Scary Tapes

Netlfix’s ‘Archive 81’ revisits the horror of the mysterious analog 90s

Archive 81, Netflix’s new horror/drama found-footage hybrid, asks a ton of questions, the foremost being “What the hell happened here, anyway?” The show takes its time answering, but suffice it to say it’s deeply weird, the kind of weird that is better for a viewer discover than for a review to spoil, and it’s nearly impossible to discuss the show without spoiling.

With that in mind, here’s a taste. At the outset, film archivist/restoration specialist Dan (Mamoudou Athie) gets a strange but lucrative offer from eccentric tycoon Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan, with his usual casual menace): move to an isolated compound and reconstruct a series of damaged videotapes that may offer insight into a decades-old fire that destroyed the quaint Visser apartment building, killing nearly all the tenants.

There’s a lot of money on offer, and Dan’s got his own tragic backstory about burning buildings to get closure on, so before you can say “All work and no play,” he’s off to a bunker in the woods with no cell service and a state-of-the-art video suite. His view of 1994 comes courtesy tapes left behind by unemployed grad student Melody (Dina Shihabi), an amateur videographer doing her thesis on the Visser’s history. Melody discovers the Visser is a seemingly endless rabbit-hole of oddball tenants, inexplicable behavior and layered mystery; Dan becomes increasingly obsessed with learning Melody’s fate and why Dan’s dead father somehow appears on Melody’s tapes.

From there parallel, sometimes intertwining stories emerge, as Dan methodically restores the tapes and finds some modern rabbit holes as well. Archive 81 presents a dizzying array of possibilities. Is the Visser haunted? Is it the tapes that are haunted? Is Melody a reliable narrator? For that matter, is Dan? Is something messing with their perception, or are they seeing things that we weren’t meant to be perceived? And how is it possible that it sometimes feels like Melody and Dan are communicating?

Archive 81 is a slow-burn project, and a padded one at that. It feels like they could have done the series in a tight six episodes rather than a leisurely eight. Dan spends enough time wandering the woods in search of a mobile signal it’s nearly an unintentional running gag. But if you’ve got the patience for that, it’s also an engrossing, thoughtfully constructed mystery, and a masterclass in slowly ratcheting up tension episode by episode. Even little details like sound design have plot significance. Most of the red herrings turn out to be breadcrumbs in disguise. The relentless tone of burgeoning dread and isolation renders even mundane moments suspenseful.

It may not stick the landing perfectly (they bill it as an ongoing series, and the season finale is a hell of thing to pin your hopes on given Netflix’s scattershot track record for renewals), but if you’re the type that doesn’t mind wanting more, Archive 81 gives you exactly that: just enough to keep you hungry. Here’s hoping for a second course.

 

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Ryan Kallberg

Ryan Kallberg is a writer based in southern California. His work has appeared in The Onion, The A.V. Club and on E! Online. His checkered resumé includes stints as a professional poker player, reality television producer, and sandwich assembler.

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