What had me most excited about The River, ABC’s latest post-Lost paranormal activity, is the team behind it. One of the creators is Oren Peli, the director of Paranormal Activity, a horror movie every bit as effective, iconic, and ill-suited to a franchise as Blair Witch Project. The first two episodes of The River were directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who put some creative visual styling into his House of Wax remake. But where he really got my attention was with Orphan, a splendid slice of latter-day Hitchcock with some really good actors thrown in for good measure. When Peli and Collet-Serra are pressed into service for TV, I want to be there.
But executive producer Steven Speilberg, fresh off executive producing Falling Skies and directing Tintin, should have been a red flag. Because The River is thoroughly TV in the worst sense of the word. It has no edge. It plays out with a soft safe made-for-TV feel, from the Lostly lush locale; to the ghost-of-the-week episodic format; to the convenient found-footage conceit recalling dopey reality TV ghost hunters; to the blandly telegenic and unremarkable cast. It’s all as menace-free as horror can be. Nice try killing the Jewish guy in the first episode. It’s so obvious that any character’s lifespan is proportionate to the number of lines he or she has.
Furthermore, it even fails as a haunted house fun ride. Peli uses tricks from Paranormal Activity, like fast forwarded film, sleeping people dragged out of bed, and bodies flung forcefully, usually at the camera. I expect footprints in flour next week. When the only memorable scare — and it’s not a scare so much as a mildly creepy shudder — is a monkey peering out from under a mask, I might as well just watch that scene from The Omen where baboons freak out on Lee Remick’s car.