Netflix seems to be on a roll when it comes to horror content. Midnight Mass was released late last year to great critical success offering a powerful story and great cast, bolstered by amazing dialogue. Now, Netflix released a horror mystery in Archive 81. I didn’t know what I was initially getting into when I started up Archive 81, but I found myself instantly hooked and intrigued after each episode. I found a lot of similarities between this and other horror content. Parts of it even reminded me of Resident Evil 7. Meanwhile, the atmosphere reminds me of The Twilight Zone with how peculiar it is. Archive 81 is not really scary, but its ideas are so strange and unnatural that you get creeped out anyways. It’s a series without jump scares but it’s one of the more scary series I’ve seen on Netflix in some time.
Archive 81 is currently streaming on Netflix.
STORY: A MIND-TWISTING TALE
Archive 81 has an unusually simple premise that quickly turns complex as more episodes go by. Each episode reveals another layer in the complexity of the series. We follow Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), an archivist who restores broken tapes, photographs, and other memorabilia. He’s asked and hired by Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan) to restore a collection of cassette tapes that were damaged in a building fire decades ago. The job is a bit strange as Virgil requests that Dan be relocated to a remote facility to restore the tapes. He’s rather vague about what is on the tapes and why he wants them restored. On top of that, Virgil appears to know a lot more about Dan than he is willing to share. Although reluctant, Dan takes the job and of course, it’s after Dan relocates that things start to get a bit strange.
There is a ton more to the series besides some creepy facility and sketchy employer though. The tapes Dan is repairing tell the story of Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi), a woman who moved to the Visser apartment complex in New York in the hopes of finding her biological mother. Melody carries her camera everywhere she goes and documents the events as the Visser. She interviews the tenets as part of her PhD dissertation, hoping to gather information on the place her mother last stayed at. Melody’s journey to find her mother leads her to some unexpected places.
So, as stated earlier, the series starts off relatively simple but gets increasingly complex with each episode. That’s mostly due to how many different ideas Archive 81 throws into the story. The series likes to tease the audience, bringing up ideas or theories that could potentially play later on, but not everything does. This is a strength as well as a weakness. It’s a strength because it keeps the audience guessing. After each episode, I was constantly left thinking “wow, what in the world is going on?” I loved that feeling. I didn’t know what to expect or what to think.
These different ideas are also a weakness though because of where Archive 81 season 1 ultimately ends. While a majority of the season was shrouded in mysteries and other oddities, it felt as though the last bit of season 1 was spent explaining plot points that didn’t need to be explained. The ideas that Archive 81 plays with are varied and initially appear to have a ton of depth. It’s just unfortunate that when the last two episodes come around, you’re left wondering why the least interesting idea was the one chosen. That being said, if another season comes around, it’s more than likely that certain ideas that were brought up in the first season will get further developed.
CHARACTERS AND PERFORMANCES: STUBBORN BUT LIKABLE
Dan and Melody share about the same amount of screen time. Despite Melody’s story taking place in the past and Dan’s in the present, the two characters are similar to one another. They’re both more or less trapped in a place of their own doing in order to know the truth. It’s because of this need to find out what really happened that they end up staying in a place the audience constantly begs them to leave. You understand why they make some decisions the audience wouldn’t normally agree with.
There was one scene in particular where Melody is asked what she wants. She just simply states “I want to be happy.” It implies she isn’t. Melody doesn’t know her biological mother. She wants to and stays at the Visser longer than she probably should. It’s a small scene, but it helps the audience understand in just a few words what this means to Melody.
Mamoudou Athie and Dina Shihabi were both great in their roles. It’s strange because Mamoudou is usually by himself. Sometimes, he’s just watching a screen and reacting to it. Still, his reactions added to the suspense of what he watching. As for Dina, she had more to work with here and she sell her likable character quite well. We root for both of them to succeed but it’s Dina’s joyful presence that really elevates Archive 81.
In the present day with Dan, there are only three characters that we frequently see. Mostly though, Dan is by himself in this facility fixing tapes that tell a story too bizarre to be true. Dan does have Mark (Matt McGorry) that he speaks to regularly, but those usually take place over a call. Having this character be isolated like this works very well in keeping the audience guessing. There’s something clearly going on with those tapes but what about in the present-day? Frequent glitches in Dan’s internal clock as well as the isolating setting have the audience wonder if this is all some sort of mental break.
This uncertainty is juxtaposed with Melody’s story that has about double the amount of frequent characters and takes place in an apartment building that, unlike the empty compound Dan works at, is full of people and planted in a large city. You never really doubt Melody or what she goes through because she is constantly interacting with other characters. Melody is at the center of the story and it always feels like Archive 81 opens up when we watch her. We don’t get that isolating feeling we do when we watch Dan. Melody feels more open than Dan does. Unlike Dan whose conversations with Mark feel like they have purpose and are used to further the story along, Melody’s conversations feel natural. This really keeps the dynamic of the show fresh and interesting.
PACING AND EDITING: IN ANOTHER DIMENSION
Although I wasn’t thrilled with how Archive 81 season 1 ended, the series started off incredibly strong. The story and mystery was the driving force but the pacing kept me engaged. After finishing episode 1, I was scared because of how quickly the story was moving along. Thankfully, Archive 81 has a good amount of story to cover. We don’t simply just see Dan fixing tapes and exploring this vacant facility. There is a whole other story in the tapes that need to be explored. The dual narrative helps the series feel dynamic.
This goes into the editing of season 1 as well. Scenes never feel dragged out in the series. Archive 81 will introduce many plot points but doesn’t linger too long on them or solve them as they come up. Most of the time, we’ll get a plot point that brings up new questions or is an answer to a previous question. Then, the story will just switch perspectives. Ideas and questions are constantly being thrown around and as a result, Archive 81 is so much fun to watch.
Archive 81 takes place in two separate settings so there is a ton of jumping around, but it never feels jarring. If we were going to explore Melody’s story, there would always be a shot of Dan fixing a tape and playing it. Sometimes when Melody’s part of the story will end, the perspective will switch to first-person. We’ll then see Dan watch the ending of the tape. It all feels very smooth and easily digestible. This remains true until the last two episodes that felt slower-paced and uneven compared to the first part of season 1.
CINEMATOGRAPHY AND SOUND: ORCHESTRA OF TERROR
Another great aspect of Archive 81 is how it chooses to shoot its scenes. Sometimes when watching Melody’s tapes, the series would take a first-person perspective as though it was a found footage film. This was a cool addition and initially gave a sinister feeling to the show. Unfortunately, it doesn’t persist throughout the entirety of the flashbacks. As more time goes on, it makes sense that all of the flashbacks weren’t in first-person though. I think Archive 81 would have lost a lot of the emotions and story if it was all in first-person. Also, it just wouldn’t make sense for Melody to be framing her camera to always be looking at the action.
This decision also makes it feel as though Archive 81 opens up when we watch Melody. This wasn’t always the case but I felt as though the setting and mood felt dark and ambiguous when we were following Dan. When we see Melody’s perspective, even though there are some very strange things going on, it felt more bright and less ominous. As we’re watching the tapes with Dan, we’re drawn into Melody’s world with him. And like Dan, we’re drawn to Melody.
The sound also added to the ominous feeling. There is one reoccurring song in particular that plays throughout the series. A group of people chant and hum this song to life. As soon as you hear the music, you can tell there is something off. The music affects characters and will eventually affect the audience. Although it’s the most recognizable when watching the series, it’s not the creepiest. Other music frequently plays that have this otherworldly feeling to them. I thought about Archive 81 a lot after finishing each episode and the music that played throughout is part of the reason.