By Ken Tucker
February 07, 2012 at 12:00 PM EST

The River is a fun, scary tale that arrived on Tuesday night disguised as a grim, scary tale. That’s the way these things work: The frights wouldn’t be nearly as effective if the characters didn’t find blood-curdling precisely the stuff that made us jump and giggle. Thus, when Leslie Hope’s Tess  got abruptly sucked beneath what was thought to be shallow water (for a few seconds, only her frantically gesticulating hand remained in view), you might have yelped, but you might also have laughed at how smoothly executed the scare effect was achieved.

The meticulously manipulative River is about Bruce Greenwood’s Dr. Emmet Cole, a TV-famous naturalist who hosted a family-friendly show, The Undiscovered Country, that used the catchphrase, “There’s magic out there.” Cole has disappeared, and now his wife, Tess (Leslie Hope, whose TV persona seems to attract husbands-in-jeopardy — see: Death; Mrs. Jack Bauer) and grown son, Lincoln (Joe Anderson), return to the Amazon jungle to find him. They get the financial backing to take this journey upriver into a supernatural heart of darkness from a snotty TV producer (Paul Blackthorne) who wants to film and document the trip.

This premise yields the visual style for The River: We see much of the action as the camera operator does, which adds immediacy to the events; there are also cameras discreetly installed on the boat the crew uses, the Magus (not a coincidence, I presume, that this name is shared by the 1966 John Fowles novel about exotic, hallucination-inspiring, lush terrain, and which carried the working title The Godgame). This is the same vessel Emmet used to tape his TV adventures, and its video equipment shows us actions (mostly people doing sneaky things) that few of the other characters are privy to. Such a setup could easily have been hokey, but The River did a pretty good job of playing by the rules it sets up: We see weird things happening and understand just a teeny bit more than the protagonists do, which is a fun position to be in as viewers, because just when we think we know what’s going on, bam!, something violent or strange occurs. I took a fancy to the jungle tree the group comes upon that was festooned with dolls hung by God-knows-who — dolls that opened their eyes just when a camera operator is about to turn away. Brrrrrdolls are so often creepy.

The River was co-created by Oren Peli and Michael R. Perry, who were involved with the Paranormal Activity movies. There are obviously elements of Lost in the River concept –- a motley crew of people who each have their own, often conflicting, agendas; unsettling jungle areas; and fantastical elements (such as that dragonfly-like insect that entered the mouth of a woman to render her speaking in tongues — Bruce Greenwood’s filtered tongues, I guess).

Pause for a request: Producers, I really think you should pony up the dough to use Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” as your theme song; I mean, aside from its natural greatness, the lyrics are very appropriate. Wouldn’t Tess by now be wailing to her vanished Emmet, “I don’t know why I love you like I do / After all these changes you put me through”?

The performances were all pretty good, and all constrained by the parameters of scary-story acting: Each actor has to remain rather blank so that the terror, when it occurs, registers vividly. The River has an eight-episode order; it’ll be most fascinating to see how many of its questions are answered, how many are left dangling, and how hooked of an audience the series can acquire over two months.

Which begs the question: Are you hooked?

Twitter: @kentucker