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'The River' review: ABC finds spooky magic out there

The more cynical TV viewer might knock the suspenseful new horror drama "The River"as a rip-off of such flicks as "Paranormal Activity"and "Blair Witch Project."

I'm glad I'm not cynical—as least in that respect. "The River" (8 p.m. Feb. 7, ABC; 3.5 stars) is an exciting and scary trip that begins with back-to-back episodes Tuesday.

In the first hour, we meet Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), who with his family has starred for more than two decades on a TV wilderness reality show in which the family travels to remote areas of the world because “there is magic out there," as Emmet says at the end of each episode.

The Coles known to TV audiences, including mom Tess (Leslie Hope) and son Lincoln, are a perfect, loving family. Off camera, things were anything but magical, as we learn when we join the story years later. Emmet, long estranged from both Tess and the now grown Lincoln (Joe Anderson), has gone missing in the Amazon. After six months the official search for Emmet and his cameraman is called off, and Joe, who still resents his dad for spending more time in the wild than with his family, is ready to move on with his life.

Tess senses that Emmet is still alive, and she has proof: His search beacon has started sending signals again. Joe reluctantly joins his mother and Lena Landry (Eloise Mumford), the daughter of Emmet’s cameraman, on a rescue mission funded by Emmet’s amoral ex-producer Clark Quietly (Paul Blackthorne), whose two equally smarmy cameramen will film the entire expedition.

You guessed it: The search will become yet another reality show. That is if any of the crew—including Emmet’s former boat mechanic Emilio Valenzuela (Daniel Zacapa) and his daughter Jahel (Paulina Gaitán), and shady Capt. Kurt Brynildson (Thomas Kretschmann)—survive the supernatural goings-on in the jungle.

Creators Oren Peli and Michael R. Perry (who brought us the "Paranormal Activity" films), along with showrunner Michael Green ("Kings"), waste no time getting freaky. The first scare comes 20 minutes in and the tension doesn't let up. Episode 2 intensifies the fright factor even more.

Emmet has found magic, but not the bright-colored, happy kind. Personally, any type of tribal hoodoo voodoo black magic stuff chills me to the bone, and "The River" literally drowns in it.

Telling any specifics would, of course, ruin those scares for readers. Needless to say, the show trades in Peli’s signature found-footage style. Using a mixture of hand-held cameras and surveillance cameras mounted to the boat, you get his sometimes herky-jerky shots, but they didn’t bother me too much. 

The performances are adequate, although that could be an unfair statement considering that after two episodes most of them haven’t been given the chance to break their characters out of a two-dimensional rut. Blackthorne would be twisting his baddie ‘stache if he had one, for example. An exception to that rule is Hope, who provides Tess with conflicting emotions about everyone on the boat and Emmet to boot.

Now back to those cynical viewers and horror snobs. You will see genre tropes you’ve seen before—who doesn’t know dolls can be creepy?—but not done quite like this. And for those who fear that the search for Emmet is going to turn “The River” into a “Lost”-like marathon where we learn nothing for weeks on end, I think you’re safe.

The mix of the long-story arc (the search for Emmet) and the weekly challenge the crew faces (not going to ruin it, but spoooky) should keep everyone interested—and jumping off their couches.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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