I'm not a fan of the recent wave of "found footage" movies, but I can appreciate why they're popular -- the best ones have a raw, intimate quality that feels more like reality than a typically-shot fiction film does.
The new 8-episode series "The River," airing Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on ABC, is an attempt to bring that sensibility to television. Co-created by Oren Peli (the writer-director of "Paranormal Activity"), the show revolves around the family of a missing-and-presumed-dead TV star named Emmet Cole (played by Bruce Greenwood). Cole's wife, Tess (Leslie Hope), and son, Lincoln (portrayed as an adult by Joe Anderson), traveled the world with Emmet -- camera crew in tow -- for a popular series about the natural world called "The Undiscovered Country."
The pilot opens with the news that Emmet and his most trusted cameraman have both disappeared while on their latest excursion, a trip up the Amazon to parts unknown. After six months of fruitless searching, Lincoln declares his father deceased, but Tess is less sure; Emmet's personal rescue beacon has been activated, she tells her son. That information has convinced Clark Quietly, the long-time producer of the show (played by Paul Blackthorne), to put his team back together -- including the fractured mother and son -- and venture into the South American jungle to attempt a rescue, which of course, will also make a heck of a television show. The group is joined early on by a lifelong female friend of Joe's, Lena (Eloise Mumford), who was also part of the family's journeys all over the world; she's the daughter of the cameraman who vanished with Emmet.
Once on the Amazon, however, the group begins to uncover some disturbing secrets about Emmet's trip. Apparently, he had set out on a quest for something he dubbed "The Source," and he'd purposefully kept his family and closest associates in the dark about it. They only learn about his search after finding a cache of video tapes in a secret compartment onboard the family's now-abandoned research vessel, which also happens to be packed stem-to-stern with always-on video cameras.
And it's a good thing too, because otherwise no one would know that there's another secret locked in the ship, and it's much more immediately threatening. The crew, while in full rescue mode, reacts to banging from behind a welded-shut door by cutting the door off its hinges. They think they might find someone alive in there, but instead, there's only a bizarre array of personal effects and a pair of bloody wooden bowls. As they are investigating the room, they are attacked by an unseen but powerful force, one that they ultimately discover -- thanks to one of those hidden tapes -- is an evil spirit that had attacked Emmet's team too, killing one of Emmet's producers. "It has tasted blood," warns Jahel (Paulina Gaitan), the spooky (or is she just spooked?) daughter of the ship's engineer, Emilio (Daniel Zacapa).
Wisely, Lincoln and Lena decide that it might be a good idea to leave, even against Tess' wishes. They work to free of the ship of its entanglements, while Emilio spends time fixing the engine, trying to get the vessel moving before the apparition returns to attack again. But just as they get underway, the apparition returns with a vengeance, claiming another life.
During the frightening attack, Lincoln takes it upon himself to bait the spirit by cutting into his own hand, which is enough to draw the force toward him and eventually off the ship, but not before Tess learns -- rather painfully -- that Emmet is indeed alive. And with that, "The River" is off and running.
Even as someone who isn't much of a horror fan, I have to admit that I liked the show quite a bit. Hope -- a sharp, interesting actress -- is very good as the driven Tess, and the first two hours utilize the found-footage concept efficiently, sometimes even cleverly, when doling out the scares. (The second episode, which featured shots of dolls hanging from trees, was positively shiver-inducing.) Many of the other characters, however, (particularly Anderson's Lincoln) aren't as sturdily built as Tess, which isn't the best thing you can say about the characters of an hour-long network drama.
Faults and all, though, I have to say that this is a good, scary ride, and it's worth taking. Three stars (out of four).