Archive 81 Review: A Balanced Take on the Cosmic Horror Genre

Archive 81 - A Review

Netflix has always been a hit or miss for me in terms of its homegrown series and movies. They’re notorious for ruining anime adaptations, especially the live-action ones. However, when Netflix hits the mark, it takes you on a binging journey of well-paced story telling and a slow descent into the madness that is the core of the show, Archive 81. With Disney streaming services in the market, Netflix pushed forward with their own shows to be able to compete with the competition.

Cosmic horror is a hard genre to get right and hits the sweet spot of the otherworldly cosmic tentacles that are pulling all the chess pieces into the board. Check out this video on why it’s hard to make a film in the cosmic genre. It lists down movies that tried and failed, as well as movies that hit the nail on the genre.

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Archive 81 is a show of an archivist that is tasked with restoring a collection of damaged tapes. They belonged to a filmmaker who had gone missing. It was theorized that she perished in the fire that broke out in the place where she was conducting her video interviews for her dissertation. With each tape that the archivist restores, what he discovers is that the filmmaker has stumbled into what seems to be a hidden cult that revolves around the mysteries of the apartment complex that she was living in.

Spoilers ahead!

Archive 81 official poster.

Archive 81 is a slow-burn show that slowly builds up its momentum towards the middle of the episodes. However, I can guarantee you that your curiosity will start peaking towards the end of episode 1. We quickly establish that the archivist has somewhat of a loner personality that appreciates his solitude, collecting old tapes from storage hunters and restoring them. He has a friend who hosts a semi-famous podcast series, which he also features a live audience during his taping. Fun fact: Archive 81 is based on an actual podcast that you can check out here.


Dan Turner restoring and digitizing the spoilt tapes.

We’re given quick snippets of an archivist named Dan, the life he lives as an adult, as well as hints of trauma that he suffered as a child. We learn later through his memories that he lost his entire family in a fire, and that he had a mental breakdown once as an adult. A perfect candidate for what seems to be a shady offer by a man who owns a company that offered a large sum of cash for his services to restore recovered tapes from the 1994 fire of the Visser, belonging to the filmmaker that perished in the fire.

Descend Into Madness

Our protagonist, Dan, goes to a compound to complete his task of restoring the tapes. He arrives at a private compound in the middle of nowhere that offers him solitude, so he can complete his task with little to no disturbance from the outside world. He’s given a full stock pantry as well as all the tools needed to complete his task of restoring the old tapes, digitizing it.

Dan Turner in the compound Archive 81.
Looking for that last pack of Oreos like a madman.

As he begins to delve into his task, he learns about Melody. She is the filmmaker who made those tapes and her intentions of interviewing the people of an apartment complex called the Visser. It was thought to be built on top of an old mansion, which brings historic significance to her subject matter. Melody is on a quest to interview the residents of the Visser and help persevere the oral history. At least, that was the cover story used to get her all the necessary permissions to be there in the first place. Her true purpose is to look for her birth mother who abandoned her at a church when she was born. The letter she received from her was addressed at the Visser, hence started off Melody’s journey.

Melody Pendras and Anabelle Cho.
The mystery of Archive 81 is deeper than her dimples.

Right towards the end of episode 1, we see Melody frantically start running away from a scene. She screams for someone that seemed to be taken against her will. As she runs down the stairs and is blocked by other characters, she leaves a message in her recording. She asks whoever is watching this to help her, to find her. And right before the recording ends, Dan sees a familiar face. His father. The man who was thought to have lost his mind and burned down his home, together with his family. At least, that’s what everyone thought.

Dan begins to think that this wasn’t a chance meeting at all. That this job being offered to him was no coincidence. There is something larger a foot. And Dan is in the middle of it.

The Characters

To really build a cosmic horror narrative, there must be various players involved. Otherwise, it would just be a standard horror show with a straightforward plot. Various stories intersect each other. Others play a side role, fortifying the main plot and giving a more wide scope to the horror.

art exhibition scene with Melody  Pendras.
When you realize that you’re not as talented as you think you are.

We have Dan and Melody, both playing the part of the seeker, slowly lifting the veil that covers the truth. They both play their path at different points in time. Dan puts the pieces of the puzzle together through the restored tapes. His friend also helps and plays the “guy in the chair” for Dan and gives him pieces of information from the internet. Since Dan is isolated, he also helps in following up on leads that might be connected to the mystery of the tapes. Melody gives us a glimpse into 1994, on the Visser as she slowly meets its inhabitants. Some regular people, while the rest have a mystic aura about them. Rumors about a sex cult that meets up every week reach Melody, and she begins to suspect there is some truth to the scandalous rumor ever since she heard weird hymns and chanting through her vents the night before. She’s also noticed the music written by the up and coming opera composer, Tamara, to be the same of those weird noises. And what’s more interesting is that the sound actually gave Melody a physical reaction that she passes out.

Kaelego chanting session - Archive 81
C’mon guys, I’m trying to take a shit.

We have a cult that was thought to be a sex cult by the more normal residents of the Visser, though just casually mentioning and not do anything about it is still weird even though it’s 1994. Melody discovers that the gasping that paired with hymns weren’t sexual of nature. In fact, she found a group sitting in a church-like gathering performing chants that seemed to be directed at a creepy looking statue. At this point of the film, I was ready to have the statue start moving, but Archive 81 continues to tease its audience and jump scares probably cheapen this work of art of a series.

We’re introduced to Father Russo, a priest for the nearby Catholic Church who has taken an interest to the Jess, a kid who runs around the Visser helping its residents with odd jobs. We find that Melody don’t really agree with the churches’ method of fixing children with issues, especially she was raised in a Catholic school, and she was a quirky kid who got into a lot of trouble. Cut forward a few episodes, we find Melody interrupting what seems to be an exorcism ritual. Now, if I’ve learned anything watching horror movies, you never interrupt an exorcism ritual. As Melody confronted him with her disdain for his medieval practices, Father Russo gave us a glimpse that he knew more about the Visser than he lets on. A dark presence has taken refuge in the Visser and Jess might just be the perfect vessel for it.

Reverend russo - Archive 81
The Church: Waterboarding people since the first Pope.

The Truth Unveiled

What I’ve noticed with recent horror shows is to add a brilliant episode towards the end of the series where it brings back the audience to a different point in time, usually in the past and unveils the series of events that had taken place and established the plots of the show. The Visser was built on top of an old mansion in the early 20s. And the mansion belongs to a cult named the Vos Society. They seem to have found ritual books and knowledge about a certain God that exists in a different dimension, that promises to unite the two dimensions in unison, bringing peace and a utopia life to everyone.

Archive 81- Kaelego
The statue looks like it had enough with life.

We are also introduced to the existence of Baldung, a coven of ancient witches that have knowledge about the creature that lurks behind the dimensional wall. According to them, the creature is a demon who brings nothing but death and destruction. And the remaining Baldung are charged with the duty of protecting the means to summon the creature to our world.

Final Verdict

If you find the first episode to be interesting, then I’ll highly recommend it to follow through the series. Each episode brings a new revelation to the mystery and how it interconnects with other plot points. All in all, Archive 81 is an excellent show that breathed new life into the found-footage genre. And props to the source material that established a rich world of the occult and weaving interesting plots into this cosmic horror show.



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