'Archive 81' channels classic horror into new series

Need a new show and love mysteries? Maybe just want a distraction from an already-overwhelming semester? Try Netflix’s newest supernatural series, “Archive 81.”

“Archive 81” premiered Jan.14 on Netflix and quickly raced to the top of Netflix’s most-watched list. Loosely based on a 2016 found footage horror podcast with the same name, the new eight-episode psychological thriller stars Dina Shihabi, Mamoudou Athie and Matt McGorry. Athie’s character, film archivist and museum creator Dan Turner, is invited to travel to a remote research facility to clean VHS tapes from 1994 by billionaire Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan). Sounds pretty tame? Nope, turns out the tapes hold the secrets to a mysterious fire nearly three decades before and a missing filmmaker, Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi). Before long, Turner finds out that things may have an occult, supernatural twist.

Developed by the producer and writer of “The Boys” and “The Vampire Diaries,” Rebecca Sonnenshine, as well as horror regulars Paul Harris Boardman and James Wan, the series pulls from classic films like “Silence of the Lambs” and “Rosemary’s Baby” to German medieval occult art to design its mystical world. Witches, covens, demons, haunting music, ancient languages – everything you could want out of a horror show, you can find in “Archive 81” and its masterfully-created universe.

In an interview, Sonnenshine stated, “Archive 81 is a character-driven, deeply emotional story about the nature of art, faith and the search for identity — all wrapped up in a frayed blanket of existential dread. The show also gave this film geek the chance to unearth all sorts of forgotten media formats as found footage, which results in a unique, visually-textured story that is both beautiful and terrifying.”

And character driven it is: with stunning homages to the history of classic film and old Hollywood throughout the decades, the story unfolds via twin timelines, one following Turner and the other, Pendras. The tapes chronicle Pendras’s time at the Visser Apartment Building as she works to an oral history project days before the fire. Compiling interviews and video clips, Pendras looks into the building’s strange past. Soon, Turner becomes obsessed with the woman and tries to uncover the origins of the fire. 

Seeking help from outside the research compound, Turner enlists his best friend, Mark (Matt McGorry), to dig through files and search for hidden messages. McGorry’s character is the perfect nod to the foundation of “Archive 81”as he is introduced as a podcast creator and storyteller. It is this background that makes him the ideal partner as the story only gets more complicated. 

All this is not to claim the television adaptation of “Archive 81” is without faults. One of the series's biggest criticisms came from its podcast roots and its early fanbase. The character, Melody Pendra, was taken from a happy lesbian marriage in the podcast to  a heterosexual single woman. In other words, she was straightwashed: think Celie Johnson in the film version of “The Color Purple'' or Paul in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” It seems Hollywood’s long and discriminatory history has continued to disappointingly color this show as well. 

Regardless, given the series’s rapid success, many predict that a second season will soon be in the works. When interviewed by “Entertainment Weekly,” Sonnenshine herself insisted she hoped the series will get picked up for another season. And, with the many questions that are left unanswered by the series’s conclusion, fans are already begging for more. 

Prepare to lose sleep over the new Netflix series, if not for its terrors, at least for the endless twists. Binge at your own risk. 


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