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Archive 81, Pictured: Mamoudou Athie Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert/Netflix © 2021
Image: Netflix

TV

The Analog Terror of Archive 81

An archivist hired to restore a collection of tapes finds himself reconstructing the work of a filmmaker and her investigation into a dangerous cult.

Archive 81: Rewind to Reveal. The Truth.

Note: This review contains spoilers for Season 1 of Archive 81.

“You ever think about what it means? To capture a moment of time on a piece of film? To give it an eternity it was never meant to have? What else might we be scooping up in that moment? What can’t we see?”

Archive 81 attempts to answer these questions in Netflix’s latest horror series. Moving between two timelines, the story follows anthropology student Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) in 1994 as she films an oral history of the mysterious Visser apartment building, and Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) in present-day who is hired to restore and digitize her tapes that were destroyed in the famed fire that took the lives of its residents. This story is so meaty but on top of all that is a weird AV Club cult, magic mold, and ritual blood sacrifice, not to mention the intersecting stories of the two protagonists.

Archive 81, Pictured: Mamoudou Athie Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert/Netflix © 2021
Mamoudou Athie, Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert/Netflix

Based on the popular podcast of the same name, Archive 81 uses the “found footage” motif and various forms of multimedia to bring this fictional tale to life. That may make it sound cluttered or gritty, but the series is polished with haunting cinematography and a story that reaches through the screen, grabs, and holds one’s attention.

The first episode, “Mystery Signals,” packs quite a punch and feels like so much more than a first episode, complete with a twist at the end. Some of the revelations and reveals that occur have that final episode, ramp-up energy which makes it particularly fun to binge. There are so many clues and interesting tidbits of information on the colorful characters that inhabit the Visser and about the building itself.

This abundance of story is presented in true horror story fashion. Throughout the eight episodes, Archive 81 has moments, scenes, and imagery reminiscent of notable films and series from the genre, and some are even referenced. The plots and subplots of Archive 81 could fill a whole season of Black Mirror. The videotapes obviously bring to mind Ringu and its American counterpart, The Ring. Dan isolating in a modern manse in the woods to work has a distinct Jack Torrance/Overlook Hotel feel.

Tell me you’re not standing in a hedge maze right now.

-Mark

I see elements of Rear Window and other Hitchcockian approaches as well as the handheld horror of The Blair Witch Project. There are Stephen King books on the shelf. Dan wears a Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear t-shirt. There are a lot of cool, Easter Egg-type things that fans of the genre will enjoy.

Archive 81, Pictured: Dina Shihabi, Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert/Netflix © 2021
Dina Shihabi, Photo Credit: Quantrell D. Colbert/Netflix

Archive 81 does a lot of things right so it is disappointing when an important aspect doesn’t quite match the overall level of quality. While Athie creates a pretty well-developed character in Dan, Shihabi leaves a lot to be desired in her performance of Melody. The character is ineffectual and uninteresting; one would think the story, which revolves around her, would suffer due to the weak portrayal. However, the story is strong and can withstand Melody’s blandness.

Episode 5, “Through the Looking Glass,” stays mostly in the 1994 timeline with Melody’s investigation coming to a head. If the tale told up until then was subpar, this episode might be where I stop watching. But, luckily, the story has me so completely in its grips by then, that Melody becomes just an amusing annoyance.

This narrative web weaves through time and space and different forms of media and visual storytelling. Genuine jump-scares, disturbing imagery, and elements of the supernatural keep it humming right along without it getting too muddled. Archive 81 is well worth the time and provides an eerie escape from reality, which “is a feature, not a bug.”

Stray Observations:

  • Dan’s dreams are so freaky!
  • Melody sounds so unnatural saying the F-word, and she says it a lot.
  • “Drove all the way up to Camp Crystal Lake and you told me to go fuck myself.”
  • Using MTV News’ Kurt Loder reporting on Kurt Cobain’s death as a way to indicate 1994 is especially brutal.

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