Archive 81: The Poster Child For Modern-Horror Television
A Look into 2022’s Most Promising Nightmare-Inducing Show
Hysteria-inducing isolation. Demon worship. Nineties-style videotapes. Mix them together in a bowl, stick them in the microwave, and you’ll find that you’ve made yourself a delicious helping of Netflix’s newest horror series, Archive 81.
The eight-part series opens with a look into the grief-stricken life of New York City archivist, Dan Turner (Mamadou Athie). While spending his days working as a film restorer in a modest film museum located in the heart of the city, he simultaneously wrestles with the ever-present grief of having lost his family in a terrible fire many years earlier.
Suddenly recruited by a mysterious business mogul to restore a set of videotapes that were damaged in a fire almost twenty years ago, Dan deserts the calm mundanity of his regular life for good. Immediately after starting to watch the tapes, Dan becomes immersed in the story of Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi), a graduate student who, in 1994, was in the midst of recording an oral history project on the Visser apartment complex. Slowly learning the truth about the building and its inhabitants, closer investigation reveals dark conspiracies that show beyond doubt to be as unresolved in his own present time.
Using its scattering of found footage to propel the plot forward, Archive 81 is akin to a modern Blair Witch Project. In the same way that the 1999 horror classic’s use of found footage brought the terror of the film to a terrifyingly close parody of reality, so too does Archive 81, evoking fear and discomfort in the minds of its viewers. While the uncanniness of the footage proved efficient in frightening viewers, the creators of the show knew that they would lose their audience if every gruesome detail of the mystery at the Visser were captured exclusively with the grainy footage taken from Melody’s camera. In an effort to diversify filming methods, they expertly intuited that each piece of the past should be introduced by the found footage, but then be played out entirely in magnificently modern HD quality. The combination of the two mediums, the low-quality archival footage, and the modern-day HD video that we have grown so accustomed to, amalgamates into something that serves not only as entertainment, but as an experience that thrusts the audience into a terrifying world that leaves them with the strangely irresistible urge to dive in headfirst.
The beauty of the series is that the horror is not limited to the past events captured in damaged videotapes. No– viewers will quickly notice that there is an equal amount of frightening intrigue while Dan views and restores the tapes in a modern timeline.
Under stringent stipulations from his employer, business tyrant Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan), Dan must complete the restorations in one of Davenport’s secluded estates in the middle of the woods. He is prohibited from having any visitors or contact with the outside world, with the exceptions of a strange woman in a red jacket, and a medical team a twenty-minute drive away. The threat of any emergencies looms, including those that pertain to mental health, a fact that Davenport reminds Dan of at an alarming frequency. As the narrative unwinds, Dan’s predicament takes on a psychologically thrilling aspect as the torture-like isolation intermingles with the realisation that there is something dark hidden in the tapes. This realisation births a conviction that this same darkness is part of an ever-present conspiracy that surrounds him within the very walls that he is being forced to inhabit.
Another reason, perhaps, that Dan’s sequestering is so successful in inducing fear is because we, as viewers, relate to his predicament in a way that no other generation has before: we are the generation that was locked away. Dan, even though he might not seem like it at first, is a personification of our age. The real-life experience that we have faced of quarantining and self-isolating lends itself to a suspended reality that is closer to our actual reality than any other sort of horror-related situation. In a sense, Archive 81 has looked into our lives and twisted our most recent and emotional experiences and shown us the most nightmarish outcome that we could have ever dreamt of. And it was scary.
Archive 81 is a series that is susceptible to spoilers with even the briefest of summaries as every episode untangles countless knots in the string that is its unrelentingly harrowing plot. The only way to truly understand and appreciate the full effects that the found footage and dually fear-evoking timelines create is by watching the series for yourselves and allowing yourselves to be dragged into a world that you won’t help but succumb to.