Archive 81: Ready for creepy & time-bending Netflix drama?

Archive 81

Archive 81, a time-bending thriller produced by horror director James Wan, joins Netflix’s roster of creepy, macabre series.

Those looking for quick answers will be disappointed, but the eight episodes plant enough strange seeds to effectively pull audiences through its fun-house mirror.

Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) is hired by a mogul, Virgil (Martin Donovan), to reconstruct a collection of videotapes damaged in an apartment fire in the 1990s.

Dan is drawn deeper and deeper into the experience of a documentary filmmaker who shot them, Melody Pendras, as he watches the footage in a remote location where the tapes are stored (Dina Shihabi). Much of the time, her experiences take center stage, with flashbacks (mixed with footage she shot) to her hanging around the building, trying not to raise suspicions while investigating rumors of a cult operating there.

The more Dan watches, the more the lines between past and present, fantasy and reality, blur, with the grainy video – and glitches that hint at the supernatural – making it even more difficult to keep them apart. This includes questions about what prompted Virgil to seek out Dan in particular, as well as help from Dan’s conspiracy-minded friend Mark (“How to Get Away With Murder’s” Matt McGorry), who is helpfully inclined to believe the worst.

The challenge with a film like “Archive 81” is to ensure that the horror builds up gradually enough so that Melody or Dan doesn’t run screaming into the night before we get to the “What’s really going on?” part. If a film like “Rosemary’s Baby” serves as a model, keep in mind that the reveal was not spread out over eight parts.

Under showrunner Rebecca Sonnenshine, that balancing act is achieved, perhaps inevitably, through dreams, fake-outs, and other plot twists that create just enough fog to justify the investigators’ continued investigation.
The reward for those who persevere is that the explanation, once it begins to take shape, is actually quite compelling, introducing a dense backstory and possibilities for extending the drama beyond this opening salvo.

“Archive 81” explores classic horror themes such as whether seeing is truly believing and how evil can lurk in plain sight. There are glitches along the way, just like on the videotapes, but not enough to make you hit the “eject” button, unlike some recent entries in this genre (hello, “Brand New Cherry Flavor”).