Though the pandemic era we currently live in has created the kind of real-life horrors that overshadow anything within fictional worlds, it’s as good a time as any to hunker down and get lost in those worlds all the same. Even when they’re as haunting and nightmarish as Netflix’s new genre-crossing series Archive 81. No, wait, especially when they’re as haunting and nightmarish as this eight-episode frightfest from showrunner Rebecca Sonnenshine (The Boys) and executive producer James Wan (Malignant).
The mystery-driven series stars Mamoudou Athie (Black Box) as a film archivist who opts in on a lucrative project for a secretive businessman played by Martin Donovan (Big Little Lies). It involves a batch of damaged videotapes that were recorded in 1994 by a woman named Melody (Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan star Dina Shihabi), who became invested in documenting the goings-on within a strange apartment complex called the Visser Building. To be expected, the building and some of its inhabitants have very intriguing histories, as does Athie’s archivist Dan, and the more layers that are peeled back, the more Dan starts to believe he can buck the rules of time in order to save Melody from a cursed fate. It’s definitely horror at its core, but with some science fiction threaded in at the seams.
Speaking about Archive 81 in a completely spoiler-free manner is not the simplest of tasks, but it would be a lot more difficult to refrain from talking about the show altogether, as I can already tell this will be one of my favorite new series of 2022, horror or otherwise. Does that mean it’s absolutely 100% one of the best shows out there? Since beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that answer is up to you to discover, dear viewer. And here are four reasons why everyone should take this binge-worthy dive to make such a discovery.
Archive 81 Gives Found Footage A Much-Needed Remodel
Despite being someone who loves the unique joys that the found-footage genre can deliver, I can only take so many low-budget retreads before my brain wants to turn itself inside-out. So I’m immensely grateful that Archive 81’s storyline brilliantly incorporates its old-school video footage into a two-timeline story that doesn’t need to wholly rely on using the grainy visuals. While Dan is only viewing Melody’s story through her camera and perspective, for example, audiences are privy to much of the 1994 story from a more accessible third-party standpoint. (Can you imagine bingeing eight hours of a TV show filmed entirely Blair Witch-style?)
It’s the kind of technique that hasn’t been utilized nearly as often as it should within the sub-genre, which probably speaks to the lacking budgets, but will hopefully pop up more in the future. If anybody knows about making the most out of funding, it’s Saw helmer James Wan. As well, props to the directors — V/H/S Viral and Spring filmmakers Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, Limetown’s Rebecca Thomas, and The Perfect Candidate’s Haifaa Al-Mansour — as well as Dina Shihabi herself for delivering found-footage that remains engaging and doesn’t inspire bouts of motion sickness.
It’s Based On An Equally Binge-Worthy Podcast
For anyone who enjoys horror-centric audio, there’s a good chance the Archive 81 podcast was already on your radar, since it’s a feast for the ears, as the Dead Signals production is centered around a collection of audio tapes for its archivist to sort through. The podcast lasted for three seasons, not including additional content such as a three-ep follow-up miniseries, and is definitely still worth digging into even after bingeing Archive 81 on Netflix.
The main reason for that is because Rebecca Sonnenshine and the rest of the creative team wisely changed more than just footage format types. The live-action story definitely switches gears with its narrative and is a wholly different experience, despite still maintaining many of the qualities that made the source material so intriguing. It’s the best of both worlds.
Archive 81’s Story Is Full Of Weird-As-Shit Surprises
In some ways, Archive 81 felt to me like a psychological horror video game in the way the story and scares are so heavily tied to exploring and discovering, both within Melody’s 1994 storyline and Dan’s current-day narrative. Both the Visser Building and the facility where Dan is restoring the videos are rich with hidden secrets that get unveiled in bonkers ways from episode to episode, with Dan’s podcast-hosting BFF Mark (How to Get Away with Murder’s Matt McGorry) aiding in the investigation from the outside, as it were.
Again, it would be too easy to get into spoiler territory when talking about the shocks and surprises in store for Archive 81 viewers, but just know that it’s a roller coaster ride that’s best enjoyed just sitting back and taking it all in. Similar to such amusement park thrills, even the show’s jankiest twists and turns were still fun and outside the norm
The Music And Sound Design Will Stay In Your Brain
While Archive 81 may have given its central story a more visual bent than the podcast, the creative team still went above and beyond when it comes to the show’s audio elements. Sound designer Daisuke Sawa (The Morning Show) and composers Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (Annihilation), as well as everyone else involved, crafted a highly unnerving soundscape that will dig its way under viewers’ skin in the best of ways, even though it might be hard for some viewers to shake some of the sounds out of their heads after watching. (Okay, yeah, I’m talking about myself there.)
It’d be one thing if the aural elements were incidental to what was happening with Dan and Melody, but much of the music cues and disturbing audio are absolutely integral to the story itself, and they’re all used in a variety of interesting ways. Some of the cast members themselves are responsible for one of Archive 81’s most horrifying moments, and it’s 100% about the sound being created as opposed to anything happening on screen. Just thinking about it is making the walls of my office feel a little closer together than they normally are…
Archive 81 hits Netflix with all eight episodes on Friday, January 14, so be sure to cancel all of your weekend plans so you can stay in and freak out. Our 2022 Fall TV premiere schedule will keep you updated on more horror (and other genre) fare coming to the small screen soon!
Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.
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