Archive 81 (15)
Creator: Rebecca Sonnenshine
Starring: Mamoudou Athie, Dina Shahibi, Evan Jonigkeit
Review: RJ Bland
There's no denying it. There is a lot to be concerned/angry/frustrated/scared (delete where appropriate) about right now and many of us aren't exactly optimistic about the years ahead either. Climate change, a pandemic, Downing Street Parties, political and religious extremism, Love Island. You could easily get down in the dumps if you stop to think about it in any great depth. At times like these, true crime documentaries and films about killer viruses may feel as if they offer some catharsis. But you know what's better than confronting your deep rooted fears through TV and film? Avoiding them! Right now, perhaps the best thing you could do is to give your mind a bit of a break and watch something that's not grounded in any sense of reality. Something that will let your imagination run riot a little. Enter Netflix's new mind-bending sci-fi horror series, Archive 81!
Dan works at a New York museum as an archivist, restoring old tapes and films back to something resembling their former glory. One morning, he begins work on a Hi8 tape from the mid 90s that appears to show the PhD dissertation of a young woman called Melody, about an apartment called the Visser. After a bit of internet sleuthing, Dan discovers that the Visser burnt down in 1994, leaving 13 people dead. Dan is then invited to meet the owner of the tape, a man named Virgil Davenport, who makes him a rather lucrative offer. $100,000 to fix a load more tapes. The catch being that as the tapes are too fragile to move, he would have to work on them where they currently reside, which is a large but unused research campus in the middle of the Catskills . What could go wrong huh? Well, there's no wi-fi or mobile signal for a start, plus Dan has a history of mental health issues. However, it's when he starts to watch the tapes that we begin to understand that something inexplicable (and possibly terrifying) is unfolding...
Loosely based on the fictional podcast of the same name, Archive 81 is a rather unique blend of cosmic sci-fi and religious supernatural horror that manages to somehow feel gothic and Lynchian at the same time. And when you throw a little bit of Benson and Moorhead into the mix (the duo direct a couple of episodes) then the result is as weird as it is compelling.
Both of our central characters, Dan and Melody, are propelled by a desire to gain meaning from the past, as if somehow the answers to today's questions will be answered by the events of decades past. At a time when the quest for nostalgia in horror is seemingly growing every month (Scream, Ghostbusters, Halloween, Stranger Things) it feels rather apt. However, our desire to go back in time and relive past events doesn't always result in something positive.
At times, the repetitive nature of the narrative and the potential of an unreliable narrator can be a little taxing. And anxiety inducing – and that's sort of the aim, really. The horror of Archive 81 does not come in the form of jump scares and it doesn't even play the haunted house card either, which you feel is a sure fire thing when we first get a look at the sprawling pad that Dan is holed up in. The dread manifests itself at an almost subconscious level. You know that there is something to feel threatened by, even if you are not really sure what it is or why. Archive 81, to its credit, manages to string this out for five or six episodes too.
The duo attempting to navigate the mind-bending plot are what keeps things held together. Mamoudou Athie's restrained portrayal of Dan acts as a neat contrast to the intensity that Dina Shihabi brings to the table. A solid supporting add some additional intrigue to proceedings as well.
There are some issues with the consistency of the found footage format (we're not always sure that what we are watching is what Dan is watching etc) and there will be some who find the last couple of episodes a little..well...silly. They're not wrong either – it does all get a bit surreal but then what were you expecting from a series like this? The special effects are a bit hit and miss though, which does occasionally tarnish those times we actually do see some horror. The ending satisfies some of the questions raised, although without a follow up series, there are a whole host that remain unanswered. The closing sequence suggests a second series is the aim so fingers crossed we get more.