The recently released Netflix show “Archive 81” combines horror themes with mystery and thrills in a new way. The show follows the character Dan Turner, a talented video archivist, who is hired to restore a set of damaged videotapes from the ’90s. He is soon embroiled in the deeper, disturbing mystery of what’s on the tapes and what happened to their owner, graduate student Melody Pendras. The series is loosely based off of a horror podcast of the same name, and became available on Jan. 14.
The first episode of the series introduces Dan as a smart and well-intentioned young man who is still troubled by the traumatic loss of his family when he was young. Due to Dan’s archival skills, a mysterious, wealthy businessman hires him to restore Melody’s videotapes in an eerie facility in the rural Catskills. As he begins to watch the restored footage, Dan learns that Melody was investigating the Visser Building, an apartment complex with a disturbing history and strange tenants. Dan watches Melody begin to unravel the truth behind the Visser’s connection to a creepy cult and the supernatural. The longer he works, the more Dan becomes invested in Melody’s story and how he may fit into it.
Throughout each episode, the theme of found footage is well maintained. Each episode features some of Melody’s old VHS-style footage from 1994 to show what she discovered from her point of view. While Dan is the clear protagonist of the series, a large portion of it is set in 1994, following Melody’s story. The dual focus on both the present day and the ’90s allows the viewer to piece together the true story of the Visser Building at the same time that Dan does.
Although found footage is a well-known cliche in the horror genre, the use of it in “Archive 81” does not feel boring or cheap. Melody’s footage is at the center of the plot of the show, and the creepiness it evokes is present throughout the entire series. The main settings of the show — a secluded, empty facility and the ominous Visser apartments — provide appropriate backdrops for the story to unfold. The soundtrack of the series, filled with haunting scary movie music, also serves to make the hair on your back stand up. Additionally, the lack of overdone jump scares throughout the series keeps you on the edge of your seat.
“Archive 81” takes place over the span of eight episodes, with each lasting around 50 to 55 minutes. While the shorter length of the season makes it ideal for a quick watch, there are some issues with the pacing of the series that affect its overall quality. Most of the episodes after the first one begin to feel longer than they are, with a majority of the action and important events left for the last 10 to 20 minutes. The episodes begin to drag on as a result, with some crucial scenes not having the powerful impact they might’ve had otherwise. The last few episodes of the series are additionally jam-packed with almost too many serious plot points, overwhelming the viewer with lots of information at once.
In addition to the issue of timing, the series is also weighed down by the large number of plotlines happening over the short span of the show. The overarching, main question of what happened to Melody Pendras is unveiled throughout the series in a captivating way, with many unpredictable twists in the story. But getting to this revelation requires understanding and remembering so many events that it can become confusing to follow. The show would likely have been easier to keep up with if it had spread out the story over the course of a couple more episodes or addressed the timing inconsistencies of the season.
Despite these flaws, however, “Archive 81” is able to show Dan’s journey into Melody’s life and the Visser Building in an incredibly entertaining way. Although the main draw of the show is its focus on the intrigue of a cult-based mystery, it manages to go beyond being one-dimensional. As the viewer is taken deeper into Dan and Melody’s lives, themes of paranoia, mental health struggles and deep-seated trauma are explored. It is the inclusion of these complex and deeply personal struggles that breathes life into the series, making Dan as well as Melody more relatable and interesting characters.
In addition to the dark, sinister tone that is present throughout the whole series, there are also elements of lightheartedness that keep the show from becoming a completely gloomy watch. The friendship between Dan and his best friend Mark Higgins is not only included in the show to flesh out Dan’s character but also to provide moments of real humor and camaraderie.
The acting of the show, with many new or unknown actors, is fantastic. Mamoudou Athie is excellent as Dan, capturing the internal struggles that he goes through while not losing the kindness that makes him a lovable protagonist. Dina Shihabi, playing Melody, shows off her ability to switch back and forth between curiosity, fear and desperation expertly as well.
Overall, “Archive 81” is a dramatic and very creepy watch that will draw you in. Supported by a strong cast and a unique story, the show will keep you entertained with surprising plotlines and its unique found footage format, even if you get a little lost in the details of the story along the way.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars