Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers for the Netflix series, “Archive 81.”
Atomic Monster Productions new occult series “Archive 81” was released on Netflix on Jan 14. Based on the podcast by Daniel Powell and Marc Sollinger, the series is a deranged and bizarre masterpiece of supernatural horror.
The narrative of “Archive 81” utilizes real and relatable fears derived from the struggles within the context of religion, pulling viewers further into the mystery. The series explores occult members, the worshiping of “false Gods,” conspiracy theories, supernatural entities and ritualistic violence that can both haunt and captivate viewers. From the first episode of “Mystery Signals” to the last episode of “What Lies Beneath,” elements of suspense, horror and mystery are used to evoke a paralyzing bodily experience — one that lures viewers into binge watching the entire show in a single day.
The plot follows Daniel “Dan” Turner (Mamoudou Athie), an archivist hired to restore damaged videotapes, and his attempt to solve the death of Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) and the rest of residents involved in a mysterious fire in a New York City apartment complex. As the series progresses, Turner and Pendras’ lives begin to intertwine even though Turner’s storyline takes place in 2019 and Pendras’ storyline in 1994.
Multiple tapes are restored in each episode, revealing the strange occurrences recorded by Pendras and the major role that one of the tenants, Samuel Spare (Evan Jonigkeit), plays in the conspiracy. The technique of switching back and forth between the past and present creates a suspenseful illusion, almost tricking the audience into believing that the peculiar images and sounds caught on the tapes are products of Spare’s lack of sleep.
Developed by screenwriter Rebecca Sonnenshine, the premise takes inspiration from podcast sound design, utilizing melodramatic music and the use of chanting for prayer. Though it lacks any moments of the typical and highly anticipated jump scares, the rather sudden and gruesome moments in the series indulge in a new way of satisfying fans, including the ritualistic knife-to-the-throat scenes.
In an interview with TV Over Mind, podcast co-creator Powell explained how the show is ultimately derived from his own experience dealing with strange occurrences in his apartment.
“I’ve spent more time than anyone should alone in my apartment listening to weird noises. That experience, plus a general appreciation for found footage style of horror storytelling were a major inspiration,” Powell said.
Despite several main differences between the show and the podcast, which include Pendras’ sexuality, her overall damsel in distress personality and the use of Christianity as a religion, the show seems to be spot on. This is possibly due to Powell and Sollinger both being co-producers on the show.
“I wouldn’t say the storyline is radically different from what we originally envisioned. It’s a pretty natural outgrowth from where it started. The principal idea that drove us from the beginning was the idea of a character alone listening to weird tapes, and that’s stayed pretty consistent,” Powell said.
When Turner uncovers the truth behind the fire and the connection he shares to Pendras, the series’ emotional intensity increases. In fact, what truly makes “Archive 81” memorable is that viewers are solving the mystery with Turner and can almost feel his emotions through the screen — sharing the same experience as him, something that is both soul-stirring and unique to the show.
As soon as it’s revealed that Spare is the mastermind behind the emergence of the cult at the Visser, a jaw-dropping storyline is captivated. Supernatural elements are included in determining Pendras’ role and how she came to live there — the reason being that her birth mother is a Baldung witch, the key to awakening Spare’s motive and journey.
The themes of cult-like behavior and evil hiding in plain sight materialize when the Visser apartment complex is revealed to have been built on top of the Vos family mansion — a mansion that had burnt down in the 1920s. Turner finds video footage that discovers Iris Vos (Georgina Haig) is the woman who originally started the cult and awakened the demon Kaelego, a false-God promising to bring peace and prosperity to Earth. Yet when Vos summons Kaelego by sacrificing a young girl and killing a Baldung witch to fully complete the ritual, the Vos mansion is engulfed in flames. This connection between the Vos family and Samuel’s cult establishes an engrossing parallel, one that places the Netflix show in its own category of horror.
All eight episodes of “Archive 81” are available to stream now on Netflix, adding something uniquely beautiful and memorable to the horror genre. The cliffhanger it ended on, including the immense popularity it gained, left fans of the high society cult who worship the false God Kaelego excited to see Turner and Pendras on screen again with the announcement of a second season.
McKenzie Boney is an Entertainment Editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.