There is something mesmerizing about old analog media. Even though the age of VHS has only just passed us by, the concept of the gritty nature of the format makes for some truly horrifying concepts. This is the concept behind Archive 81, a new horror drama series on Netflix produced by horror legend James Wan. Using the concept of restoring old media as a framing device gives us a window into the horrors of the past. Filled with promise, there are a few too many inconsistencies to help Archive 81 feel truly special enough to stand out from the crowd.
The story of Archive 81 follows Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) as he is hired by a mysterious corporation to restore old videotape recordings by Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi). Recording the odd happenings at the Visser apartment complex, grad student Melody is working to uncover what is really going on. From cults, to unexplainable events, it seems there is much more behind the issues than is let on.
With the tapes semi destroyed by a fire back in 1994, as Dan works to restore each tape, more of the mystery is slowly revealed. Dan’s segments act as a framing device to the past, giving a taste of how the events at the Visser have impacted the present, and how the cult-like nature of the building had slowly built up as Melody explored the different areas, along with the strange tenants that reside within the doomed building.
“While the concept of Archive 81 is filled with promise, the standard horror tropes we have grown to expect are all here…”
While the framing device of found analog recordings is a great way to transport the viewer to the past, it is frustrating to see the series creators drop this ‘found footage’ concept so quickly as the series progresses. While there will be minutes that look like they were recorded on an old recorder, most of the series is filmed in a standard fashion, making the old recording aspect more of an introduction to a new segment, then a way of presenting the past.
While the concept of Archive 81 is filled with promise, the standard horror tropes we have grown to expect are all here, feeling often a retread of well-worn ideas, then a trailblazer of concepts that push the genre forward. It should be noted that Archive 81 was a podcast before it became a TV series, and it stays close to the core of that show. From the fantastical moments to the outlandish revelations, there are a lot of unique ideas at play in this series, it is just frustrating that many of them do not work.
The core concept that makes up the mystery and series is solid, and even though not everything works as one would like, the performances make the series well worth watching. I loved how Mamoudou Athie brought the character of Dan to life. It was a nuanced take on the role, giving him a dry take on reality, even as his world slowly becomes unhinged. Much of the mystery also felt engaging, giving just enough new information to keep you guessing as each episode ends, making that next button your friend as you roll though all eight of the series.
Effects wise, Archive 81 was smart to be sparse with the use of direct effects, and focuses on the unknown to really bring forward the tension. Much like Rosemary’s Baby, this is a series that is more unnerving than focusing on overt monsters to bring terror. That being said, when effects are used, they do at times take away the overall sense of dread the actors, setting and tone work so hard to craft. I love a good jump scare, but when CGI is in use, it can often fail to hit the mark and look silly rather than terrifying, and that is the problem here.
Even with these gripes, Archive 81 is a show well worth your time. With eight episodes packed with content and a steady sense of dread, there is plenty to entice all manner of horror and mystery fans. While not everything hits the mark, when Archive 81 works, it is a sight to behold.