Rabbit holes lead to other rabbit holes in Netflix’s excellent “Archive 81,” premiering this Friday, January 14th. Conspiracies, paranoia, supernatural events, cult activity, and things a review couldn’t possibly explain unfold in this eight-episode journey into madness that recalls both ‘70s NYC horror like “Rosemary’s Baby” and tales of isolation turned deadly like “The Shining.” After a truly fantastic premiere, it spins its twisted tale like someone reading an increasingly disturbing online thread in the middle of the night, alone, in the dead of winter.
Mamoudou Athie plays Dan Turner, an archivist and curator who loves to find old VHS tapes and stumble upon something never seen before within them. He seeks out flea markets and estate sales, looking for lost films, and restores damaged ones, which brings him into the world of Virgil (Martin Donovan), a millionaire who hires Dan to salvage some videocassette tapes that were almost completely destroyed in a fire years earlier. The tapes are being housed in a very remote compound in the Catskills, and so Dan moves there to get the job done, living alone and exploring the creepy old house while he tries to figure out exactly why he’s been hired.
The second of the dual narratives of “Archive 81” unfolds in the ‘90s through the tapes being restored by Dan. It turns out that they were recordings of a sociology student named Melody (Dina Shihabi) who moved into a New York building called The Visser in search of her missing birth mother, last seen there. The Visser is straight out of Roman Polanski horror films like the “The Tenant” or “Repulsion.” There are strange chanting sounds in the middle of the night, doors that lock from the outside, and something terrifying happening in the basement. Melody gets to know the tenants of the Visser as she uncovers its secrets while Dan watches, but it turns out that Dan is much more than a passive observer.
At its best, “Archive 81” taps into that sense that there’s something truly malevolent hiding in plain sight. It could be a room in the basement of your apartment building, a VHS tape gathering dust in the corner of a used bookstore, or a piece of art that has captured something from another dimension. Most people, but horror fans especially, love a good puzzle—we seek out alternate cuts of our favorite genre classics or share urban legends. After all, most ghost stories set themselves up by being “true,” right? That sense that we’re looking for what no one else can see pulses through “Archive 81” in a way that gives it power. When the writing has to disappointingly pull back from the questions to provide answers in the final pair of episodes, it’s less powerful, but the journey has been satisfying enough by then that it can be forgiven, and the finale takes some risks that should be divisive.
Without spoiling anything, Dan and Melody’s paths interact, quite directly, even though they’re taking place two decades apart. With expert direction by Rebecca Thomas (“Stranger Things”), Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead (“The Endless”), and Haifaa Al-Mansour (“Wadjda”), “Archive 81” slides back and forth between its time frames until reality starts to blur. Let’s just say that Tarkovsky is cited more than once and those who like Benson/Moorhead’s emotionally driven sci-fi/horror style will find something similar here. It’s daring storytelling, especially when it’s able to work more in confusion and gray areas than when it’s even trying to answer questions. The premiere has a stunning WTF hook, and my main advice would be to spread the episodes out. Watched consecutively, the spell cast by the show starts to dissipate. Taken one at a time, it’s captivating. It’s yet another show that I feel would have been better served by a weekly model to build buzz instead of the Netflix one in which something new will take its place on the home page by next week.
Still, I feel like horror fans will find “Archive 81.” James Wan’s name as an executive producer helps, but it’s also strong enough in every way to produce the right word of mouth in the right circles. Filled with memorable imagery and totally committed performances (both Athie and Shihabi are stars in the making), it’s the kind of show that pulls people in instead of just presenting something easily digestible. You have to actively follow the rabbit. If you dare.
Whole season screened for review.