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Tuesday, January 11, 2022

[Review] Netflix’s James Wan-Produced “Archive 81” Falls Down Rabbit Hole of Eerie Cult Conspiracy

Cursed videotapes are no stranger to horror, but “Archive 81” aims to set itself apart with an eerie mind-bending mystery that distorts time and reality. A loose adaptation of Daniel Powell and Marc Sollinger‘s horror podcast, the supernatural series sends viewers on a twisty journey full of audio-visual nightmares. The James Wan-produced Netflix show is at its strongest when blindly plunging the viewer into the murky depths of its rabbit hole.

Archivist Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) takes on an enigmatic job restoring damaged VHS tapes at an isolated rural estate, despite a prickly interview with employer Virgil (Martin Donovan). He soon realizes he’s reconstructing the tapes of documentary filmmaker Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi), who found herself amidst a cult conspiracy within her new apartment building in the ’90s. The more he uncovers, the more he realizes that Melody’s story overlaps with his tragic history, and the more the rules of reality cease to hold firm.

Showrunner Rebecca Sonnenshine enlisted a talented roster of directors with a knack for nostalgia-based sci-fi horror and time distortions; Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (ResolutionThe Endless), Haifaa Al Mansour (Mary Shelley), and Rebecca Thomas (“Stranger Things), with the latter helming half of the eight-episode series. While all contribute to the unified moody visual aesthetic, which offers no shortage of haunting imagery, the show’s biggest strength is fittingly in its sound. The rhythmic earworm hymn of the dangerous cultists, the frequencies beyond that beckon, and the unsettling score and sound design do the heavy lifting in worldbuilding, especially in terms of alternate frequencies and a looming, unseen threat. It keeps the viewer off-kilter as its two leads connect from decades apart.

Archive 81. (L to R) Gameela Wright as Erica Lewis, Ariana Neal as Jess, Martin Sola as Father Russo, Dina Shihabi as Melody Pendras in episode 103 of “Archive 81”. Cr. Quantrell D. Colbert/Netflix © 2021

Athie’s Dan, the present-day protagonist, is savvy and guarded due to childhood trauma. It makes him wary of strangers, especially those that seem to know far too much about him. That guarded trait and the only driving question for answers to what caused a fateful incident make Dan’s story less engaging than his ’90s counterpart, Melody. As the well-intentioned but too naively curious newcomer on the block, Melody’s also more directly involved with the cult conspiracies. It makes her story far more exciting, with higher stakes.

The questions mount, and the videotape structure provides a less linear storytelling style. Piecing together what happened to Melody in the past and how it relates to the present comes solely from the found footage that Dan painstaking reconstructs, even as it bleeds over into his waking life in increasingly bizarre and erratic ways. That means the mythology comes in a slow trickle and is often nestled in the details. Trying to figure out how each new moody, twisted piece fits into the overall puzzle keeps you hooked.

The penultimate episode makes a massive step outside of the parallel stories for a self-contained story with the season’s answer key. While well-executed, it’s a bit too tidy in exposition and slows down the momentum. The stakes feel far lower by the finale, and key reveals don’t land with the intended impact.

Archive 81. Mamoudou Athie as Dan Turner in episode 101 of “Archive 81”. Cr. Quantrell D. Colbert/Netflix © 2021

Athie does a lot with what he’s given. Dan’s driving force doesn’t amount to much, making it a tough sell when he shifts that energy into saving Melody. Athie’s portrayal of Dan makes it work; the emotion is there and plausible even with narrative shortcomings. That applies to Shihabi as well, who’s endearing enough even as her character is getting overshadowed and swallowed whole by the overarching mysteries. The Night House’s Evan Jonigkeit steals scenes as a charming neighbor with questionable motives.

Netflix’s “Archive 81” starts strong and keeps you invested throughout thanks to its eerie sound, otherworldly mysteries, unique structure, and cult conspiracies. It’s easy to get lost in Dan and Melody’s journeys. But as the series careens toward its conclusion, it loses steam and fizzles out with a far too tidy end.

Netflix releases “Archive 81” on January 14, 2022.


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