I admit to a slight hatred of films and TV shows in the “found footage” genre. ‘The River’ is filmed in this style, and this comes as no surprise given Oren Peli is attached to it. Oren Peli, for those who don’t know, directed the first ‘Paranormal Activity’ movie. I’ve never seen any of the PA movies, so I can’t make a judgement call on those. My annoyance with found-footage stories comes from some of the internal assumptions of the tales. First, that the viewer already has background knowledge of the events; and second, the shaky camera work which is apparently supposed to reflect “realism.” Really it’s just annoying.
‘The River’ leads off with scenes from a fake documentary about the disappearance of Emmet Cole, a TV personality who hosted the nature show “The Undiscovered Country” every Saturday for 22 years alongside his wife Tess and his son Lincoln. Or he did, until 6 months ago when during a trip down the Amazon he and his entire crew disappeared along with their ship, The Magus. The first scene in the “present” that we see is an adult Lincoln speaking at his father’s memorial service.
After the service, Tess and a camera crew find Lincoln in a bar. She’s convinced Emmet’s not dead, but Lincoln is because the search got called off. And Lincoln’s fine with this, after all, because his relationship with father dearest wasn’t all that great to say the least. Missed birthdays and graduations are a sore spot, and having his dad there “in spirit” all the time makes his disappearance seem just like another birthday. Lincoln storms out of the bar, and Tess follows with the revelation that Emmet’s personal beacon was activated. So that means he’s alive. At least according to Tess.
Lincoln tells her she can go find him then, but it turns out the network won’t fund the expedition unless he goes along too. Clark, the producer of the show-within-the-show, confirms this on-camera. They also get full and unfettered access to Lincoln and Tess if they go on the trip. Oh and Lincoln is convinced he and his father hated each other, which is apparently why the network wants him.
By the way, the repetition of Emmet’s catchphrase in the opening–“There’s magic out there”? Pay attention to that one folks, ’cause it’s an important thematic hook.
The crew heads to the Amazon, accompanied by the former engineer of the Magus, Emilio, and his daughter Jahel (who only speaks Spanish). While traveling down the river, we get the chance to see the interactions between the core cast, which is rounded out by Captain Kurt Brynildson and cameramen Sammy and A.J. Side note: Emilio and Clark the producer went on all of Emmet’s expeditions, except for this last. One wonders why.
This first stretch of trip is spent tracking the signal beacon, which is eventually found attached to a shark cage sunk under the water. The cage is empty and ripped open, but not from something trying to get in. No, the cage is torn like something got out. Cue the ominous music!
Lena Landry, the daughter of Emmet’s cameraman, shows up after the crew stops at a riverside village to resupply. She’s of course angry they didn’t mention the journey; if Emmet’s still alive then her father might still be alive too. Lena’s also got a bead on where the Magus might be. She shows the location to Tess, and Jahel freaks out. The ship is in an area of the river called the Boiusa. Jahel warns they can’t go there … and the rest is “untranslatable.” Methinks it’s because that place is full of baaad things.
So what does the expedition do? Go there of course!
The expedition travels into the Boiusa in inflatable rafts, where they find the Magus docked against a bank. Once onboard, and realizing the ship is empty, someone hears a banging noise from belowdecks. Tess realizes it’s coming from the panic room, and the entire crew runs down there. The panic room door, by the way, is welded shut from the outside. The expedition wonders who’d do this, and proceed to cut the weld off because Tess thinks Emmet is trapped inside. Anyone else think this is a bad idea?
Emilio and Jahel head to the engine room so they can get power back to the ship. Jahel is convinced no one human lives in the panic room, and they shouldn’t be cutting the door open. This girl is the only one making any sort of sense in this show. Tess has gone crazy because she wants her husband to be alive, Clark wants a good show, and Lena and Lincoln both want closure. But none of them have the presence of mind to think “Hmm, maybe the panic room door is welded shut for a reason. Perhaps we should try to find some records first.”
They get the door open (after the power comes up), and find someone lying curled up under a blanket. Lincoln thinks it’s Emmet, but sees a carved wooden object. Something rushes out of the room, slashing Lena’s leg open on the way. They follow the creature outside, but all we can see is the trees moving as something rushes through them. Lincoln stitches Lena up in the infirmary while they reminisce about being kids together on the ship. Something tells me Lena’s a bit of a bad-ass if she can take stitches with no painkiller like that. Lincoln walks out of the infirmary, and demands to know why A.J. the cameraman didn’t help. His answer of “that’s not what I do,” is enough to earn him a punch to the face. I like Lincoln. He’s got a decent head on his shoulders sometimes.
Lena tells Tess and Lincoln that Emmet called her from the ship before he disappeared. He had some questions about the backup files in case the server crashed. Interesting little bit of information. The cameras next follow Lena as she searches the crew quarters and Emmet’s private quarters for something. She seems to find what she’s looking for in a closet in Emmet’s room. Hmm … what could it be?
