Netflix’s LGBT teen drama is a lot lighter than its HBO counterpart, Euphoria, but it’s still got plenty to navigate.
If you were offered $100,000 by a sketchy company to go live alone in the woods with little cell service in order to work on restoring old Hi8 videocassette tapes that were burned in a mysterious building fire, would you say yes?
Dan Turner would.
Granted, it took the allure of a mystery to persuade him. But now, Dan finds himself wrapped up in a story larger than the natural world itself—and the supernatural things he’s seeing see him right back.
This is way above his pay grade.
The tapes Dan is tasked with fixing were the work of Melody Pendras, a doctoral student who moves into the Visser Building in 1994 in order to film her dissertation on the building’s origins and history through interviews with its tenants. In the early 1930s, the Visser building was constructed atop an older mansion that burnt down long before. Little does Melody know, the Visser meets the same fate in 1994, and 13 of its residents were never found.
It’s an intriguing backstory, but the tapes are badly damaged. So, Dan works on to restore these tapes. And he finds that the longer he watches, the more connected he realizes he is. Of course, that’s not exactly a good thing when he begins to realize that demonic forces are at work.
Strange things begin occurring, and a brief history lesson about the previous guy who took the job shows him that the tapes only lead to death and destruction. But he can’t afford to stop when the mystery of the tapes may provide answers to what caused the trauma of his past.
How much is he willing to pay in order to find the answers he wants?
Archive 81 doesn’t tread too much new ground in terms of horror tropes: spooky low-quality video tapes, found footage films, burning buildings, ominous music and even the construction of a building on top of a spookily tragic site have all been done before. Indeed, the vibe of the show owes a lot (as showrunner Rebecca Sonnenshine admits) to the stories of H.P. Lovecraft, a guy whose oeuvre has been getting new traction lately. But the show itself often feels more akin to a detective thriller than a horror series.
The overarching theme behind the show is a bunch of whys. Why does a resident’s comically dark composition about a “descent into the shadow world” cause Melody to collapse? Why does it seem like L.M.G. knows much more about Dan than they let on? Why do the tapes increasingly connect Dan to the events surrounding the Visser building?
The show brings so many questions that it seduces the audience into figuring them out, like the slow process of solving a Rubik’s Cube, shifting layers back and forth until the chaotic mysteries become uniformly understood. And because of the nature of that process, the “horror” of the show begins as a fringe element to the questions the show poses.
That changes, though.
Though elements are evident from the very first episode, large amounts of demonic activity are evident by episode three. Ironically, the show spends a lot of time mocking Jesus, Christianity and Catholicism in particular, so the events of the show make sense—when you seek out the spiritual but reject the good, it shouldn’t be a surprise when all you find is pure evil. Perhaps unintentionally, though the show throws countless digs at the Christian faith, they make a pretty good case about believing in the gospel. (That said, Christian elements can sometimes sound slightly more hopeful notes, too.)
Additionally, because it is pegged as a horror series, we will see and hear many unsettling things, such as faces that appear in distorted static and haunting noises that indicate some greater supernatural threat. After all, one of the tenants says that “something” pulls tenants to live at the Visser, and she very swiftly fact checks that claim by being briefly possessed to stare at the ceiling before seizing on the ground. All of these instances and more are met with a plethora of verbal expletives, including scads of uses of the f- and s-word.
The show is based on a podcast of the same name. And in that podcast, Melody (who is featured prominently in its first season) is a lesbian.
What is most upsetting, however, isn’t found in the show itself–it’s the ratings. At the time of review, Archive 81 is Netflix’s most-streamed show, which mocks and berates Christianity while simultaneously spending time with supernatural demons and blood-drenched cults. The irony isn’t lost on us, and we pray that it wouldn’t be lost of other viewers, either.
When a mysterious company hires Dan to restore old videotapes, Dan begins to realize that he may be connected to the events in the recordings. Years prior, Melody records said tapes for a college dissertation on the Visser building, and she finds that the building may have some serious supernatural problems.
The episode opens with a terrified Melody recording herself running through the halls of a building while she begs for help and screams. Then, we cut to the title sequence, which has some unsettling sounds and images, the latter of which mostly depict runes, statues and old TVs.
