Our brains are so full of assumptions and shortcuts that it has become ridiculously easy to hack them with optical illusions. When faced with a confusing image, the brain will rely on some evolutionary norms and fill in, or even erase, the rest.
This is why unexplained noises or sensations give us the shivers. Yet horror finds fertile ground when it explores something that should be unchangeable, like recorded footage, and sprinkles in inconsistencies that couldn’t possibly be there. So is the challenge facing Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) in Archive 81.
Dan is a skilled restorer, tasked with repairing and digitising fragile fire damaged footage shot in 1994 as a dissertation project by PhD student Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) about ‘the Visser’, an apartment building filled with odd noises and strange people before burning to the ground in mysterious circumstances.
In fact, the tapes are so fragile that Dan has to work alone in a remote location owed by L.M.G, the amorphous corporation paying him $100,000 to do the work.
Dan’s previous mental health issues cast murky unreliable narrator doubts over the strange things he sees in the tapes. We switch between his point of view and Melody’s to take in corner-of-the-eye scares. There's the cult-like closed ranks behaviour of the Visser residents, reverence to demonic looking totems, and warped tape that seems to contain more than just recordings of events long passed.
Matters are made even murkier when Dan’s father, who died in another unexplained fire along with Dan’s mother and sister, turns up in the footage. All this may make Archive 81 seem like a hodgepodge without focus, yet for the majority of the series it masterfully styles it out.
Melody’s side of the plot advances the nature of the Visser’s dark underbelly, whereas Dan’s parts play out like Ring meets The Others. In a show stuffed with great performances, Athie anchors each episode by fraying at the edges in the face of the unexplainable yet forming a connection to Melody and her mystery, to the point where she invades Dan’s dreams.
Dan’s seclusion and paranoia (due to barely any mobile reception and a likely bugged landline) contrasts the rats nest of people shot by Melody in the Visser. The camera alternates between found footage and full studio showcasing a cast varied and talented.
Suffering from bizarre seizures, teenage resident, Jess (Ariana Neal) is both desperate for help but holding back. The charismatic Sam can be found leading a disquieting chant that worms its way up the air ducts.
Mrs Wall has a jar of paint that compels those who use it to paint the faces of those they feel to be ‘trapped’ in the ink. As plot lines shudder up your spine, there is plenty to keep you pressing play on those burned out VHS tapes.
Is Archive 81 Worth Watching?
Archive 81 can’t quite keep up the brain-scaring dissonance though. Later episodes fall foul of over-explaining and thus undercutting the horror, and at times the wider array of characters act in empty or brow-furrowing ways.
The show disappointingly drops one of its most effective elements (just who is watching whom through those tapes?) after hitting an admirable peak with a nail-biting séance that doubles down on mixing the occult and reality warping oeuvres.
As the dark shadows of mystery get chased away, so does Archive 81’s most defined spooky silhouette.
Even if it arguably loses confidence come the ending, Archive 81 is a fun and pacey series grounded by strong performances from Athie and Shihabi, with Athie, in particular, having to carry scenes with the camera right in his face as he reacts to the inexplicable in front of him.
Skilled and brooding direction ensures that every mouldy corner of the unsettling script festers in your mind. Our brains may edit out the gaps for us, but hidden behind the screen there is a darkness that needs to be seen.
Words by Mike Record