When my grandmother died, I remembered a pile of puzzle books she’d bought for me while I was studying halfway across the country. Crosswords and sudoku, mainly. I’m not entirely sure why she did that, and I never touched them during my studies – I was always too depressed. A few weeks after her funeral I remembered this, and it’s since become something of a personal quest to complete them all. Despite almost failing GCSE maths, I’ve already become fairly deft at sudoku. During the majority of my time watching Archive 81, the Netflix Original horror series released this year, I ended up gravitating towards filling out these puzzles as the show played in the background. I meticulously poured over every square, column, and row of over a hundred sudokus, as the protagonist pours over a mysterious series of tapes that begin unfurling into a maelstrom of confusion, his own personal history and, most terrifyingly, baffling production choices.
Dan (Mamoudou Athie) is a conservator in New York City, known for repairing and digitising old film tapes. He is asked by Virgil Davenport, the shadowy CEO of the L.M.G. corporation, to restore the recordings of Melody Pendras, a grad student researching oral history in the Visser apartment block which burned down in the 1990s. He soon finds that his father, who died (along with the rest of his family) in a house fire not long after the Visser, was also involved. He restores secret recordings of a cult operating out of the apartments, and as the past and present begin intertwining, he worries he’s losing his mind. Archive 81 is based on the podcast of the same name by Daniel Powell and Marc Sollinger. In that format, this story may have been better served.
Here, it’s perfunctory. It’s played out. Representing any trauma as a fictional construct is easy, and it’s astoundingly uninspired. There are similarities between Archive 81 and the debut film by writer-director Ari Aster. What’s powerful about Hereditary (2018) is the intertwining of the mundane and the supernatural. It’s key to the story. The explorations of grief, of strained parent-child relationships, and the cyclical nature that familial conflict often takes place within are still levelled in reality. The supernatural side of Hereditary is borne out of an overwhelming and visceral feeling – the sense that you have unfairly inherited something foul and unspeakable. In Archive 81, despite being four times the length, there is no summarising story or character beat as impactful as “all I do is worry and slave and defend you, and all I get back is that f*cking face on your face”.
Dan’s struggle isn’t ever comprehensively explored. On a humanistic level, it’s devoid of any comparable emotion or interest. The ways he lives his life, the ways his trauma might have attracted him to restoring old video tapes – none of this plays any real role in the story, nor is it even shown consideration. The actual story takes place in the past, with Melody’s recordings becoming ever more disturbing, while Dan simply watches them alongside the audience. Melody was raised by the Church, and it’s revealed that not only is she searching for her mother, but that her bloodline is directly involved in the occult worship of some otherworldly God. The similarities to Hereditary are too much for me to not draw a distinction.
What was scary about Hereditary is that mundanity. The cult in that story only ever appeared from afar, always framed in unnerving symmetry, their faces always obscured. At the climax, they stand brazenly nude, faces still hidden (aside from their unwavering smiles) and the naturalistic full-frontal is effective in building a sense of disconcerting, uncanny dread. There’s no similar attempt at establishing tension here. Archive 81 has a similar tool for constructing it, though – the found footage element.
Which makes it all the stranger that it’s rarely used. We don’t see the tapes how Dan sees them. For us, they’re shot conventionally. We witness the past in as much clarity as we do the present, and it completely breaks the show. For a story all about looking into a murky past and trying to find some answers, it’s an unjustifiable decision. It’s also just not as scary. Seeing these mysterious goings on – strange chanting coming from the basement, after-dinner séances taking a dark turn – in full HD from all the angles you’d expect isn’t very engaging. Melody’s there to film after all, on her 1990s video recorder. We should be witnessing these fire-damaged tapes as tapes, not as ordinary scenes, with enough visual and auditory distortions to add the right amount of tension and ambiguity.
Take this moment, where Melody is secretly filming a cult meeting. The found footage shot (left) is then overtaken by the conventional shot (right). The latter just isn’t as scary, with the increased clarity and stability; the knowledge that there is now no threat to our point of view. Upon seeing the found footage angle, my mind began racing. Is that alive, or just a statue? Is it meant to be a person? An alien or monster? And then, with the cut to the standard shot, those questions and fears were erased. I was less invested. I was less scared. Whether the symmetry is a reference to Hereditary is impossible to say, but I’d argue it doesn’t make up for the fact that the production team are missing the basic function of found footage that was handed to them by the way the story is constructed. Coming from a podcast, the diegetic usage of video and audio for tension is innate within the plot, and there’s an entire subgenre of film which is dedicated to that. This is something Archive 81 seems oblivious to.
Over eight episodes, Archive 81 meanders between the occult and the personal, the past and the present, without a defining interest in any of them or even an ending in sight. Time periods begin somehow intertwining, but the impact that story beat should have has already been taken away. For us, it’s always been that way. If the first time we see the past in full was the séance scene, where it’s revealed to Dan, Melody (and us) that the past and present are colliding, it could’ve been monumental. It should’ve been monumental.
Despite the standard way in which most of the series is filmed, there are a few moments of intriguing imagery – where the collision of the past and present are shown in strange and disconcerting ways. Dan will turn a corner in the house where he’s staying, and find himself standing in the Visser, face to face with Melody. He’ll have conversations with her, and then have them repeated back to him whilst watching the restored tapes. All of these happen in dream sequences though, so the mixing of past and present, recording and reality, mundane and supernatural, never have any real bearing on the story.
Dan isn’t as important to that story as he should’ve been. Melody is the lynchpin by which this cult is operating. It’s her bloodline, having acquired some type of supernatural sensitivity required to open some type of portal. It’s her trauma, as her mother gave away her new-born daughter in an attempt to save her from that destiny. Melody is the one carrying the burden, that unspeakable inheritance, and Dan is treated as the audience surrogate. Dan is the fish-out-of-water, and his personal interest and connection to the events goes no further than his father being Melody’s former therapist. So, his trauma is unnecessary for the story, and is treated as an afterthought from a drama perspective. It seems as though this angle was only added to give the appearance of depth, in a show where the blatant potential for actual depth was missed at every turn.
The ending shows that Dan and Melody have switched places. Now she’s in the modern day, having been trapped in the underdeveloped supernatural world for two decades, and Dan wakes up in the 1990s. There’s two ways the show establishes this. As he wakes up in a hospital room, the retro TV on the wall shows a news report of Kurt Cobain’s suicide. Shocked, he moves to the window. His jaw drops. Reflected in the window we see the Twin Towers, standing high above the city. My jaw also dropped.
Remember when I was talking about a low-key horror series about old video tapes and personal tragedy? Me too, but by the time you get to the last two episodes you’ll have forgotten the initial concept too. Episode One starts out with Dan smirking whilst talking to someone flogging old VHS tapes on a street market – the guy doesn’t even own a VHS player, and has no clue what’s on them. By the end, however, Dan’s talking with long-lost mothers about opening portals to other dimensions. It doesn’t ring true.
I have to question why Dan was even a character. If Archive 81 wasn’t interested in the video tapes as a format, nor was it interested in his own drama, then what purpose do he or his restorations serve? The answer, as always with US television – and with Netflix – is probably padding. If we were just watching the actual story, Melody’s story, then the runtime would be significantly reduced. According to Netflix’s statistics, the series was watched for a collective 128 million hours, most of which were probably spent filling out sudoku puzzles.
Archive 81 is available for streaming on Netflix.