Warning: You may have to put a pillow on the ground because a number of the episodes’ closing scenes may have your jaw hit the ground. Archive 81 is that WTF series we’ve been waiting for.
This review of Netflix’s Archive 81 season 1 does not contain spoilers. The series will be released on the streaming service on January 14, 2022.
Sometimes you have to embrace the trope and enjoy the ride. And it’s a suspenseful, constantly surprising, enjoyably confusing, and bone-chilling one at that. Archive 81, Netflix’s latest stream dream of a series, is that “what the f**k” series we have been waiting for.
The series stars Mamoudou Athie (The Front Runner) as Dan Turner. He plays a curator in New York City and specializes in rare, hard to find, and obscure films. He has an excellent reputation for restoring damaged film, including VHS tapes. (You see, kids, VHS was an analog video recording on tape cassettes for the home). He is offered a too good to be real deal. A wealthy museum donor of the LMG corporation, Virgil (Tenet’s Martin Donovan), will pay him $100,000 to restore a set of burned videocassette tapes.
I guess I can’t afford to hire him to restore my double cassette VHS tape of Heat.
The only catch? The tapes can’t be moved. They are kept in his private lab in a compound in the Catskills. So, since Dan has clearly never seen The Cabin, he takes the deal. And after being encouraged by his best friend Mark (Good on Paper’s Matt McGorry), who specializes in producing supernatural podcasts and is worried about his mental health, when he gets there, one of the tapes is a recording of a beautiful sociology student named Melody (Jack Ryan’s Dina Shihabi), who is being accosted in a stairwell. He later learns she wants to study the residents of an East Village building called The Visser. But she has ulterior motives – she is trying to locate her birth mother.
Dan continues to review and restore the tapes. He sees Melody getting more than she bargained for. Without getting into spoilers, we never quite know what is going on, and the story intentionally never connects. Even if you begin to be confused, as the worlds start to overlap, creepy gatherings are discovered, and become unbalanced by the linear storytelling and a handful of well-placed jump scares, Archive 81 hits you by peeling back reveal after shocking reveal. Warning: You may have to put a pillow on the ground because, by the time some of the episode’s closing scenes come around the corner, your jaw may hit the floor.
Archive 81 was adapted from book of the same name by Rebecca Sonnenshine (Stranger Things). Produced by Paul Harris Boardman (The Exorcism of Emily Rose) and James Wan (Saw), it follows the path of a found-footage storytelling device we saw established from the film The Blair Witch Project in the 90s. While you would think this would be tiring, it’s quite the opposite. What makes Archive 81 so suspenseful and gripping is that you never know where the story is about to take you. This is such a rare quality for any series or film nowadays. The series achieves an incredibly high mark and sustains a peak stride from episodes from Spirit Receivers, Through the Looking Glass, and The Circle.
While the scripts do have a troubling crutch of relying on needless cursing that is used for lazy replies and a finale that forces too many satisfying answers and conclusions, the showrunners had the guts to have an ending that’s truly polarizing. There is expert craftsmanship at hand here with a team that knows how to build tension that pulsates the heartbeat with invigorating results.
It’s the WTF series we’ve been waiting for.
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