This is a continuation of my post on “found footage” horror.

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The River is a fascinating show. Not fascinating in the sense of being well-written, or suspenseful, or really any good at all. Rather, it’s fascinating because of how thoroughly shitty it is. Despite high production values and experienced producers, The River sucks at everything. It’s a rare accomplishment, even by the low standards of broadcast television.

Created by Oren Peli (Paranormal Activity), The River is a horror series about Lincoln Cole (Joe Anderson) and his mother, Tess (Leslie Hope), who are searching for Lincoln’s long-lost father, the famed explorer Dr. Emmett Cole (Bruce Greenwood). Emmett disappeared several years ago in the Amazon rainforest. The expedition is funded by TV producer Clark Quitely (Paul Blackthorne), who offers to provide a boat and a crew, but only if he gets to film everything that happens. So Lincoln and Tess become the stars of a reality TV series, along with a tidy group of stock characters. There’s the cute love interest for Lincoln, the ethnic engineer and his daughter, the evil mercenary, the sassy black cameraman, and the nerdy, Jewish cameraman. After leaving the Amazon River to float down an uncharted tributary, the group is soon beset by ghosts, magic, and sundry evil things.

What sets The River apart from other horror series is the found footage concept. Every shot comes from either the (in-story) cameramen or the stationary cameras mounted around the boat. Presumably, the footage somehow made it back to the U.S., where the suits at ABC broke it down into hour long chunks (with commercial breaks!) before airing it. It’s a silly premise, but no sillier than any haunted house or slasher movie. It’s a decent enough idea for delivering cheap thrills each week. But a decent idea doesn’t amount to much when the execution is garbage.

The first problem is the cast, or really the lack thereof. As any slasher fan knows, horror stories need big casts to kill off. And a horror TV series needs either a very large cast or plenty of guest stars to bump off, otherwise the story cannot generate any suspense. The audience instinctively knows that the core characters are not going to die early in the series, because if they died the story couldn’t go on. But The River has barely half-a-dozen characters, and with such a small cast it must conserve every character like they’re water in the desert. So only one person has died after three episodes (the Jewish cameraman of course, as he was just too Woody Allen-ish to survive in the jungle).

The horror is further undermined by the hokey family drama that passes for a sub-plot. Did Tess leave Emmett or did Emmett leave Tess? Was Tess having an affair with the sleazy TV producer? Will Lincoln ever forgive his dad? Does anyone care about this shit? Of course not! I don’t care about these characters and I don’t want to care about these characters. This is supposed to be terror in the Amazon, not Days of Our General Hospital.

At least with the producer of Paranormal Activity at the helm, The River should be a technically flawless example of found footage horror. I say “should,” because it’s actually a terrible example of the genre. As I discussed in the previous post, found footage copies the shaky camerawork, the crappy angles, and bad lighting of amateur video, which makes it easier for the audience to suspend disbelief and buy into the lie that the footage is real. The River occasionally uses these techniques, but then it ruins everything when it switches to perfect angles and soft lighting for those oh-so-dramatic moments. And the actors, despite being in the rainforest, always look clean and pretty. My disbelief is not suspended, because the show is too slick for its own good.

And then there’s the censorship. I understand that this is broadcast television, which is regulated by the FCC. I understand that a good portion of the American public is deeply offended by the female nipple and the word “fuck.” And I understand that it must be frustrating at times to work for a lousy network like ABC. But there’s something far more pathetic than a show where no one ever curses. It’s a show where characters regularly curse but the profanity is carefully bleeped out (even the mouths are shaded, just in a case an easily offended lip-reader is watching). Excuse my French, but what the fuck are they trying to prove? Presumably, they want the audience to believe that the characters are real and speak just like normal, foul-mouthed Americans. But the censorship wrecks the found footage conceit. The whole point of found footage is that it’s supposed to look like someone found a camcorder lying in a gutter. The content is raw and uncensored, creating the illusion of reality. As for The River, the only plausible assumption is that ABC “discovered” the video recordings of an expedition that encountered real magic, ghosts and other crazy shit. And naturally the suits at ABC bleeped out the profanity before sharing this earth-shattering footage with the public, because they’re insane.

Can anyone name a decent horror series on the broadcast networks? I loved The X-Files when I was a kid, but that was a long time ago, and many of the episodes have not aged well. Perhaps broadcast television – with its censorship and commercial breaks – is simply not a suitable medium for the content and storytelling techniques of the horror genre.

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