This post is #7 of a series.
I thought about including Archive 81 in my “cursed media” binge-watch, but like it enough to give it its own post. This eight-episode series is a Netflix production, developed by Rebecca Sonnenshine, based on Daniel Powell and Marc Sollinger’s podcast of the same name.
Mamoudou Athie plays Dan Turner, an archivist at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. A corporate executive named Virgil Davenport offers him $100,000 to restore and digitize a set of fire-damaged videotapes. The tapes were recorded by a cultural anthropology student, Melody Pendras, who was compiling an oral history of the Visser Apartments when the building mysteriously went up in flames; Davenport believes that the video archive may provide answers about exactly what happened.
Dan takes the job, but the deal is fishy from the start. Claiming that the tapes are too fragile to be moved, Davenport insists that the restoration work be done at an isolated research compound in the Catskills. The place has no internet access or cellphone service, the landline makes funny clicking sounds whenever Dan uses it, and despite Davenport’s suggestion that he’ll be alone on the property, it soon becomes clear that he isn’t. Dan also learns that Davenport didn’t just hire him for his technical skills: he’s got a personal connection to the story. Dan’s family died in a house fire that occurred around the same time that the Visser burned, and Dan’s late father, a psychiatrist, appears on one of the restored videotapes. It turns out Melody Pendras was his patient.
A lot of folks would cut and run at this point, but like any good horror story protagonist, Dan decides to stick it out. Having found a spot on the property where his cellphone works, he enlists his friend Mark back in New York to act as a remote research assistant and sets to work solving the mystery. The narrative jumps back and forth between Dan and Mark’s investigations in the present day and Melody Pendras’s adventures in the Visser in 1994. One of the series’ many neat touches is the way the videotapes (and later, Dan’s father’s session tapes) serve as a literal medium for moving between the timelines: we’ll see Dan watching the restored footage, and then the perspective will switch to the location where Melody is recording and stay with her even after she lowers the camera. Very late in the game, a film archive recovered by Mark becomes a gateway to the 1920s, where we learn the backstory of a demon-worshiping cult, the Vos Society, whose headquarters once occupied the same site as the Visser.
Archive 81 is not without its flaws. Although the series generally does a great job of maintaining a tense atmosphere, the demon at the heart of the mystery manifests as a laughably bad CGI effect. Another, bigger problem is the series’ conclusion: although we do learn what caused the fire at the Visser, what happened to Melody Pendras, and how Dan’s father was involved, the final episode ends on a twist/cliffhanger that is meant to set up for a second season. Unfortunately, Netflix has canceled the series, leaving poor Dan stranded in limbo. It’s a measure of how much I enjoyed the series that I’d still recommend it, but you should know going in that you won’t get a full resolution of the story.
If you’d rather watch something with a definitive ending, let me point you instead to Marc Carreté’s Asmodexia, a Spanish-language horror film set in and around Barcelona in the unseasonably hot December of 2012. As the film opens, exorcist Eloy de Palma and his teenaged grandaughter Alba set out on a cross-country trek to the site of “the Resurrection,” which is due to take place in three days. To say any more would risk spoiling things; just trust me, it’s good. Currently streaming on Shudder and AMC Plus.