The latest in Hollywood’s apparently unwavering appetite for Lovecraftian horror, Archive 81 is also diligently magpie with regard to scooping up cinematic influences in the same. It’s nearest relative and Netflix stablemate is thus probably Stranger Things, with its parallel realms to our own nursing unspeakable horrors of an anti-life nature (that series’ Rebecca Thomas directed half the episodes here). On top of the HP source, Archive 81 embraces the found-footage conceit, one that has been very variable in value – The Blair Witch Project being the most prolific and most vastly overrated – and is employed here via a set of logistical rules that are strictly bendable. The result, exec-produced by James Wan (who likes his Cthulhu) effectively pushes all the buttons you’d expect while never breaking free from what could be regarded as formula.
Virgil Davenport: You ever think about what it means to capture a moment in time on a piece of film? To give it an eternity it was never meant to have? What else might we be scooping up in that moment?
Indeed, while the show doesn’t disguise its influences – it’s been pointed out Dan Turner (Maoudou Athie) is Dan T (Dante), on a mission to retrieve lost soul Dina Shihabi’s Melody from the Circle (of Hell), while encountering Virgil (Martin Donovan), Charon and a Beatriz – its theme of possessed audio-visual medium inevitably encourages the viewer to reference recent-past works. The material is dripping with lost, perhaps demonic reels, and even features (but doesn’t show) its own unaired TV show, itself based on a notorious satanic snuff movie. This is all very Flicker (Theodore Roszak’s 1991 novel, with various unrealised movie and theatrical developments from Dan O’Bannon, Darren Aronofsky and Ken Campbell), by way of 8mm and John Carpenter’s Masters of Horror, Cigarette Burns. Carpenter, of course, directed In the Mouth of Madness, where a famous horror author, Sutter Kane, goes missing while his books drive people insane.
We’ve seen the parallel dream/lower astral realm used – overused? – in cinema and fiction, even without the overt Lovecraft aspect. Besides Stranger Things, there’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, the Further in Insidious, and extending back to David Lynch and Mark Frost and their lodges in Twin Peaks. Archive 81’s setting, or rather that of the tapes Dan is reviewing and cleaning up, is a very Rosemary’s Baby-tinged, evil-infested apartment block called the Visser (in 1994).
Dan wears a Tarkovsky t-shirt, nodding to a director au fait with offbeat realms and mental states (Stalker, Solaris). Fritz Lang’s Ministry of Fear – a poster on the wall – concerns a man released from a mental asylum becoming involved in a spy ring (fortune telling figures, but the idea itself – spies and mental states – suggests a precursor to MKUltra). Melody watches The secret of NIMH, based on Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, NIMH being the National Institute of Mental Health (or Ill-Health, given its activities); John Lilly worked for the US government agency at one point, and its, and his, influences on behavioural response and modification feed fundamentally into, yes, MKUltra. Bobbi (Jacqueline Antaramian) haunts the grounds in a Don’t Look Now red coat (a harbinger of mortality and intermediary states).
Then you have the Eyes Wide Shut element, from the masked opera to the also-masked ritual participants (in 1924). This behaviour is the stuff of the rich elites, preying on lowly proles in order to connect with other realms and beings that will enable them. We learn of the Visser Historical Society and Dutch witchcraft travelling “all the way into twentieth century”, of hidden history, sites of great past evils built on and retaining occult significance; the idea of the rampant mould bears some passing similarities to the water in A Cure For Wellness, in that it requires subjects/vassals to generate the full potential the elites/cult members seek, although neither really yield the adrenochrome-esque reading some have seen in Gore Verbinski’s film. There is also the predation on the young and innocent: the maid victim in the Vos household and then Ariana Neal’s Jess (“He’s been grooming her for years”).
