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Cosmic Horror Lurks in Archive 81

A review of Netflix’s latest horror series

The damaged tapes at the heart of Archive 81's mystery

Even if flawed some gems are still splendid, and Netflix’s latest horror show Archive 81 is indeed one of those intriguingly imperfect treasures. The show throws everything at the wall, and though a lot of it sticks, much of what doesn’t distracts from what does. Archive 81 gets in its own way losing momentum shifting to the next plot point rather than exploring material and characters. However, it’s hard to criticize too harshly because the series goes big.

Based on a podcast of the same name, Archive 81 is executively produced by Rebecca Sonnenshine and James Wan. The series follows Dan Turner played by Mamoudou Athie as he restores damaged video for storage. The material in question are tapes made by oral historian Melody Pendras, portrayed by Dina Shihabi, who recorded several hours of footage documenting an apartment building known as the Visser. Her recordings may hold the key to what happened when the Visser mysteriously burned down killing everyone inside.

Mamoudou Athie as Dan Turner walking the city streets in Archive 81
Mamoudoud Athie as Dan Turner in Archive 81

The building is a strange place full of equally odd inhabitants. So much so, Archive 81 doesn’t waste time arriving at occult implications. The only downside is the series never really leaves space for things to marinate. Characters rarely react to creepy occurrences because they’re too busy moving on to the next nightmare scenario. They get spooked but shrug things off to carry on so quickly that the scares seem to have affected them little. Sometimes this works because it keeps things moving at a steady pace, but it also misses opportunities to create character depth.

This is the double-edged sword Archive 81 wields. On one hand, there’s an amazing amount of content within the story. The series constructs a compelling realm of cosmic horror, and though some notes feel familiar—the shadowy corporation investigating supernatural events for reasons unknown and the cult operating within the mysterious apartment—they never feel forced. Unfortunately, Archive 81 plays off predictable plot points focusing heavily on the premise more than the players involved. Consequently, the cosmic horrors are far more fleshed out than any characters.

There are a lot of twists and turns as the story unfolds. However, many of them aren’t so much shocking revelations as they are expositional lore dumps padding the world or compelling the plot. On occasion, it seems like the writers penned themselves into a corner then needed to contrive something convenient to justify the next step forward. Mild spoiler alert: at one point, despite having every reason to flee the Visser building’s unsettling oddities, Melody makes a revelation about her real intentions exploring the premises. It arrives with the grace of a flightless bird thrown off a rooftop, and that’s frustrating since it could easily have organically fit into the story.

Dina Shihabi playing Melody Pendras holding a camcorder in Archive 81
Dina Shihabi as Melody Pendras

Running eight episodes at close to an hour apiece, Archive 81 had the time to explore characters. Unfortunately, it prefers moving to the next horror set-piece instead. Although these are executed well with quality performances and cinematic style, they lack a reason to matter outside of moving the plot along. It’s a shame because the performers in this series are all doing some solid work.

Dina Shihabi and Mamoudou Athie anchor the plot with believable portrayals of damaged people caught up in deranged circumstances. There are moments when both say more with a look than the dialogue can convey. Ariana Neal is especially great as the young Jess Lewis. Neal really captures the dichotomy of a character who is simultaneously independent but in desperate need of others. It’s especially important since this is a central theme of the show. The ways in which people connect are a prominent aspect of the plot. It’s too bad that concept and a few others are explored superficially, and whenever any depth is added, it’s done so well that it only emphasizes missed opportunities elsewhere.

Ariana Neal as Jess Lewis in Archive 81
Ariana Neal as Jess Lewis.

Archive 81 excels at presentation. Stylization is one of the show’s high points. Certain scenes are particularly captivating such as the marvelous séance, and the atmosphere of the isolated compound where Dan does his work. The show makers clearly understand how to create evocative scenes, so it’s frustrating when opportunities get lost.

Wide as the ocean but deep as a puddle, Archive 81 keeps getting close to greatness, then settling. It’s the cinematic equivalent of going home with the best-looking person at last call. There’s no shame in doing so, and everyone willing has a good time, but it isn’t the start of anything grand.

Still, a show doesn’t have to be perfect to be entertaining, and there are a lot of quality aspects to the series. Things which, despite the flaws, make the show captivating. For instance, every part of Archive 81 begins with a piece of faux footage from some fictional media. Whether news broadcast, auction video, or unaired TV series, Archive 81 serves up some serious hooks. Besides being marvelous visually, each segment ties into something within an episode, though what exactly isn’t known until deep in an installment. Waiting for the revelation of how these openers add to the story is a real treat.

A strange white, stone statue surrounded by candles
Cosmic horror lives within this strange statue.

The format is certainly unique. While it harkens to films like Berberian Sound Studio (2012), Archive 81 manages to go in its own direction. It cleverly blends found footage into a flirtation with psychological horror, setting up the premise that perhaps there is no supernatural danger, just the creeping madness of broken people. That mix also means audiences may very well enjoy simply seeing the plot’s unfurling lore.

Finally, a minor criticism many might overlook easily, since it may be just a personal pet peeve, but swearing is a lot like seasoning an entrée. The right amount can lend plenty of flavor, however, too much can f*ck things up. Archive 81 isn’t gratuitous, dropping f-bombs like the Allies on Dresden, but at times dialogue feels lazy. At one point, a character’s reaction is a leapfrog line of “f*cks” hopping over every other word. There’s nothing wrong with swearing. It’s more that overuse dilutes the potency of such words and makes certain characters less expressive since they only seem to have one f*cking swear in their vocabulary.

Darkly lit séance scene from Archive 81 as the medium claws her face open
Something is very wrong at the séance.

The series is certainly worth watching. Excellent performances solidify a supernatural premise into something plausible. Cosmic horror elements weave a rich tapestry that alone may lure the curious through the series. The cinematic presentation is top notch more often than not. Yet, there are some stumbling points along the way. More character depth and a little more plot polish could’ve turned Archive 81 into a truly memorable experience. Still, it’s an enjoyable slice of horror and though there’s room for improvement, perhaps a second season will tighten all the bolts.

Streaming on Netflix now, check out Archive 81.

Looking for more new horror releases? We’ve got you:

“Knock, Knock. Who’s There? It’s Evil at the Door”

“Start the Year Right With These January Horror Books”

“Arrebato Is an Odyssey of Drug-Fueled Artistic Transcendence”

“Repossession Starts Weak but Ends Strong”

“Portal Runner Feels Like an Early 2000s Fever Dream”

“Achoura Is a Very Mixed Bag”

“The Madvent Calendar Returns With New Holiday Haunts”

“Double Walker Is a Beautiful Ghost Story”

“Shudder’s Dead & Beautiful Is as Shallow and Stylish as Its Characters”

“Antlers Is a Fun Monster Movie”

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Written by Jay Rohr

J. Rohr is a Chicago native with a taste for history and wandering the city at odd hours. In order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life he writes the blog and makes music in the band Beerfinger. His Twitter babble can be found @JackBlankHSH.

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