‘Archive 81’ unravels another creepy, time-wasting Netflix drama

Archivist Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) is hired to reconstruct a collection of video tapes damaged in an apartment fire in the 1990s. forehead.

By showing the footage in a remote location where the tapes are stored, Dan is drawn ever deeper into the experience of a documentary filmmaker who made them, Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi). Her experiences usually take center stage, flashing back (mixed with the images she shot) to her hanging in the building, trying to arouse suspicion as she investigates rumors of some sort of cult operating there.

The more Dan looks, the more the lines between past and present, between fantasy and reality, blur, with the grainy video — and glitches hinting at the supernatural — increasing the difficulty of keeping them separate. That includes questions about what motivated Virgil to specifically look for Dan, and help from Dan’s conspiratorial friend Mark (“How To Get Away With Murder” Matt McGorry), who is helpfully inclined to believe the worst.

The challenge with something like “Archive 81” is to make sure the horror build-up is gradual enough that Melody or Dan doesn’t start screaming into the night before we get to the “What’s really going on?” part. If the model for this is a movie like “Rosemary’s Baby,” it’s worth remembering that those movies didn’t tease the reveal into eight parts.

Under showrunner Rebecca Sonnenshine, that balancing act is achieved, perhaps inevitably, through dreams and fake-outs and other twists and turns that create just enough fog to justify the investigators continuing.

The reward for those who have the patience to get there is that, as the statement begins to take shape, it actually turns out to be quite compelling, with a dense backstory and opportunities to expand the drama beyond this opening salvo.

“Archive 81” is based on very old horror themes, including whether seeing is really believing and how evil can hide in plain sight. Like the videotapes themselves, there are glitches along the way, but unlike some recent entries in this genre (hello, “Brand New Cherry Flavor”), there aren’t enough of them to provoke pressing the “eject” button .

“Archive 81” will premiere on Netflix on January 14.


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