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If you missed the buzzy horror series “Archive 81”, now is the time to rewind the tapes and let this engrossing mystery take hold of you.

Archive 81

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Loosely inspired by a popular serial podcast of the same name, Archive 81 follows a film archivist, Dan Turner (Mamadou Athie), who is hired by the head of a mysterious mega-corporation, Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan), to restore and digitize numerous old videotapes damaged in a 1994 fire.

The job comes with a lucrative payday but one rather large catch. The tapes are stored in an isolated bunker in the middle of nowhere. They are too fragile to be transported, so Dan must finish his work from the Shining-esque compound in the Catskills — without Wi-Fi and with only limited mobile reception.

Soon, Dan realizes there are eyes and ears everywhere. He starts to question his shady employer’s motives, his connection to the tapes he’s been hired to restore, and even his own sanity.

The footage Dan reviews was taken by a documentary filmmaker, Melody Pendras (Dina Shibabi). She has moved to the infamous Visser apartment building to complete her project and attempt to explore the building’s mysterious appeal and tragic past. The Visser apartment was built on the site of a mansion that burned down in 1920. It houses strange residents and dark secrets.

Melody arrives just before the building goes up in flames for a second time.

Though Melody interviews residents under the guise of her documentary, another more personal motive draws her to the Visser, as she attempts to track down the mother who abandoned her in a church as a baby. Dan, whose own family was killed in a house fire, immediately feels a connection to Melody.

Eventually, as his connection to her and the world of the past intensifies, he becomes convinced he might have the power to change the past and save Melody from her tragic fate.

If you’re a fan of the engaging way Yellowjackets unravels its mysteries via two distinct timelines, you’ll likely appreciate the similar approach taken by Archive 81.

In 2019, Dan is alone, disconnected from the world, meticulously restoring his tapes in his minimalist video lab.

He’s a man obsessed with the past, both professionally and personally, reeling from trauma and recovering from a nervous breakdown. Outside of his best friend, paranormal podcast host Mark (a wonderful Matt McGorry), his human connections are almost non-existent.

Back in 1994, Melody is a similarly lost soul who wants nothing more than to understand why her mother abandoned her as a baby and left her to be reared in the far-from-nurturing embrace of the Catholic church.

As she interviews the Visser’s many eccentric residents, a dark and foreboding mystery begins to reveal itself, pulling Melody deeper and deeper into intrigue and perilous danger.

Meanwhile, Dan begins to see things he can’t explain — haunting visions in his tapes — and interacts with Melody in his vividly realistic dreams. Strange coincidences connect his personal past with the tapes’ contents. Is he cracking up, or is something more sinister afoot?

Soon, the lines between past and present begin to blur, as does the line between the world the characters think they know and the one beyond the realm of what they can see and comprehend.

To say much more would be to ruin the many surprises that await you within these dusty tapes and dark corridors.

But rest assured, it’s a mind-bending puzzle that traverses a diverse landscape of horrors, including creepy cults, conspiracy theories, demonic entities, terrifying seances, mysterious paintings and artifacts, possessing music, and so much more.

Both timelines are equally engrossing, anchored by outstanding performances from both Athie and Shihabi, and each episode feels like a completely different experience from what came before it.

Rebecca Thomas (Stranger Things) directed half of the series. Saudi Arabian film director Haifaa Al Mansour (Mayfair Witches, Fear the Walking Dead) — one of the country’s best-known and one of the first female Saudi filmmakers — directed two episodes. Finally, the filmmaking duo of Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead (Spring, The Endless, After Midnight, She Dies Tomorrow, Something in the Dirt), known for their emotionally driven sci-fi/horror style, direct the remaining two episodes (four and five).

Benson and Moorhead unsurprisingly knock it out of the park, and their episodes are my favorite in the series.

First-time showrunner Rebecca Sonnenshine (The Boys) masterfully conducts this, fusing discordant chords to form hauntingly beautiful harmonies. And for those who still aren’t convinced of Archive 81’s impressive genre pedigree, it was executive-produced by horror icon James Wan.

Many reviews will refer to this show as a slow burn, and that’s a fair description.

It takes time for the show’s darker aspects to step into the light, and it requires your patience as it initially builds terror through dread and atmosphere rather than in-your-face scares.

You may be tempted to abandon the series after the first couple of episodes. However, I urge you to stick with it; it’s worth the wait. By episode three, you should be hopelessly hooked.

In addition to the horror elements, this character-driven mystery has plenty of emotional gravitas. There’s a strong emphasis on the importance of family, not just the one you’re born into but the one you make.

I especially loved how the show highlighted and celebrated male and female friendships. While Dan relies on assistance from his friend, Mark, to help him connect the dots and uncover buried secrets, Melody confides her fears and suspicions to her friend and roommate, a free-spirited artist named Annabelle (Julia Chan). Both relationships are critical to plot and character development, and it’s especially refreshing to see a strong male friendship played with such depth and sensitivity.

It’s worth noting that anyone who appreciates the art of restoration will be captivated by the exquisite care taken in the series, especially in episode one, to show the beauty and meticulous craft of Dan’s restoration work.

Die-hard horror fans can also enhance their enjoyment by playing a fun game: guess that horror movie reference.

The list of subtle winks and nods to a plethora of genre classics is too numerous to count. They range from obvious homages to foundational horrors like The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby to modern masterpieces like Hereditary and The Ring, among many others.

While the show wears its loving influences on its sleeve, it never feels derivative or predictable. It manages to keep viewers locked in its mysterious grasp with surprise after satisfying surprise and a host of twisted turns and nasty reveals.

Though the show bills itself as found footage, it’s used more as a framing device to help us enter and exit Melody’s world. Much of what we see is in immersive 4K, without the traditional found footage trappings of shaky cam and low-fi video quality. This gives the show a much wider appeal.

It also ensures ARCHIVE 81 remains visually striking and gorgeously cinematic, backed by an unnervingly haunting score that ensures a constant state of nervous unease.

I’m a binger; I tend to devour something with gluttonous indulgence when I find something I like. If you’re like me, I can assure you that Archive 81 is deliciously bingeable — and a show that’s hard to stop watching once you start. You could quite easily finish this series, consisting of eight one-hour episodes, in one committed weekend.

With echoes of series greats like Lost, Twin Peaks, and The X-Files, it’s the kind of show that asks the most intriguing questions and leaves you ravenous for answers.

With that said, this kind of labyrinthine, entrancing mystery may work best if you give yourself time to slowly consume it, letting it simmer and giving each episode time to fully nourish and satisfy you before diving into the next.

Archive 81 exquisitely sets up a second season with many unanswered questions and plenty of tasty meat still on the bone.

This makes it all the more depressing that Netflix decided not to renew the series, leaving us with a wistful longing for what might have been. Still, it undoubtedly works as a self-contained season, with an ending that leaves viewers far more satiated than frustrated.

Don’t let the show’s untimely demise deter you from digging into these chilling and oh-so-satisfying archives.

Overall Rating (Out of 5 Butterflies): 4