[Series Review] ARCHIVE 81
Courtesy Netflix

A few years back, I was introduced to the popular horror podcast Archive 81. I was instantly sucked in by its found-footage format and its spine-chilling story about the disappearance of an archivist and a set of mysterious cassette tapes. Fast forward to 2022 and showrunner Rebecca Sonnenshine (“Vampire Diaries”, “The Boys”) has taken the popular podcast and loosely adapted it into an 8-episode series for Netflix. Produced by James Wan, the series captures the unsettling spirit of the podcast while also building on its supernatural/found-footage elements.

In ARCHIVE 81, archivist Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) takes on a job restoring a collection of damaged tapes from 1994. The footage features documentary filmmaker Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) as she investigates a supposed cult at the Visser apartment building. As he restores each tape, Dan quickly becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth behind what actually happened to Melody.

Right from the start, I was immediately intrigued by the premise and the direction the team would go in bringing this story to life. What really helped to build the atmosphere for ARCHIVE 81 was the parallels between the themes of isolation and the series being filmed during the ongoing pandemic. Because of this, the series easily leaned into a sense of isolation that many will find relatable. After Dan agrees to take the job, his boss (Martin Donovan) sends him to a remote house up in the Catskills. He has no internet access and very little cell reception. His only job is to uncover what’s on those tapes. Everything about this home feels cold and distant. There’s nothing welcoming about it, which only adds to a feeling of separation from the rest of the world. Kind of like being in quarantine.

Archive 81. Episode 102 of Archive 81. Cr. Courtesy Of Netflix © 2021

For someone like Dan, who is dealing with his own trauma during this time, quietness is a welcomed change. However, the further he dives into his work, that steady quietness begins to turn into paranoia. The key to Athie’s performance is that it feels very genuine. He doesn’t overact his emotions but instead keeps them in check until he has a logical reason to react. And each time he does, it’s completely warranted. On the flip side is Melody Pendras, played by Dina Shihabi. At first, I was completely dialed into Shihabi’s performance of a woman desperately searching for answers but, as each episode went on, I found myself losing interest in her storyline. Her performance felt very on-the-surface and chaotic, which to a point the chaos was warranted but felt out of place during the more grounded moments. Additionally, the onscreen chemistry between Dan and Melody lacked the spark it needed to be convincing.

For viewers, the hook of the show is about uncovering the mystery at hand. The first four episodes do a superb job of building the tensions and exposing dangerous, unnerving truths. On top of that, the sound design was excellent and used in a way that heightened the more terrifying moments. Admittedly, the last four episodes lose a bit of steam which I believe is due to the show’s many moving pieces within its storyline. The end result is worth the watch, but I think ARCHIVE 81 would have benefitted from either being a shorter series that narrowed its focus to one or two singular ideas, or a longer story that takes place over the course of a few seasons. That being said, the series is constantly making sure to keep its viewers on its toes. The show relies more on atmosphere and dread and less on jump scares but when those scares do come, they aren’t easily forgettable.

Even though ARCHIVE 81 hits its fair share of bumps along the way and suffers from too many intertwining narratives, it ultimately is an engrossing, surprising mystery that’ll have you coming up with your own theories behind the emergence and meaning of these tapes. Furthermore, the show features standout performances by Ariana Neal, who plays Jess, a young girl who strikes up an odd friendship with Melody, and Evan Jonigkeit, who plays Samuel, a peculiar tenant of the Visser apartment.

Discussing themes such as religion, identity, the unexplainable, and more, the series offers a lot to think about once the credits roll and we’re left alone with our thoughts. Fans of the podcast will find a lot to enjoy with this series, especially in regards to the comparison of seeing it played out on screen as opposed to it being an audio drama. Newcomers to the world will be in for one hell of a journey uncovering the secrets ahead of them.

ARCHIVE 81 arrives exclusively on Netflix on January 14, 2022.

Shannon McGrew
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