In Archive 81, cinema is a figurative and literal gateway to other worlds. The notion that the movies are a transportive portal is nothing particularly new—especially in the horror genre—but showrunner Rebecca Sonnenshine and executive producer James Wan’s eight-part Netflix series (based on Daniel Powell and Marc Sollinger’s podcast of the same name) nonetheless finds new ways to enliven its underlying idea, along the way paying tribute to the many chilling ancestors that paved the way for its malevolent tale about a young man tasked with restoring video tapes about a calamity that befell a community decades earlier. Taking a kitchen-sink approach to scary storytelling, it cleverly and entertainingly resurrects, and reinvents, that which came before it.
Following in the footsteps of John Carpenter’s Masters of Horror anthology entry Cigarette Burns, David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, Joel Schumacher’s 8mm, Hideo Nakata’s Ringu and Peter Strickland’s Berberian Sound Studio—as well as The Blair Witch Project and its legion of found-footage progeny (notably, the V/H/S franchise)—Archive 81 (Jan. 14) charts the ordeal of Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), an employee at Queens, New York’s Museum of the Moving Image, where he’s renowned for restoring and digitizing damaged old movies. With patient and meticulous care, he untangles, cleans and respools ravaged celluloid and VHS material, bringing long-moribund relics back to life. In light of his expertise, Dan is contacted by Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan), who runs a mysterious firm known as LMG, about a private job: relocate to a remote Catskills research facility and repair a collection of camcorder tapes that were shot by Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi), who in 1994 was making a documentary film about Manhattan’s Visser apartment building when the place went up in flames.
Dan, whose best friend Mark (Matt McGorry) is the host of a spooky podcast dubbed Mystery Signals, accepts this offer, and promptly sets up shop in Davenport’s eerie concrete-walled facility, immersing himself in Melody’s recordings. Thus Archive 81 establishes its found-footage set-up, with Dan functioning as both a viewer and the spiritual collaborator of Melody, whose non-fiction work he’s helping to complete.
What he discovers in Melody’s tapes, however, is more than he bargained for, since Melody’s time in the Visser led to some startling revelations, beginning with the fact that many of the residents enjoyed getting together to rhythmically chant, huff and hum in devoted prayer to a monstrous statue like demented cultists. With the aid of 14-year-old Jess (Ariana Neal), who served as her tour guide, Melody met many of these individuals, none more charming and welcoming than Samuel (Evan Jonigkeit). Alas, it quickly became clear to Melody that Samuel was possibly wrapped up with this covert cabal, whose operations may have also taken place on a forbidden sixth floor, as well as had something to do with the wealthy Vos family, whose mansion burned to the ground in 1924 and was replaced by the Visser.
The more Dan watches Melody’s tapes, the more he’s drawn into her investigation into the Visser—and, consequently, the more he grows suspicious of the motives of Davenport, whose LMG is a shadow corporation, and whose research bunker is outfitted with security cameras (the better for Davenport to keep an eye on his employee) and rife with secret rooms, hidden passageways, and off-limits basements. Moreover, Dan soon learns that he may be connected to Melody via his father Dr. Steven Turner (Charlie Hudson III), who perished along with the rest of Dan’s clan in a bizarre conflagration. The deceased are an ever-present and noisy presence in Archive 81, and Sonnenshine further accentuates the spectral mood through references to a variety of supernatural classics—Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House—having to do with haunted abodes, grieving loners, and restless ghosts.
Directed by Rebecca Thomas (Stranger Things), Aaron Moorhead and Justin Benson (The Endless, Marvel’s upcoming Moon Knight) and Haifaa Al-Mansour (Mary Shelley), Archive 81 looks great and moves at an urgent pace, and it piles on homages (my favorite is a nod to Daniel Mann’s 1971 Willard) and supernatural elements with delirious gusto. Totemic shrines, Satanic rituals, ancient artifacts, seances, human sacrifices, tarot cards, exorcisms, witches, time travel, parallel dimensions and snuff films are all part of its unholy package. So too is murky VHS static and visuals, which lend the action an additional layer of unsettling opacity. Sonnenshine and company, however, don’t lean too heavily on their found-footage gimmick; the more the show proceeds down its tangled path, the more it presents Melody’s plight in traditional form, thereby creating a dual-narrative track that evolves in unanticipated and head-spinning ways.
Not every development in Archive 81 appears to make total sense, but the series strikes a pleasurable balance between allowing its audience to stay one step ahead of its story, and delivering surprising bombshells and twists. Kids’ complicated feelings about missing parents—who they want to believe were good, despite potential evidence to the contrary—is merely another layer to this surprisingly rich endeavor, which is led by strong performances from Athie as the cinephilic Dan (whose pet fixation is The Circle, a lost black-and-white film that’s related to the Visser and the Vos clan) and Shihabi as the doggedly probing Melody, determined to uncover the truth about the Visser and its connection to her own heritage. Their turns keep Archive 81 from falling into a convoluted rut, providing a bedrock measure of humanity around which the show’s insanity can smoothly and crazily revolve.
Central to Sonnenshine’s saga is the power of the moving image (and its attendant soundtracks)—an entrancing force capable of conjuring up alternate realities where our wildest dreams and most terrifying nightmares can come true. That’s at once a description, and the subject, of this inventive Netflix series, whose winding plot ultimately leads to a cornucopia of out-there madness involving comets, possession, demon gods and an aged, unfinished silent documentary that’s both a template and conduit for apocalyptic hellfire. A playful ode to the dangerous allure of the movies, it demands to be watched closely, obsessively—even if, as it suggests, the consequences for doing so might be deadly.