The River: The Complete First Season DVD Review: Oren Peli's Paranormal Holocaust

There's magic out there. Well, maybe not in this series, but…
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While police procedurals are and always have been a dime a dozen when it comes to television shows, the horror genre has almost always left something to be desired. Well, let me rephrase that: it has always left something to be desired if it's anything other than an anthology show like Tales from the Crypt or whatnot. When studio execs decide to give the greenlight to something such wholly other, however, you can usually bet your bottom dollar that the end result will be disastrous. One glorious and ultimately thorough example is the recent ABC failure The River, which combined the talentless flair of the completely boring found-footage film genre with supernatural elements shamelessly lifted from several other movies.

For The River, ABC and executive producer Steven Spielberg have brought in Oren Peli — the amateur filmmaker who somehow managed to strike gold with his monotonous red herring-a-plenty Paranormal Activity — to bring us a mystical scare show that once again uses the found-footage approach (apparently, Peli only has one niche). Instead of setting this one in some folks' suburban home, however, Peli has moved the location to the legendary Amazon River (which is represented by Hawaii and Puerto Rico here), the setting of the infamous (and for all accounts and purposes original) found-footage flick, Cannibal Holocaust. Yup, that's right: it's Oren Peli's Paranormal Holocaust -- with many elements of Lost tossed in for good measure.

Unfortunately, there is absolutely no measure that can be considered anywhere near good with The River. At its core, The River is an appallingly bad show that even the network couldn't stand — and promptly canceled after just eight episodes. Utilizing every cliché in the book, Peli's writers cram every horror element they can think of into the short-lived series, ranging from deadly ghost ships to creepy dolls hanging in trees, and to flesh-eating zombies who catnap, too. Bruce Greenwood — a good actor with a bad agent — is our top-billed performer here, but who is mostly seen via flashback footage (and it is literally flashback footage in this case, as all of The River is told via faux found footage -- and I mean everything).

Here, Greenwood is cast as Dr. Emmet Cole: a Crocodile Hunter-ish television personality who uses the annoying catchphrase "There's magic out there," and who disappears deep in the Amazon whilst searching for some genuine magic (the kind Orson Welles never really got into). With their meal ticket gone, his network sends in his family and producer with a tight knit multipurpose camera crew to find out what happened to him. And it's clear from the get-go that the crew of the Magus is destined for a date with destiny, as they are besieged by one paranormal pitfall after another. Meanwhile, the audience is overwhelmed by The River's terrible writing, poor performances, hackneyed plot points, and the truly dreadful atrociousness the show boasts in general.

Fortunately, The River's ineptitude results in something that even the executives at ABC could never have foreseen: unintentional humor. Actually, the show is so bad that it becomes truly hilarious within the first few minutes of the premiere episode. Further amusement comes from second-billed English actor Joe Anderson as Cole's son, Lincoln -- whose terrible American accent is so nasal and gravely that he sounds like Chris from Family Guy. Also cast here are Leslie Hope, Eloise Mumford (who is particularly bad), Shaun Parkes, Paul Blackthorne, Thomas Kretschmann, Daniel Zacapa, and Paulina Gaitán. Guest stars include Scott Michael Foster, Katie Featherston, Lee Tergesen, and Don McManus.

ABC Studios brings us this wisely annulled accidental sitcom in a two-disc set that boasts a surprisingly impressive presentation despite some shaky camerawork, crappy special defects, and intentionally grainy video. It seems the very worst movies and TV shows always get the most special features, and The River: The Complete First Season (which should have been called The River: The Complete Series, all things considered) is no exception — having audio commentaries on select episodes with assorted cast and crew, deleted scenes (dear God, no!), and a behind-the-scenes featurette. More than this one really deserves, methinks.

Yes, The River is bad. Very bad. Still, though, it's just dumb enough to be entertaining for all the wrong reasons — but it doesn't help the dream of somebody creating a truly good non-anthology horror TV show come any closer to reality.

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