We’re crying out for distractions from the world, and this Netflix show contains just the right amount of jump scares, cultish conspiracies and great performances – just don’t think too deeply about any of it
Humanity needs hokum and never more so than when things are – I think a majority would agree – so relentlessly grim. Bring us preposterous set-ups! Bring us ridiculous plots, to whose holes we must turn generously blind eyes! Bring us escalating nonsense, melodrama, unrealism and all the high-energy, low-stakes rest of it! Take us out of ourselves for an hour or a chapter or a reel at a time.
For hokum to succeed, however, it needs to take itself seriously – no nods, winks to camera or cynical sneers in the script. Makers need to play it straight, so that viewers can take it how they will.
On all these bases, Netflix’s new horror series Archive 81 delivers. Its dual narrative has film archivist and museum creator Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) recruited, in the present, by an enigmatic businessman called Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan, who I hope is enjoying his character’s top hokum name) to restore a set of fire-damaged tapes. They are the remainder of an oral history project undertaken by grad student Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) in 1994. Her story unfolds for us via “found footage” and flashback. She is recording the life stories of the inhabitants of the Visser apartment building, which was built on the site of a mansion that burned down in 1920 and – did Melody but know it! – is about to burn down again, leaving 13 people missing. She is aided in her quest by young teenager Jess (an astonishingly good performance from Ariana Neal, in a show full of them), who was born in the building and I just bet knows more than she initially lets on.
To do his restoration work and earn a bumper $100,000 for the job, Dan must stay alone in an isolated compound in the Catskills once used by Virgil’s DNA testing company – one of many pies in which he has more than the customary number of fingers. There is no wifi and barely any mobile phone reception – just enough to get through occasionally to his best friend, Mark, and ask him to Google people’s names as Melody mentions them on the tapes. There is a landline but it appears to be bugged. Dan quickly comes to suspect he is being surveilled as well. But Dan once had a nervous breakdown, after most of his family were killed in a house fire, so he is probably imagining things, right?
Over the eight hour-long episodes of the series, Archive 81 ladles out generous portions – if perhaps sometimes at too stately a pace – of conspiracy theories, jump scares, corridor stalkings, things that go bump in the night, resurrected figures from the past, hallucinations (OR ARE THEY?), coded counsel from longtime tenants, haunting music whose terrifying strains drift into Melody’s room at night and put her in a state of nervous collapse, cultish goings on, mysterious smiles from inhabitants of the sixth floor, salutary warnings from fearful dwellers on the first-to-fifth and a gathering promise that – as long as you don’t look too closely at anything or for too long – more or less all will be revealed in a more or less satisfactory way. As with most series of this nature, it’s better watched over time rather than binged all at once, when the leaps of faith required to get past various illogicalities and inconsistencies can become too exhausting.
It’s one of those programmes where you are best advised to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.