tv review

Beneath the Clichés, Archive 81 Is a Slow-Burning Horror Scorcher

Photo: Quantrell D. Colbert/NETFLIX

In the realms of cosmic and Gothic horror, simplicity is key. An image so impossible to comprehend that it turns a person mad, as in H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness, or a sound on such a unique register or pitch that it bends a body into revolt, as in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. The stripped-down nature of those styles emphasize how the universe is a nightmare of horror and evil, and we are practically powerless against forces far grander than ourselves.

When playing within these specifically existential subgenres and their depths of inexplicable strangeness, Netflix’s horror series Archive 81 (loosely inspired by the first season of the same-named podcast) is capable and compelling. Showrunner Rebecca Sonnenshine effectively chips away at the conviction of our senses, encouraging self-doubt in what we’re seeing and hearing, in an effort to answer a pair of ominous questions: What if our nostalgia and longing for a different past weren’t just a backward gaze, but an open door — and what if we couldn’t control what came through?

While Archive 81’s eight episodes fill the time by wandering down dimly lit hallways, staircases, and other haunted-house architectural staples, repetitive dialogue, narrative padding, and an overload of references to other horror properties threaten to overwhelm Sonnenshine’s appreciably chilly world. (The series includes direct nods to or subtle evocations of Rosemary’s Baby, Candyman, The Twilight Zone, The Others, Annihilation, The Shining, The Ring, Solaris, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Exorcist, The Night House, Hereditary, Coherence, Don’t Look Now, Sinister, Velvet Buzzsaw, The Vast of Night, Mike Flanagan, David Lynch, Emily Dickinson, Shirley Jackson, Thomas Ligotti, Mark Z. Danielewski, the theater production Sleep No More, and the aforementioned Lovecraft and Poe, and that’s probably not everything.) Generously, this bounty could be viewed as a love letter to the genre. In execution, though, Archive 81 somewhat lacks a prevailing identity of its own, even as it masters slow-burning dread.

Like so many (too many?) recent series, Archive 81 uses a split timeline to begin at the end and then work its way forward by going backward; if that sounds confusing, it’s because throwing off the audience is Archive 81’s intent. Time is as unreliable as people’s identities, and as in flux as their understanding of their own motivations. The regrets and doubts we carry are invisible but weighty, and they push down upon practically everyone in Archive 81. (The characters unaffected by uncertainty are the ones buoyed by zealous fervor, and the difference between these groups of actors, from the sprightliness of their body language to the coyness of their smiles, is stark.) In 2019, archivist Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) spends his days exploring and preserving the past. He buys videotapes and audiotapes from street merchants, treating each one as a surprise for his eyes and ears, and at work at the Museum of the Moving Image, he meticulously restores reels of film and sound that have been damaged or discarded. There is a connection between the tragic deaths of his family members years before and Dan’s personal and professional obsession with the past, and Archive 81 doesn’t hide its significance.

It’s a steady, tidy life, the cracks in which are hinted at by Dan’s conversations with his best friend Mark Higgins (Matt McGorry), the creator and host of the horror podcast Mystery Signals. (“I don’t believe that supernatural shit,” Dan insists, but Archive 81 wouldn’t be a series if that opinion remained unchanged.) McGorry makes Mark an open book, a figure of easy confidence — his parents, it’s suggested, still pay his bills — and genuine concern for Dan, who Athie, through his gaze and posture, presents as sometimes loyal and steadfast, other times defensive and guarded. Which version of Dan is it that agrees to take a mysterious job offer from Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan), the shadowy head of an equally shadowy corporation who hires Dan to digitize a number of videotapes damaged in a fire in 1994? The eccentric Dan, or the self-destructive one?

Sent off to a remote compound in the Catskills where he’s the only person living in brutalist-cum-mid-century mansion with no Internet and spotty cell-phone reception, Dan begins restoring the tapes and getting lost in the world of Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi, making a very strong Final Girl showing). Twenty-five years before, Melody was working on her doctoral dissertation in sociocultural anthropology, doing an oral history project on New York City’s Visser apartment building. The building’s history was strange, built as it was on the ruins of a mansion that also burned down in the 1920s, and Melody’s omnipresent recording of the building’s inhabitants and her first-person narration about their activities brought life to the Visser’s weirdness. As Dan tumbles into Melody’s videos documenting the Visser’s mysteries — most of which are caused by bored rich people’s fascination with the occult, of course — the bond he forges with Melody seems to simultaneously transcend and collapse time. “It pulled them here,” Melody’s teen friend Jess (Ariana Neal) says of the Visser’s influence over people, and as Archive 81 progresses, Dan’s reality is upended by that pull, too.

The eight episodes, all of which drop on Netflix on January 14, are divided into pairs, with director Rebecca Thomas helming the first two and final two, directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead handling the third and fourth episodes, and Haifaa al-Mansour handling the fifth and sixth. That consistency helps maintain the series’s visual language, which is set up by Thomas in the premiere: a sterile flatness to the 2019 events and a more saturated, glimmering look to the 1994 narrative. That difference helps as Archive 81 messes with what is real, what is remembered, what is imagined, and what is all those things at once. Benson and Moorhead, whose film Synchronic plays in a similar thematic sandbox, deliver standout episodes in the linearly experimental “Terror in the Aisles” and the seance-featuring “Spirit Receivers,” while al-Mansour guides viewers into the Visser’s corrupt heart in fifth episode “Through the Looking Glass.”

Dan and Melody are both unreliable narrators, and one of the best things Archive 81 does is tie them together so they can challenge each other’s perspectives and truths. The approach gives Athie and Shihabi the opportunity to shift into vulnerability and curiosity when they interact on a shared wavelength, and pivots their characters against the rest of the world. It’s a shame when Archive 81 trades in the growing tension and subversive twists of the series’s middle episodes for final installments that suffer from repetitive plotting and editing decisions (scene climaxes are interrupted over and over by loud, screeching feedback; exposition dumps) and some disappointing CGI that makes a certain entity laughable instead of fearful. Those decisions strip from Archive 81’s concluding moments a portion of the sinister power the series had previously accumulated, and some of its humor. You may laugh unintentionally at creature design instead of at the sarcastic one-liners and dry asides, which are how the series’s meta mentality presents itself: “You think those Blair Witch guys invented that stuff?” a character scoffingly says of found footage; “None of your Reddit tips work!” Dan complains to Mark after his fellow horror fans fail to provide useful intel about breaking open a locked door.

Those little nods to the series’s podcast origins are fine, but the real honor that Archive 81 provides its predecessor is through the immersive excellence of its aural textures and sound design. Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s score is lilting and unnerving, with the same kind of foreboding, enveloping disquiet they bring to their many collaborations with sci-fi filmmaker Alex Garland (Devs, Annihilation, Ex Machina). “What’s with the after-hours satanic choir practice?” wonders Melody’s spunky roommate Annabelle (Julia Chan) of the sound emanating from deep within the Visser, and the looping melody that Barrow and Salisbury craft feels beamed in from the demented carnival of another dimension: simultaneously playful and dense, ritualistic and impenetrable.

The viscerally unsettling quality of that musical cue complements what Archive 81 does best, which is to explore how those who go looking for the hidden underbelly of dread in our seemingly mundane reality often set in motion their own doom. It’s a credit to Sonnenshine and her array of collaborators that even with its missteps, the trippy toxicity of Archive 81’s imagined world is difficult to shake off.

Beneath the Clichés, Archive 81 Is a Slow-Burn Scorcher