Netflix adds to its queue of spooky and macabre series with “Archive 81,” a time-consuming thriller that counts horror director James Wan among its producers. Those craving quick answers won’t find them, but all eight episodes plant enough bizarre seeds to effectively draw audiences through its fun mirror.
Archivist Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) is recruited to piece together a collection of video tapes damaged in an apartment fire in the 1990s, hired by a tycoon, Virgil (Martin Donovan), who might as well have ” Not Happening Here” stamped on his forehead.
Projecting the footage to a remote location where the tapes are stored, Dan is drawn deeper and deeper into the experience of a documentary filmmaker who shot them, Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi). Her experiences take center stage most of the time, reminding her (mixed with the footage she shot) that she hangs around the building, trying to avoid raising suspicion while investigating rumors of a kind of cult that operates there.
The more Dan watches, the more the lines between past and present, between fantasy and reality begin to blur, with the grainy video – and glitches that hint at the supernatural – compounding the difficulty of separating them. This includes questions about what motivated Virgil to seek out Dan specifically, and help from Dan’s conspiracy friend Mark (“How to Get Away With Murder” Matt McGorry), who is helpfully inclined to believe in the worse.
The challenge with something like “Archive 81” is to make sure the horror buildup happens gradually enough that it doesn’t send Melody or Dan screaming into the night before we can get to the “What’s really happening?” part. If the template for this is a movie like “Rosemary’s Baby,” it’s worth remembering that those movies didn’t unveil the eight-part reveal.
Under showrunner Rebecca Sonnenshine, that balancing act is achieved, perhaps inevitably, through dreams, pretenses, and other twists and turns that create just enough fog to warrant pursuing investigators.
The reward for those who have the patience to make it happen is that the explanation, when it begins to take shape, actually turns out to be quite compelling, introducing dense backstory and possibilities to expand the drama beyond. beyond this opening salvo.
“Archive 81” draws on very old horror themes, including whether seeing is truly believing and how evil might lurk in plain sight. Like the videotapes themselves, there are glitches along the way, but unlike some recent entries in this genre (hello, “Brand New Cherry Taste”), not enough to cause the “eject” button to be pressed.
“Archive 81” premieres January 14 on Netflix.
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