The makers explicitly tie these activities in with Hollywood, while also making it clear Hollywood is no more than an adjunct, and not the principle source of developments (it’s the wealthy/elite Vos family and Georgina Haig’s Iris Vos who lead the ritual). They feed and propagate the legend, however, via William Crest, invited to a bachelor party at an occult lodge in the Hollywood hills (Agape, Jack Parsons et al). We are told the area was very exclusive, with “all sorts of Skulls-and-Bones types in that town”. The dark credentials of media manipulation are emphasised, however: “Los Angeles was once the occult capital of the world, you know” (and now?) Crest, we learn, “dabbled in Mankind United, theosophy, you name it” and seems to have been an occult equivalent of Rod Serling on TV; this early aspect is built up via the cult paraphernalia, whereby guests, following dinner, were blindfolded and led through the (Laurel?) canyon. Sworn to secrecy, they watched the legendary Vos snuff film; “Apparently, it was some kind of ritual sacrifice” (when we finally see it, it’s something of a damp squib. Albeit, that should be a blessed relief, since the reports of this kind of thing that are real-world, per Dave McGowan, are anything but). Archive 81 doesn’t elaborate on the fate of Crest’s show, The Circle, but it would seem its disappearance was down to the Baldung witches attempting to ensure any trace of continuance is snuffed out.
Narration: Once every 70.6 years a comet sweeps through our solar system.
The show also takes in Lovecraftian cosmological lore – see the recent The Color out of Space for more panspermia – with its comet Kharos, named after Hades’ ferryman. It was “one half of a cosmic power believed to have crashed to the surface millions of years ago, leaving in its wake a coveted and rare gemstone – kharonite”. One might thus – irrespective of the veracity of cosmological bodies straying into our realm per NASA-approved science – compare it to the black goo of popular ET lore, particularly in its ability to affect the human organism. Whether Lovecraft had any actual insights – rather than intuited ones – is debatable, but the Church of Satan did pay him respect and claimed he knew far more than he was letting on; one can detect hints of the Nephilim/Watchers in his Elder Gods.
Archive 81 is perhaps at its most unshackled in its treatment of time travel, although even here, it has its influences, coming as it does in the wake of Dark (also Netflix). I’m unconvinced I desperately needed a second series, so I’m not as gutted as some at news of the cancellation. Besides, it will surely become clear what the makers had in mind for the rest of the show eventually. The idea of time travel via portal communication can be found elsewhere – Frequency, for example – but the initial embrace of the concept, through what appears to be psychic rather than physical inception, would seem an equally, if not more “legitimate” method – simply because of the much-debated logistics – then practicable, if time travel is possible in any form. Indeed, I found the “He’s in 1994!” Evil Dead II ending something of a disappointment: a cheap stinger. I assumed it was going the route of trapping Dan (Mamoudou Athie) in the astral in Melody’s (Dina Shihabi) place, à la the real Cooper in the Black Lodge (notably too, a “non-scientific”, psychically triggered means of time travel has its antecedents, such as Richard Matheson’s Somewhere in Time).
Regardless, communication through the visual medium makes for the most effectively unnerving moments in the show – as opposed to an actual medium tearing her face off, a piece of unusually explicit and unnecessary grue – even if they tend to the repetitive. The best of them is probably the “Stay out” at the end of 3: Terror in the Aisles – Cassandra’s (Kristin Griffith) hand straining from the screen, Videodrome-style, is more effective than the demon, which amounts to a less-than-impressive Voldemort meets Grey meets Predator. Also less than stunning is the Tesla-electricity effect of contacting the realm; while Archive 81’s ideas are solid enough, the design work is uninspired for the most part.
There are other irritations. After a while, Melody’s ineptitude and Dan’s stir-and-repeat act-outs grow rather stale, a case of the plot leading the characters rather than their being “autonomous”. 7: The Ferryman, breaking the narrative in the way it does, for a flashback, is an unwelcome dilution (and, to be brutally honest, it doesn’t really add a whole lot we absolutely need to know). It’s also representative of the show’s habit of cheating with knowledge, beginning with Dan’s investigations but failing to stay with his point of view when it comes to Melody and her videoing; you’re willing to go with it as viewer, but there’s a feeling of vague sloppiness in the desire to use whatever gimmick will work rather than maintaining a discipline.
Rebecca Sonnenshine said the series “was always meant to keep going”, and the identity of whoever started the Vosser fire would have been revealed in Season 2 (albeit, it has already been suggested as witches). As would the nature of the relationship between Virgil and Samuel (Evan Jonigkeit). Essentially then, there’s little sense of tantalising details demanding further exploration, or mythology desperate to be revealed. I’m sure there will be petitions, but I think I can survive without Archive 82.
First published by Now in Full Color on 23/04/22.