Many horror movies, both real and fake, are mentioned as well. A scene from one of these fake movies, called “The Circle,” is shown to us, and we see a group of cult members wearing unsettling masks walking around a pentagram-like symbol before one of them cuts the throat of a woman with a knife. Then, this knife-wielding cult member becomes possessed. Dan also watches a real movie called Solaris (1972), wherein we see a woman smoking a cigarette.
Two buildings catch fire, though only one is shown onscreen in a flashback sequence. In that case, Dan’s family dies, though this is only referenced and not shown. Virgil, a man who works for L.M.G., brings up this incident to Dan while recruiting him, though it is clear that no normal background check would have found this information out.
Dan’s friend Mark offers to cheer him up with vodka shots. Dan makes a joke about “demon sex cults.” A woman warns of “handsy old creeps.” In one scene, Melody walks around in an oversized shirt without pants on, though the shirt covers everything. Mark makes a reference to Jack Torrance, the axe-wielding antagonist from Stephen King’s The Shining. A person in a red coat ominously watches Dan from behind him in the woods. Distorted video footage shows a demon-like face appear in the tape’s static and look directly at Dan.
Strange runes mark the outside of the Visser building, and Melody hears ominous humming coming from an air vent. This is followed immediately by a sudden high-pitched audio jump scare. The music comes from a musician, who later explains that the song is called “Purgatory” and is supposed to represent a “descent into the shadow world” complete with a “chorus of human suffering.” While listening to it, the musician shows obvious pleasure on her face from it, while Melody is visibly terrified. The musician also has wine and other bottles of alcohol lined around her apartment.
Jess, a ninth-grade girl who lives in the Visser building, says that “something pulls tenants to live there.” She is then possessed before collapsing into a seizure on the floor. Jess asks Melody if she goes to church. When Melody says that she doesn’t anymore, Jess asks if she believes in “other worlds,” and whether or not Melody thinks Jess is strong enough to hold a “new world inside of her.” Jess asks to tell Melody something, but the camera cuts and we see Melody running in fear, saying that “they” took Jess.
There are many swear words throughout the first episode, including a whopping 37 uses of the f-word within its one-hour runtime. In addition, we hear eight uses of the s-wordGod’s name is misused once, and Jesus’ name is also misused once. In addition, the phrase “jackhole” is used once, which isn’t a swear we’d find on the records, but it’s used as one, so we’re counting it, too.
When Dan discovers his father’s connection to the tapes, he realizes that L.M.G. intentionally chose him for the job. Melody investigates the strange residents of the Visser building.
Many of the residents are, to put it lightly, a bit weird. One rubs her cheek against the cheek of Melody after Melody greets her, and another reads tarot cards for Melody. On the cards, Melody’s past is the card for pain, and her future is the card for death. This resident also references a “pothead” and a Visser building “sex club” where residents meet for orgies.
Melody attempts to steal another resident’s mail. She also attends an opera called “Purgatory” where dancers wear creepy masks. The music has a negative effect on her, and her heartbeat is heard pounding to rhythm of the pulsing lights. She orders a beer while she watches.
Melody passionately kisses a resident named Samuel and asks him to go to the store to buy whiskey. While he’s away, Melody returns to her apartment to find her friend Anabelle who refers to Melody’s apartment as a love nest and asks if she had sex with her therapist.
Later, Melody hears ominous chanting and humming coming from her air vent. She follows the noise downstairs to find the residents of the building all staring at a strange statue. The residents appear to be in a trance as they collectively hum. Eventually, all of the tenants begin breathing heavier and heavier before stopping and smiling at one another.
Samuel mentions box wine and Dutch witchcraft. Tamara, another resident, wears a revealing top, and Samuel and Tamara have sex. Nothing is shown, but there’s heavy moaning and growling. Mark jokes about a “Visser Historical Society sex cult.”
Virgil says that his family’s relationship to Christianity was “nominal,” and he was always a “half-step away from being a dyed-in-the-wool high holy skeptic.”
