Review by C.J. Bunce
Dread. That’s what you’ll feel in the first two episodes of Netflix’s new series, Archive 81. And it only gets worse (or better?). It’s about a man repairing destroyed videotapes. So immediately you’ll think it could be like the supernatural horror of The Ring. It’s about a small community of isolated people. So is it like Wicker Man or The Stepford Wives? It has a freakish cult, so is it another take on Rosemary’s Baby or Devil’s Advocate or Midsommar? You Should Have Left, Vacancy, 1408, and other recent creepily surreal voyages will come to mind, but it’s certainly suspense and definitely a thriller. But how much horror lies ahead and how chilling will it get? Is it a throwback to 1970s mainstream horror or trash B-movie slasher horror, or based on real-life horror, like The Vanishing at the Cecil Hotel? Is it more possession or body swapping like Fallen or Skeleton Key or Intruders or Get Out? Science fiction like The Man in the High Castle? Surreal supernatural fantasy like Doctor Strange? Weird rituals like Eyes Wide Shut or The Watcher in the Woods? Or is it The Lost Room or John Carpenter’s The Prince of Darkness?
The first two episodes create a mirror of the set-up in The Shining. An archivist specializing in recorded tape repair is hired for $100,000 to try to repair about 20 videotapes destroyed in an apartment fire in 1994, tapes that could reveal the cause of the building’s destruction. But the films are so far gone they can’t be moved, so the man, named Dan (played by Underwater’s Mamoudou Athie) must move to outback New York state, and live alone in an abandoned facility outfitted with modern tech equipment required for his task.
Note: Never, ever take a job where you’re required to work by yourself in an abandoned anything, anywhere.
Dan encounters via watching the slowly repaired videotapes a young woman named Melody, played by Altered Carbon’s Dina Shihabi. She was documenting her efforts to locate her estranged mother, which led her to the Visser apartment building in New York, and she films everything on her Sony camcorder, up to the death of the residents in a fire in 1994. This filming will conjure Blair Witch Project, but don’t worry, this is real cinematography and a much better set-up. Each episode tries to retell a part of the past and present with a different trope to try to throw off the viewer. It’s like a good magic trick. So which is it?
Is this a ghost story? Some professor’s psychology experiment? A cult? Freaky New York City spiritualists? A scientific anomaly? Or just another attempt at a chilling horror ride with no particular point. It’s slow burning, which usually is synonymous for saying it’s slow and stretched too long for the story it’s trying to tell. Four episodes in and you may be ready to throw in the towel, as a character in one time intersects with a person in another, and the audience still has no idea what’s going on. Is this mental illness? Time travel? Drug-induced (or other) hallucinations? Voodoo, the occult, black magic, or witchcraft? The overall vibe has the tone of the final season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. But you’ll want to hang in there. It’s worth it.
Is there something science fictional going on? After all, Dan and Melody suddenly are communicating in a phone booth that could have some TARDIS-like qualities. Or is this like White Noise or a much darker Frequency or obvious like Poltergeist or Videodrome? Are we being played, like in the Michael Douglas movie The Game?
Really only problem distracts from an otherwise compelling story, and it’s actually a big one: An F-bomb preceding every other person’s rants in seemingly every other sentence. The complaint is not about being prudish, it’s about poor scripting of dialogue. Given the myriad of professional settings seen in this series, such as a workplace, a museum, etc., in real life people in 1994 didn’t–and people in 2022 don’t–speak like that. By the final episode, use of apparently the only adjective the writers could come up with gets so laughable that you can envision the series in the next variant on the “hi, Bob” drinking game. It’s bad writing that detracts–instead of adding anything–to the tension.
A lesser issue is, just as in several prior Netflix series, Archive 81 inserts a penultimate backstory episode that delays the big reveal of the finale (think Stranger Things). It’s a good enough episode–for another series with a different tone–distracting enough that it turned what might have been a perfect genre story into something a bit less. Ultimately the information learned is necessary for the finale, but it’s still oddly jarring and out of sync with the format of the rest of the series. The finale’s pay-off, however, is dead on. The series ultimately is like three of the above genre works more than the others–to find out which, you’ll need to watch the series.
Ultimately Archive 81 is a heart-pounding mix of bits of all the above–supernatural, horror, dark fantasy, and sci-fi tropes–all done well. Fans of Cynthia von Buhler’s Minky Woodcock series may find the creepy spiritual bits interesting as the series echoes the dark, old urban New York City visuals of her art quite well. The two lead actors are superb (despite not calling out the writers for all the F-bombs), along with co-stars Julia Chan as Melody’s friend and Matt McGorry as Dan’s friend. You’ll also want to keep an eye out for any new projects coming from the two Rebeccas: creator Rebecca Sonnenshine (The Vampire Diaries) and director Rebecca Thomas (Stranger Things).
Score points for imagination, layering, and thrills, and subtract a few points for dialogue. A second season is a must. The eight episodes are a thrilling, chilling ride. Not for the faint of heart, Archive 81 is streaming now on Netflix.