Lincoln finds out from Jahel, using her father as translator, that the thing in the panic room wasn’t an animal. It was an evil spirit — a dry soul — kicked out of hell that needs blood to live. The wooden object is a coffin used to trap the soul, and now that they fed it with Lena’s blood the creature wants more. Lincoln finds Tess and the others in the editing room, and he pushes the need to leave the ship right away before anyone dies. He already lost Emmet to this thing — he doesn’t want to lose his mother too. Tess agrees, but they soon find the rafts are either destroyed or sent down the river. The creature doesn’t want them to leave. It’s too darn hungry.
Emilio and Jahel work to get the Magus’s engine running before high tide. If they can get the ship working, then they’ve got a chance to get away. Lena meanwhile shows Lincoln and Tess the tapes Emmet made her promise to destroy if something happened to him. The crew watches a wild and crazy-looking Emmet Cole immersed in dark magic and panicking that the engine is dead and so is half the crew. But he still wants to keep moving forward. A.J. is delighted, saying to Clark “We just got a second season.” They’ve got hundreds of tapes of Emmet. Can we say gold mine?
Lincoln accuses Tess of going on the expedition because of guilt and not love. The Magus engine bursts into life but immediately stalls. A.J. grabs his camera, Kurt grabs a rifle, and Sammy the 2nd cameraman also heads out to get in on the action. The spirit gets Sammy (least screen time, so of course he’s first to go) and wreaks yet more carnage on the ship. Tess shouts at the spirit, who they think is one of the dead cameramen, to give her a sign that Emmet is alive. Well she gets her answer. The expedition continues, and Clark spies Kurt talking on the phone to someone. He tells the person at the other end that if Emmet found the source, then he’ll put him down. Aroo? What source is this? Lincoln, who knows full well there’s cameras everywhere, tells Tess that Emmet was on to something. “There is magic out there,” he says, “so let’s go see it.” (This is telling because our pal Lincoln doesn’t believe in magic.)
The name “Marbeley” for this second half of the episode comes from a teddy bear Lincoln had as a kid, which is something we see in the clips of Christmas past shown at the beginning of the second hour. Lena reveals Emmet told her about a bug bite infection on his thumb about a month before he disappeared. The decision is made to look for footage of Emmet with the infection. That way they might get an idea of his whereabouts.
A small flying thing soars into Jahel’s mouth. This is Emmet’s spirit taking over, and he tells Tess she shouldn’t have come to the jungle. She and Lincoln need to let him go, turn around and head home because “they” have him. Whoever “they” is. Emilio and Jahel stay behind while the rest go out into the jungle. On the way, Tess confesses that Emmet left her and she doesn’t know why. She wants to find him so she can apologize for something. Curiouser and curiouser.
They stumble upon a graveyard, which is weird because the natives don’t bury their dead. Umm, yeah. A child is crying somewhere, except it turns out to be a monkey with a doll’s head. Nearby there are loads of dolls hanging in the trees, which Lena reveals means it’s a spirit tree. Lincoln sees his bear Marbeley among the dolls, and this gets Tess convinced they’re on the right trail. Kurt decides, for some unknown reason, to camp among the spirit trees for the night. Do horror movies not exist in this universe? The camera catching strange movements in the darkness doesn’t help matters either.
While holding the bear, Lincoln flashes back to a time when Emmet gave him a special necklace. Lena tells him Emmet knew he was exposing himself to darkness, and the necklace was his way of protecting Lincoln. Of course Lincoln’s not wearing it now. Because that would be, well, something smart. Something grabs Lincoln, which causes them to leave in the dead of night. Something then grabs Tess, and Lena recalls a legend Emmet told her about a girl who drowned in the Amazon when she tried to fish a doll out of the river. The natives tie dolls to the trees to appease her, because otherwise she makes people drown so she’s not lonely. Kurt says the spirit must be angry that Lincoln took the bear down. So Lincoln ties the bear back to the tree and apologizes, but the bear falls to the ground. Kurt tries to do the same thing, but then all the dolls start falling down. Tess suddenly disappears. This makes the team realize they need to give the spirit what it really wants. They frantically dig up the skeletal remains of the spirit’s mother and cart them to the river. As the remains sink in, Lincoln begs for Tess’s return. The spirit has her mother now, and so Tess surfaces from the water.
Back on the ship, Lincoln talks with Jahel/Emmet. He says he wants to protect him, and the creature suddenly spews out of Jahel. She tells Lincoln that Emmet is alive, which makes him run for that necklace he remembered before. He slips it on, and remembers Emmet told him the old woman who made the necklace said “Someday I will meet a child strong enough.” A flashback to Lena and Lincoln playing on the ship shows that Emmet, filming them, notice a mark on the back of Lena’s neck that is exactly like the one on the necklace he gave Lincoln. Cue the twilight zone music, folks!
Did you watch ‘The River’? What did you think about it?