Virgil explains that he once debated that Jesus’ death was a blessing, “not because the Son of God was selflessly taking on the sins of man, but because His light was a dangerous one, and by extinguishing it, the world was saved from an unspeakable evil.” He believes that “Jesus was a demon who almost brought about the end of mankind.” (It is no wonder he lost the debate and was expelled for this, as plenty of references within the Bible directly refute his claim, such as Luke 11:14-23, Matthew 8:16 and Matthew 8:29, notwithstanding the fact that Jesus voluntarily gave up His life [John 10:17-21], so Virgil’s initial point doesn’t make sense either). The scene just goes to prove that Virgil is horrendously bad at both checking his sources and debating in general.
Dan finds that he can talk with Melody through some sort of metaphysical connection. In 1994, Melody seeks help from a Catholic church. In the modern day, Mark investigates a find that suggests Melody may still be alive.
The episode opens with an ad for a new movie called “Satan’s Carnival.” The narrator states that the “churches are empty, but the carnivals are full.” A video interview shows two men review the movie and lament about how many evil movies have come out recently.
Melody explains that she was left in a Catholic church when she was two months old. We see her pray the rosary growing up. However, she has disturbing visions of a dark place while in the church, and these only go away when she is taken out of it by her foster mom. Later, her foster mom dies of a stroke.
Melody asks Dan to get a drink with her sometime. She also wants to enlist the help of a priest, which Anabelle calls “kinky.” Melody says that all Catholics are into “bulls— medieval devil porn.” Melody and Jess lament the church telling them to have faith, and Melody says that the methodologies of the Catholic church are “the opposite of helpful.”
Anabelle references a “sex club,” and she also mentions how she let a girl perform sexual acts on her in the locker room when she was in grade school. Jess mentions that she got into a fight, though it is offscreen. Dan dreams that he is grabbed through a computer screen, and a tenant in the tape supernaturally stares at him through the camera. Mark pours himself an alcoholic drink.
Father Russo, a priest at the Catholic church, preaches to stand against evil and darkness in light of the movie “Satan’s Carnival.” He explains from the pulpit that “as you look upon Hollywood’s vision of good and evil, ask yourself, ‘what will I do, when I face the devil in my own life?”
Father Russo claims that the church keeps many hidden books with dark secrets in its vaults, including books of the occult. He quotes Matthew 5:14 by stating that the church is a light in the darkness. He also is prevented from finishing some strange form of waterboarding exorcism.
In the past, Melody tries to save her 14-year-old friend, Jess, from being sacrificed at the hands of a cult. In the present, Dan tries to save Melody from an extra-dimensional realm she’s been trapped in for nearly three decades.
That decade is home to Kaelego, the creature the cult is hoping to bring “home,” believing that its presence will usher in a time where the Earth will be free of pain and strife. That seems doubtful: We see the cult sacrifice a woman in order to open the door to Kaelego’s realm. A totem of the demon requires blood as well. (Two people have their hands sliced open; the palms are pressed on the totem’s head, and blood fills the stone statue’s rivulets.)
We see dark rituals and apparently magic words chanted out of a spell book. We meet a Baldung Witch or two—magic-wielding people integral to opening doors between dimensions (but most of whom gave up their magic, we’re told in an earlier episode, to ensure that such doors remained shut). We see the demon himself—mostly a looming figure of uncertain intent at the moment, but one with the ability to twist both space and time, and to tempt those with altered lives.
In addition to the bloodletting, we see other acts of violence. Two men get into a physical fight—ending when a third coldcocks one with a metal bar. Guns are pointed at people (but not fired). People are yanked away to/from safety. In flashback, a house burns.
We hear that a character has become a nun. Another seems to wait in a beautiful cathedral (which then is revealed to be an illusion). We hear references to the “ferryman,” a comet named Charon, who in Greek mythology ferries passengers to the realm of the dead. We see and hear references to cults, spells and seances. Worshipers of Kaelego chant and wear faceless masks. Folks discuss a murderer and the fire at Visser.
A whopping 43 f-words are used. We also hear nine uses of the s-word, two uses of “h—” and one “g-dd–n.”
Though he was born in Kansas, Kennedy Unthank betrayed his roots by leaving the wheat behind to study journalism at the University of Missouri. He knew he wanted to write for a living when he won a contest for “best fantasy story” while in the 4th grade. What he didn’t know at the time, however, was that he was the only person to submit a story. Regardless, the seed was planted. Kennedy collects and plays board games in his free time, and he loves to talk about biblical apologetics and hermeneutics.
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