At the Movies: The River

If Emmet Cole’s alive, and if he found the Source, I’ll put him down.

     – Kurt Brynildson, The River #1 (2011)

This is a review of the television series The River (2011-2012) with an eye towards using it in Call of Cthulhu games, especially using the Delta Green setting.

Stop reading if you want to avoid SPOILERS.

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The River chronicles the rescue mission of the family and friends of explorer and reality TV presenter Dr Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood), who went missing on the Amazon. Using the technique popularized by The Blair Witch Project, the viewer sees only “found footage,” the material that has been captured by one of the ‒ rather many ‒ cameras deployed on the boat and by the crew, both manned and remote. This is the modern equivalent of H.P. Lovecraft’s often-used technique of the found diary. Unfortunately, it is even more awkward, especially over the span of the entire series.

A lot is wrong with The River, particularly the non-inspiring actors who never really manage to involve the viewer, but if one overlooks this, then there is much to be taken away for a Cthulhu Now campaign or even just a one-shot adventure. Trapped on a boat in the middle of nowhere, without contact to the outside world, the small cast is of almost perfect size for a group of investigators, and includes several character archetypes such as the scientist, physician, parapsychologist (in the shape of the untrained psychic), mercenary, and mechanic – as well as several representatives of the monster fodder. Unfortunately, the archetypes also remain stereotypes for most of the series. Travelling up a South American river on a boat is a not-so-subtle but still welcome reference to Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Each one of the eight episodes features some supernatural entity, including several fairly conventional ghosts, a whistling demon, gene-manipulated zombies, a tribe of blind Indians (clearly cultists of some kind), and a man who magically cocoons himself in order to survive (a concept so alien to the human physiology it should instantly peak the investigators’ interest). The River also plays with several aspects of traditional Brazilian mythology, featuring the Boiúna, a black snake god that embodies the river itself, and the Corpo-Seco, a dried-up corpse that lives on blood. The Catholic exorcism is less relevant, but could easily be replaced with some Mythos magic.

Of particular interest to a Cthulhu Now or Delta Green campaign is the subplot of the heavily-armed and rather callous German mercenary Kurt Brynildson (Thomas Kretschmann) who seems to know much more than the other characters, and appears to have been sent (or gone on his own will) to prevent the knowledge of the magic found by the missing explorer from reaching the outside world – by killing him! In fact, Dr Cole did not only find magic, but powerful Evil. Otherwise genuinely concerned with the well-being of the group, this makes Brynildson a poster boy for a DELTA GREEN agent. Brynildson’s fiancée, who is apparently part of the same organization, mounted an earlier operation that involved killing a bunch of evil researchers, an operation that went terribly wrong and ended in a supernatural threat being released. That sounds a lot like a DELTA GREEN cowboy operation, or at least like a mission by an organization similar to DELTA GREEN.

Using the rating system pioneered by The Unspeakable Oath, The River rates five phobias overall, although the setting and a few shocking moments might actually rate seven phobias.