Review: Netflix’s ‘Archive 81’ is a slow-building horror of a mystery

A man wearing a sweater and black gloves looks down as he works on a tape.
Mamoudou Athie as Dan Turner in Netflix’s “Archive 81.”
(Quantrell D. Colbert / Netflix)

Netflix‘s psychologically tense and suspenseful “Archive 81” is an urban mystery dipped in the occult, then sprinkled with “Black Mirror”-like madness. Trailers for the eight-episode series suggest a monster horror show, but the slow-building, addictive hour-long drama is smarter than your average ghoul fest. Loosely based on a podcast of the same name, this mind-bending puzzle pits sanity against reality where the pursuit of lucidity is both a nightmare and a thrill.

Adapted for television by Rebecca Sonnenshine and directed primarily by Rebecca Thomas, “Archive 81” follows film restoration expert Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) who is with New York’s Museum of the Moving Image. The fun begins when he accepts a lucrative freelance opportunity from the enigmatic billionaire Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan) to restore a collection of videos damaged in a deadly 1990s NYC apartment building fire.

The mangled cassettes are stored at a desolate, upstate facility of Davenport’s and can’t be moved, so Dan must live and work on the premises. It’s a creepy ’80s-era compound with no internet, cell signal or color scheme beyond cement gray. It’s filled with locked rooms and empty corridors. Dan is a nervous recluse with depressive tendencies and one mental breakdown already under his belt. What could go wrong?

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On day one he discovers the fire-damaged footage he’s bringing back to life was shot by grad student Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) in the early ’90s as part of an oral history project about a storied apartment complex, the Visser. Melody always has a camcorder in hand. It’s downright annoying, but that’s not entirely why the eccentric tenants of the building treat her as an interloper. They appear to be members of a dangerous cult. Dan wants to know more, but Melody died in the blaze that consumed the building. Her body, like the bodies of other residents who perished, was never found (it just so happens Dan’s family was killed in a mysterious house fire when he was a child during the same time period). Weird things start happening in the edit bay, and inside the glitching footage on his screen. And so the psychological clustermuckery begins ...

The season unfolds across two main timelines, and spoilers abound so I need to be careful here, but when old-school technology and old-world occult practices merge, all hell breaks loose in the creepy compound. Luckily Dan’s best friend Mark (Matt McGorry) is the host of an occult podcast, so he helps investigate the history of the Visser mystery. But the more strings they pull, the more their sense of normality begins to unravel, opening the door to demons, ghosts and insane asylums for those who admit to seeing such things.

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“Archive 81” is amateurish in spots, and not in a self-aware way. When Melody’s shaky camcorder zooms in on dark basement corners, then suddenly shuts down when unseen evil ascends, it’s “Blair Witch Project” 101. And Dan’s repetitive restoration process — crack open melted case, swab sooty tape, repeat — is about as exciting as watching cereal being repeatedly poured into a bowl. Nothing Pandora’s Box about it.

But the long-haul effects of “Archive 81” are worth the time spent on this series. Unlike many a mystery streamer, there is a satisfying payoff at the end of the analog mystery — a finale that may signal a new beginning. Or a cruel return trip to the archives. The devil is in the details.

‘Archive 81’

Where: Netflix

When: Starting Jan. 14

Not Rated