended usually with science fiction elements, these were memorable for their time but except for the 70s' era Night Stalker, and similarly named Night Gallery, broadcast television, the only kind of programming there was, tended to avoid too many things that go bump in the night. The decade of the 90s brought the classic The X-Files with its hair-raising creatures of the week, and broadcast programming advanced into ickier depictions of aliens and supernatural threats. And yes, recently, shows like The Vampire Diaries, play off the interest in blood sucking undead hunks.

But cable programming is less restricted in content, because of its distribution method through subscriber fees, and thus recently, gore (The Walking Dead), fangs (Tru Blood) plus all of that with ghosts added (Being Human) have shown audiences are hungry for blood and guts on their home screens. Broadcast networks, eager for some of those viewers, have offered this year a fairy tale spin on supernatural creatures in the modern world with NBC's new success, Grimm.

Now, ABC has recruited the creator of the Paranormal Activity films, Oren Peli, to produce a horror series that, like his features, is predicated on being drawn from "found footage," that is, video recordings of the terrifying experiences a cast of characters encounter on a trip down the less friendly stretches of the Amazon.

The pilot episode opens with montage of footage from the long-running nature program, The Undiscovered Country, hosted by the popular Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), whose catch phrase, "There's magic out there," reflects both his curiosity about the wonders he explores and a hint of what's to come.

Cole has been missing in the Amazon basin for over six months. Of course, fans of Shakespeare might recognize the show's title from Hamlet's reference to what lies beyond death and it doubles as a hint of dreadful things that await the search party organized by Cole's wife, Tess, who refuses to believe he is dead. She has funded the venture by agreeing to have Cole's production company record the search as a reality show, thus the premise of a found footage narrative. She manages to persuade their grown son Lincoln to join the search despite his having given up hope that his father survived. Having grown up on camera on Emmet's series, he's tired of the double life the family lived, happy and whole on camera but with secrets and conflict behind the scenes. Lincoln's medical degree will come in handy later on.

Clark Quietly, the show's longtime producer, is driven to pursue the search for the great footage he's sure will made the show a success and his zeal is a not-so-subtle dig at the way so much reality television exploits the people it covers, but he's also been perhaps a bit too cozy with Tess in the past.

When the search party goes down the Amazon and discovers Emmet's abandoned ship, the Magus (another allusion to magic), the stage is set for the truly strange and really paranormal activities to begin, because the boat is a floating television studio with about every angle on board covered with cameras that feed into a central control room.

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