Born from a horror podcast of the same name, Archive 81 is a spine-tingling mystery thriller with a hint of supernatural horror that follows the journeys of two individuals in different times, both determined to uncover the truth behind their respective investigations.
In the present, Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) is tasked with restoring and digitising a collection of old tapes, while in those tapes Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi) is investigating the hidden existence of a dangerous cult. Draped in an eerie tone and drenched in mystery and open-ended questions through every single episode, Archive 81 is a chilling ride from beginning to end that will have you hooked into not one, but two simultaneous narratives. The success of this storytelling triumph is down to how the writers have thematically linked these two character journeys to get you invested in both of their stories. Whether it’s focusing solely on the past or solely on the present, it’s wholly engaging – with characters you care about and multiple mysteries that you want to be solved. What’s great is that the tone is carried between the two time periods. Both journeys have the same level of creepiness at any point in time, ensuring there’s no jarring jumps in tone when leaping from past to present. This eerie atmosphere builds and builds to where by the time you get to the last few episodes, the tension gets so thick you could cut it with a knife.
The natural growth of this series’ horror factor is driven by the overall pace, which is designed to be slow across both narratives in order to retain any and all tension, while ensuring audiences want to come back to solve the many mysteries at play. It starts off adopting more of a straight mystery vibe, with the gradual introduction of creepy horror/thriller elements until it increases the scope of its story drastically in the final episode or two. Focusing on this blend of horror and noir mystery, without ever fully delving into a pure horror vibe, is an approach that worked great for the show. It never goes down the route of featuring jumpscares and cheap cliché horror moments, rather it focuses heavily on fleshing out the story while letting the creepiness and unsettling nature of its tone and content dictate when audiences should be scared. It’s not quite that elevated form of horror, but it feels more intelligent than any baseline horror.
Where I feel the series is elevated is through the performance of Dina Shihabi as Melody Pendras. A number of the performances in here are memorable, but none are stronger than what Dina puts into her character. She presents Melody as this very sincere person with plenty of heart, which puts audiences immediately on her side and gets them instantly invested in her character’s wellbeing. As an all-rounder, she’s great in the more tense thriller-esque sequences and also does well to bring some authenticity to the few emotional moments throughout. So much of the show’s charisma is delivered my her character, making her such a crucial element of the series. Mamoudou Athie is also really engaging in his scenes, but he plays a much different character with a more stoic attitude – meaning he doesn’t have as much variation in what he has to pull off. He does however have some great moments going into the latter parts of the season where he depicts the frustration his character is going through quite well. All in all, I enjoyed both leads and would love to see more of them going forward.
In the end, Archive 81 is an eerie and satisfyingly thrilling series that blends the chills of found-footage with the intrigue of mystery. Following two narratives side by side is a strongpoint of the series, giving us two avenues of questions to ponder and two interesting leads whose respective journeys are intriguing the whole way through. It’s appropriately chilling and goes big in its final episodes, expanding the scope of the story and putting things in an exciting place for a possible second season. For fans of mystery thrillers who don’t mind a bit of a creepy atmosphere, this is one to check out on Netflix.