With nothing but time on my hands, I have begun revisiting my favorite horror series from the past. The found footage gem, The River is one of those series that you sit down to watch and instantly remember what you loved about it.
The premise is simple but seductive. A reality star/conservationist like the late Steve Irwin has gone missing. Dr. Emmett Cole’s wife and son have no idea what has happened. With very little to go on but a television network’s budget, a team of potentially troubling characters, and a last known location, they head off into the Amazon jungle to find him. Throughout the eight-episode run, they encounter just about every type of terror you can imagine in the quest to rescue Dr. Cole and his crew.
It is the kitchen sink of horror. The creators Oren Peli of Paranormal Activity and Michael Perry, who produced the grossly underappreciated Freakylinks and Millenium, are obviously fans of the genre. They love everything about horror, and it shows. Between the two of them, they have written, directed, and produced an insane amount of quality genre work. What initially presents as a strictly found footage meets Dr. Livingston trope uses all eight episodes to explore and revere the many colors of horror. Here are all the biggest reasons you should revisit The River.
The Cast Is Better Than You Remember
This River lured in quite a few big names. The tantalizingly absent Dr. Cole is played with enthusiastic zealotry by Bruce Greenwood(Star Trek and iRobot). He is a true believer in both his message and the magic he knows exists. His camera-ready life isn’t quite as perfect as it seems. Emmett has confused his mission to find magic with his mission to be a good husband and father. Greenwood has an intense likability and charisma that make it easy to imagine him as everyone’s nature Dad.
Cole’s wife Tess, Leslie Hope from Slasher, gives a multifaceted performance as a woman who is desperate to find her husband and her own power. She has lived in the shadow of Emmett her whole life and now must find the strength to be his rescuer. Son Lincoln, played by Joe Anderson from a personal favorite The Ruins, is a medical student with a clown car of resentment. Lincoln wasn’t always as thrilled to live his life in the wild and on camera. He is a reluctant and resourceful addition to the group. He wears his virtue like armor, and he wields his contempt like a sword.
The remainder of the cast consists of Eloise Mumford from the Fifty Shades Franchise as friend of the family Lena Landry. Paul Blackthorne(Arrow) as longtime cameraman Clarke. Thomas Kretschmann who’s currently on Westworld and the soon to be released Penny Dreadful: City of Angels is a questionable bodyguard Kurt. The remainder of the main cast is mechanic’s daughter Jahel(Paulina Gaitan), mechanic Emilio(Daniel Zacapa), and cameraman AJ(Shaun Parkes). There are also several incredible smaller parts by Lee Tergesen(The Purge television series) as Lena’s lost father and Scott Michael Foster(Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) as cursed cameraman Jonas Beckett. Katie Featherston(Paranormal Activity) even makes an appearance as Rabbit, an ill-fated member of Dr. Cole’s group.
Pick Your Poison It’s In The River Somewhere
Even as I write this, I know it sounds ridiculous. This series literally has everything. It is the horror addition of Stefon from SNL. Mayan curses, cryptids, ghosts, possessions, natural magic, mediums, demons, cannibal headhunter tribes, poisoning, zombies, scientific experimentation gone wrong, greedy corporate backstories, creepy stalkers, and shape-shifting realities (It’s the hottest club in New York City). That’s just off the top of my head. If more is more than too much is great. Each episode leads our group further into danger. It also introduces one more thing for our group to be afraid of. Just when you think you have seen it all something new comes for them.
There Are Two Episodes That Are Genuinely Unnerving
The River is generally well-paced with no episode lacking tension and scares. There are two standout episodes. The first is Episode Two: Marbeley. Easily the scariest of the entire season, Episode Two takes creepy dolls to a new level. The set design by Rick Romer is outstanding with a menagerie of terrible child’s toys hanging from every available tree branch in the jungle. The perfect amount of peripheral movements and jump scares keep the suspense high. The episode was directed by Jaume Collett-Serra(Orphan and The Shallows). She brings the same sensibility to this episode. Episode two is much scarier than you think it will be.
The Condemned Man or Hanging Man shows up in Episode Four: A Better Man when the crew of the Magus comes across Jonas. He was left for dead by Emmett. A Better Man is both a scary campfire story and a morality play. Lincoln refuses to exile Jonas who is cursed for taping a sacred funeral of local tribesman. Like many good slashers from the ’80s, a “good” deed saves the day. Lincoln acts as that moral compass the entire season keeping the group from straying too far off the path. Episode Four is excellent because it introduces Jonas who becomes the snarky court jester moving forward and the curse is a good one. A horrific Groundhog Day that never ends and always results in your painful death is a terrible sentence (Just ask Happy Death Day am I right). Dean White who produces The 100 and Siren directed.
The River could easily be written off. It was a prime time network show produced by the King of Found Footage himself. Surprisingly it has quite a few things going for it. The biggest being its full commitment to the story. This series was unapologetically pandering, and that saves it from becoming trite. Found footage is often the joke of the horror world, and this series gleefully jumps the shark in almost every episode. It is essentially the Tiger King of network programming. No matter how absurd it is, you can’t help but keep watching. If you watch through all eight episodes you are treated to a cool ending that doesn’t feel abrupt. If you are looking for something new to watch, you can catch The River on the ABC app. The app is available for Amazon Fire or any smart TV.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.