The River stirs that sinking feeling

Steven Spielberg's latest TV outing, the spine-tingling The River, has been dubbed by some as 'Paranormal Activity outside'.

The cast of the TV show The River. Bob D'Amico / ABC
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If you're a fidgety soul with crawly skin who likes to jump when things go bump in the rainforest night, odds are you'll get your full quota of tingles from The River, the latest TV outing from Steven Spielberg that some critics have dubbed "Paranormal Activity outdoors".

But if you think spirits are something you try to raise when you're feeling down, then this action-horror hybrid is unlikely to sweep your imagination away in its spooky undertows despite its visual smash-cuts, sudden loud noises and found-footage approach (think The Blair Witch Project) to thrills.

Joining Spielberg here as executive producers are the series creator Oren Peli (the director of the low-budget blockbuster Paranormal Activity) as well as Zack Estrin and Michael Green, to name a few.

"We want you to be not just scared, but worried for the people," says Estrin. "There are a lot of actors out there … We like them to feel disposable. The Amazon is a place with real threats."

In last week's premiere, the famed TV explorer Dr Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood) headed deep into the uncharted Amazon basin and never returned. Six months after he vanishes, his emergency beacon goes off, and his son Lincoln (Joe Anderson) and wife Tess (Leslie Hope) head up the big creek. To fund their rescue, they permit the cagey producer Clark (Paul Blackthorne) to film the mission, documentary-style. Soon they find themselves stalked by the unexplainable, to put it mildly, and the body count begins.

On the personal level, when it comes to the ghoulish, Greenwood - who portrayed Captain Pike with such gravitas in the Star Trek film franchise reboot - doesn't like to let his mind dwell on "the other side".

"I just don't like being terrified," the Canadian actorsays. "When they find me, we're not sure what's happened to me - but I've seen something that's profound."

This is Lost-style storytelling with a nod to Heart of Darkness, and when things do go supernaturally eerie, there are plenty of frissons and goosebumps to go around.

With The River's lush production values, one vicariously feels the humidity, the claustrophobia of dense foliage and the fears spawned by wilderness nights as black as the darkest hour of the soul.

In this week's episode, the searchers, having escaped death by the skin of their teeth, boldly chug farther up the river in their boat, The Magus. When a spirit mysteriously enters the crew member Jahel - a sumptuously creepy performance by the Mexican actress Paulina Gaitan - the message is clear: go home! Naturally, the dogged Tess pushes deeper into the jungle.

It's a fair question to ask whether Spielberg - with his name hung like a shingle on so many TV series recently, including Terra Nova and Smash - actually contributes creatively and impacts the direction and development of his TV properties.

"[Spielberg's] influence with stories, his influence when he watches the cuts, is amazing," Estrin says. "I mean, he's off doing a movie - or two - and … he finds time to watch these cuts and give us notes."

"He'll weigh in with key points while we're in development of the series," adds Green. During production, Spielberg emails his thoughts to the team. "Sometimes it's a wonderful idea, and sometimes it's not exactly what we want to do but it's always cool to hear it. [His suggestions] are never not worth our time."

The River is broadcast on Tuesdays at 11pm on OSN First HD and OSN First; and on Wednesdays at 1am and at 5am on OSN First +2, at 2am on OSN First HD and at 3am on OSN First