Netflix is becoming home to some of TV’s strangest horror series and thrillers that are nevertheless doomed to become nothing more than viral Twitter fodder. From The OA to last year’s bonkers Behind Her Eyes and Clickbait, the streaming giant is staking a claim on suspense stories that thrive on a far-reaching narrative. The newest arrival, Archive 81 is stronger and more grounded than its predecessors, with haunting character-driven mysteries anchored by somber performances. Archive 81 demands patience, but it’s a surprisingly satisfactory investment despite some brief lulls.
The eight-episode series uses a found-footage framework to dive into a chilling but connected tale set in different timelines. While it borrows aspects from various horror favorites like Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, The Blair Witch Project, The Ring, immersive and riveting storytelling help Archive 81 from seeming like a boring rip-off. It helps that the show is created by The Boys’ Rebecca Sonnenshine, and touts Malignant’s James Wan as an executive producer. Their collective body of work clearly reflects an ability to innovate recognizable motifs.
Loosely inspired by a podcast of the same name, Archive 81 follows Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), a passionate video archivist who is hired by a mysterious millionaire to restore some recently discovered VHS tapes. Filmed by New York University student Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) in the ’90s, the tapes originate from Melody’s time at The Visser, an apartment complex that later burned down, seemingly killing all of its residents. In the process of mending the tapes, Dan unwinds spooky facts about the building that have a confusing link to his own past.
Dan’s new employer, Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan), ends up moving him to a remote facility in the mountains—the tapes are stored there, and they’re too fragile to be moved. The obviously convoluted reasoning sets up the show’s moody blue-and-gray undertones. Left in isolation, Dan explores the Catskills mansion, but his solitude also leads to paranoia, so much so that he begins visualizing and speaking with Melody in his dreams.
Meanwhile, in the ’90s timeline, Melody moves into The Visser to quickly discover that most of her neighbors are super sketchy and hostile. She claims she’s there for a community-based research project, but she’s actually on the hunt for her birth mother, who abandoned Melody as a baby. The show successfully heightens the tension of Melody’s discoveries about the building, only for Dan (and the audience) to experience that anxiety again through the videotapes.
Archive 81's spooky strength lies in this growing sense of dread. It’s not comprised of jump scares, creepy noises, or blood and gore. The looming and slowly simmering unease of both characters, even though they’re not physically together, is palpable and jarring. It’s mostly due to Shihabi and Athie’s commendably restrained performances. They keep their characters’ bubbling fear under wraps just enough to evoke disquietude until their worlds erupt.
Eight hours is a long time to wait for Archive 81’s answers, especially since the series ramps up its many twisted questions by the midway point. The series features a smorgasbord of horror essentials: occult rituals, a séance, mystical music, a possibly demonic entity, a nihilistic cult, deceptive basement meetings, hallucinations, sacrifices, and cosmic interferences. Juggling so many interesting ideas just means Archive 81 isn’t able to flesh each one out fully.
Even as it goes through an assortment of supernatural concepts, the show remains interesting mainly due to its exploration of intergenerational trauma. The sentimental familial hook is the through line for each character, past and present. Dan, Melody, Virgil, and almost every other supporting player’s motivations are traced back to grief over the loss of loved ones. Archive 81 just manages to connect their suffering in a slow-burning yet rewarding way.
Archive 81 channels familiar notions, but avoids horror cliches by endowing Dan and Melody with the intelligence to seek help when needed, rather than casting them as hapless victims. Dan relies on his best friend, podcast host Mark Higgins (Matt McGorry, bringing levity to an otherwise dark drama). Melody connects with teenager Jess (Ariana Neal), the only sensible Visser resident. These bonds strengthen the show’s emotional rationale further.
Without the subdued beats, the show would’ve been yet another supernatural thriller with nothing to show for it besides its haunting visuals. And boy is the scenery wistful: Dan’s temporary residence in the Catskills evokes The Shining; the rustic Visser is an Amityville Horror-level creepshow building in real-time, made even more terrifying when viewed through the old camera footage. Like most horror series and movies, Archive 81 requires some suspension of disbelief, but just give it time and it will slowly rope in the non-genre fans with its poignant specificity and drama.