Netflix's Archive 81 Review -- Plenty Of Tape To Unwind

Netflix's new found footage horror TV show might meander around, but it gets the job done.

It's certainly not uncommon for a TV show to adapt things like novels, video games, or comic books for the small screen, but podcasts are still a largely untapped source. Netflix is not shying away from the new frontier, however, with their latest horror TV show, Archive 81, which according to the official synopsis, is "loosely inspired" by the podcast of the same name. But fear not if the podcast is something that doesn't ring a bell--with horror legends like James Wan acting as executive producer, and directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead on two of the eight episodes, Archive 81 has plenty to offer everyone.

The show revolves around Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), an archivist who specializes in the restoration of tapes, being presented with a mysterious new project: The restoration of some videos filmed by a woman named Melody Pendras back in the '90s, in an apartment complex called The Visser that burned down in a mysterious fire. Thanks to the damaged, fragile nature of the tapes, they can't be moved, so Dan must go to them. He's moved into a remote facility for his work where he quickly begins to learn that there's more to the project--and more to his own involvement--than he could have ever imagined.

At its core, Archive 81 is a found footage mystery box--the scares are almost entirely atmospheric. There's no real blood or gore to speak of, no loud sounds or jump scares, and while there are obvious supernatural forces at work, they're not the kind that require tons of CGI or even practical costume effects. Instead, the story leans heavily into the mounting dread of the mystery unraveling to really ratchet up the tension, and, for the most part, this is extremely effective. The story keeps a good pace in both its reveals and its red herrings which keeps things moving at an engaging clip. The eight episode runtime is easily bingable in a couple sittings and there's little to no downtime, despite the lack of big, bombastic centerpieces.

This is partially owed to the fact that Archive 81 has a lot of ideas. It's difficult to articulate too many of them without venturing into spoiler territory, but we will say that there are bits of cult horror in here, as well as time travel, alternate universes, magic and witchcraft, human sacrifices, even demons and run-of-the-mill murder. Some of these elements prove more engaging than others, but the sheer volume of them crammed into every corner of Archive 81's world ensures that things are never boring or too easily unraveled.

Dan is helped along the way by his best friend and podcast host, Mark (Matt McGorry) while Melody, back in the '90s, is aided by teenage Visser resident Jess (Ariana Neal) and both of the relationship dynamics work well. Athie anchors the ensemble by imbuing Dan with a healthy mixture of both skepticism and curiosity, which helps him deftly avoid making too many frustrating horror cliche mistakes or errors in judgment. This makes the mystery of the show flow smoothly and frustration-free for the viewer--or, well, mostly frustration free.

One of the downsides of having just so many things going on is the sense that Archive 81's coolest and best ideas just don't get enough time in the spotlight. Concepts and world building get tossed out and then quickly folded into the mix without much breathing room and it can be hard to track what individual characters are trying to accomplish and where their loyalties lie at any given moment. Some of this is obviously by design--part of the story hinges on the psychological horror of being manipulated and gaslit by the people around you--but large chunks of it can feel clunky or frustratingly thin, depending on your level of engagement in the show's overarching "lore" as it's brought into the light.

That said, even with these occasional missteps, Archive 81 proves to be an interesting, engaging, and mostly well crafted experiment. Fans of the found footage genre as a whole, or of other Netflix shows like The OA and indie horror movies like The Empty Man will absolutely find something to love and a story worth revisiting for details and subtle scares that are easy to miss on the first time around.

The Good

  • Creative ideas make for interesting, subtle scares
  • Strong ensemble cast with well developed characters
  • Found footage elements add to the world building in clever ways
  • A great return to Netflix's weirder genre stories like the now-canceled OA

The Bad

  • Lots of ideas feel shoved in on top of everything else without being explored fully
  • Overlapping plot lines can get difficult to keep track of as things progress

About the Author

Netflix provided all 8 episodes of Archive 81 for review.