There is a moment in the first episode of Archive 81 where our main character, Dan, is warned against “going Jack Torrance” on someone.
It’s the first of many nods to the The Shining in a series that is full of genre classic references, for Archive 81 is a show that is totally infatuated with the horror genre. (opens in new tab)
And not just the genre itself but our consumption of it too; how horror and other secrets lurk eternally on dusty tapes, just waiting to be set free onto our screens as found footage discoveries.
Loosely based on a podcast of the same name (opens in new tab), Archive 81 follows film restorer Dan (Mamoudou Athie) as he is hired by a powerful businessman to digitize a series of burned tapes.
Naturally, he’s taken to an isolated bunker in the middle of nowhere without signal to do the work, and, of course, there’s far more to the situation than first meets the eye.
What's in the box...
The contents of the tapes revolve around a young woman called Melody (Dina Shihabi) who, under the guise of filming an oral history, rents an apartment in a New York building called the Visser to hunt for the mother who abandoned her as a baby.
As Dan slowly and oh-so-satisfyingly cleans and digitizes each tape, we fall into a found footage nightmare along with him as Melody’s world entwines with his past and blurs his - and our - lines of reality.
The art of Archive 81 is in its surprises; its ability to scare us as we watch a man as he watches in horror.
We are deftly dropped into the dual narratives of Dan at work alone and the world of the Visser and its labyrinthine corridors and fascinating characters.
Like the recent brilliant Yellowjackets with its time hopping between the 90s and 2021, both stories are just as compelling.
Dan and Melody’s tales are equally thrilling with brilliant performances from both Athie and Shihabi.
These are beautifully human characters who are given ample time to shine over the decadent-feeling eight hour run time.
Showrunner Rebecca Sonnenshine understands the weaknesses of found footage scares - that shaky cam can only work for so long before we get potentially bored - so uses the blurry camcorder and other analogue media as mere conduits to the past.
We enter and leave the Visser via Melody’s recordings but uncover its secrets in crisp 4K. The horror here is claustrophobically palpable, with a terrifying soundscape constantly reminding us that something is very wrong.
Slowburn is often used as a slur when it comes to horor but in this case - and especially early in the season - there are some exquisitely scary sequences, artfully constructed for maximum terror.
A joyful headscratcher...
Archive 81 joyously toys with reality - that two episodes are directed by indie cosmic auteurs Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead should give you an idea of the tone - but never at the expense of the narrative.
Things get strange but never jump the shark and the gradual unraveling of the dual mysteries is compelling.
There’s an episode a little later in the season that threatens to send the rollercoaster off its tracks but thankfully things recover swiftly.
It’s fiendishly clever storytelling as Dan finds other media to fill in the blanks and the addition of his podcasting friend Mark (Matt McGorry) adds some gentle humor and a light sprinkling of meta to proceedings.
To say more would potentially be to say too much but this is an essential horror series with an almost terrifyingly compelling hook.
And while Season 2 is artfully set up, there are enough answers to the many mysteries at work, meaning you won’t feel cheated when you reach the conclusion.
What will happen in Archive 81 Season 2?
*Final warning, spoilers for Archive 81 season one are about to flow. If you haven’t already watched, get to Netflix and cancel your plans for the next eight hours or so.*
Right, now they’re gone, let’s take a look at that ending and think about what comes next in the as-yet-unconfirmed Archive 81 Season 2.
The finale sees Dan and Melody separated at the last moment in the Otherworld. She is grabbed by Samuel and Dan is left behind, unable to keep hold of her hand.
Somehow Melody lands back with her mother and Mark in the modern day, while Dan is less lucky, waking up in hospital in 1994 as an apparent survivor of the fire at the Visser.
If you were in any question as to whether it’s another dimensional trick, showrunner Rebecca Sonnenshine has confirmed that this 1994 is the real deal, Twin Towers and all. And extra points if you had already decided why it was definitely the real world. It’s all in those air floaters...
“I can tell you that he is in the ’90s,” she told Variety. “He’s in the real ’90s, and the clue for that is that it does not have the particulates floating around there. He’s in 1994. And the question we’re asking is, we saw people disappear into The Otherworld in different time periods, right? So what does that mean? It means there’s little holes, little poke, poke — little entry and exit points. And that people have gotten kind of mixed up in there trying to exit, and maybe didn’t exit through the right door.”
Archive 81 Season 2 hasn’t been approved by Netflix just yet but Sonnenshine has left plenty of tantalizing unanswered questions and, thankfully, confirmed in the same interview that “we’re ready to go, should we be so lucky to get a Season 2, we have some really cool stories to tell.”
She’s also confirmed that these stories will include the fate of cult leader Samuel, who it seems has also escaped from the Otherworld, as well as what LMG CEO Virgil Davenport actually wanted the digitization of the tapes for.
We’re also still waiting on more details around the deaths of Dan’s family in the house fire. Davenport definitely knew more than he was letting on.
Given that so much of the first season was centered around the Visser tapes, it’s a slight worry that Season 2 would feel less cohesive without this analogue anchor.
Sonnenshine has teased a different kind of found footage experience though. She’s not confirmed the exact devices but given that this is the team who used a limited run Fisher Price kids camcorder as a vital narrative tool, there’s plenty of rich potential.
Also with Dan’s knowledge of the analogue media available in his new time period, it’s not hard to imagine another dual narrative experience if he can find a way to make sure that his future counterparts can find tapes. If your head is aching slightly at future time travel prospects, join the club. We can’t wait.
All episodes of Archive 81 are available on Netflix now