Awhile back, I wrote about a couple of horror podcasts I was enjoying, and discovered that one of them - Archive 81 - was being developed as a series for Netflix. I was happy to see this, added a placeholder to my list and then promptly forgot about it. So it was a pretty pleasant surprise when it popped up in my queue a couple of weeks ago. The podcast was definitely something off the beaten path - I think I described it as what might happen if the directors of Resolution and The Endless decided to do their own take on the whole SCP mythology in the style of Radiolab. Which is just…so many different references to track. But it largely worked, by turns unsettling and surprisingly touching, with excursions into both Lovecraftian cosmic horror and a somewhat more benign strain of dark fantasy.
So I was excited to see how it’d translate to a visual medium, if a little cautious. The source material is kind of convoluted, a narrative nesting doll where you’re listening to recordings someone has made of their experiences while listening to an entirely separate set of recordings, and it’s all framed as being presented by a friend of the person who was listening to these recordings and has now gone missing. That’s a lot. Also, just to get my own biases out of the way, one of the executive producers is the same person behind a number of slickly-produced, highly commercial horror franchises, the kind of stuff I generally don’t like. I was a little worried that this is would end up being another example of what film critic Mark Kermode calls “quiet quiet quiet quiet BANG!” filmmaking. All jump scares, no atmosphere.
Fortunately, what we get is nothing of the sort. It’s brooding, sinister, and works in areas of horror that I don’t think get enough attention and are absolute catnip to me. It does have some pacing problems, and not everything lands as well as it could, but in general it’s spooky and atmospheric as all get-out.
It’s New York City in the modern day, and Dan Turner works as a film conservator for the Museum of the Moving Image. He has a real affection for old films and television shows, ephemera in danger of slipping through the cracks of our culture. He’s a quiet guy, very private. He had some bad stuff happen to him as a kid, and he’s had his struggles with mental health. There was a relationship, but it’s over. But when we meet him, he’s on his way to work, seeing if a sidewalk vendor has any interesting old VHS tapes. He gets to work and a couple of important things happen in short order. First, he finds out that the museum has acquired the footage for a never-aired horror anthology show called The Circle, something that’s been a bit of a holy grail (or white whale) for him, and second, that someone wants to hire him away from the museum for a year to work on a special project.
The project is to restore a series of damaged videocassettes retrieved from a fire at an apartment building in the mid-1990s. He’ll be working at a corporately-owned research and storage facility up in the Catskills, far away from the hustle and bustle of, well, anywhere. He’ll have living space, anything he needs delivered to him, and $100k for a year’s work. Dan consults with his good friend Mark, and takes the job.
The first thing Dan discovers is that the cassettes are recordings made by a graduate student named Melody Pendras. She was working on an oral history of the Visser Building, an apartment building in Manhattan, and the cassettes are her interviews with residents in the building. At least, that’s what they are to start. The longer Melody is there, the more she starts to notice things - the secrecy of the residents, a sixth floor that’s only accessible via a locked button on the elevator.
Strange singing and chanting coming up through the vents in the middle of the night.
And the deeper Melody and Dan go, the darker and stranger things become. It takes awhile for things to ramp up, and the first half of this eight-episode series is characterized more by a persistent low-level feeling of uneasiness and paranoia than anything else. At times, there’s a circular feel to it - points get brought up and then abandoned, only to be revisited or recontextualized later. Sometimes it works, giving everything a slight dream-logic feel, like these images or ideas are important, but their specific importance or meaning continue to elude us. But, other times it feels like we’re getting some reveals earlier in the story than we should, and it threatens to undo some of the mystery. I’d say that at worst, there are spots over the eight episodes that feel like the story is spinning its wheels a little and sometimes the narrative gets a little jumbled. A story like this benefits from a feeling of unfolding, or of events escalating, and there are tangents and side trips that undo that momentum a bit and can feel a little like stalling.
But then starting with the fourth episode, things begin to pick up. The story does a good job of introducing new bits of information throughout that change how we perceive Melody and Dan - there’s more to her trip to the Visser than just a research project, and Dan wasn’t necessarily chosen for this job solely for his skills as a conservator, so within any given episode, there are new revelations which piqued my interest even when the broader narrative fumbled a little. The show keeps a lot of balls up in the air, in the form of repeated images and names and places and ideas, some of which pay off right away and some of which don’t pay off until the very end, but do pay off. As it progresses we learn more - about Dan, about Melody, about the Visser, about what happened all those years ago, and what’s going on right now. It might not always come together as neatly as I’d like, but it does come together in a largely satisfying way.
What it does really well, though, is set a mood, doing so through the use of locations, using what at first seem like fairly mundane areas to create a feeling of unease. This is very much a show about navigating a location and unraveling its secrets. I’m reminded of a dream that I had when I was younger, where I opened a cabinet in the basement of my childhood home and inside was an opening to a vast chamber that couldn’t possibly fit within the house, as if I’d opened a door to another world entirely. That feeling permeates this show. It’s like a more sinister riff on the idea of Platform 9 ¾ from the Harry Potter books or the crawlspace that opens up into John Malkovich’s head. Someplace utterly mundane extended into something otherworldly. The compound in the Catskills seems at first like a somewhat musty corporate facility, obviously bought in the 80s or so, but the longer Dan’s there, the more he discovers - basements, sub-basements, hallways hidden behind walls, so over the series the compound starts to sprawl into something much larger and labyrinthine than it first appears, while always maintaining its sense of bland institutionality. Long, dimly lit hallways lined with storage rooms, the files and media contained on the shelves within all pointing to some terrible mystery. The whole thing has the inherent spookiness of an empty office building late at night, spot lighting casting pools of light in the seas of shadow,
Likewise, the Visser seems to sprawl upward and downward at the same time - it’s all wood details and bland drywall in the residential areas and cinderblock and concrete in the stairwells and utility areas. The community room is beige carpeting, a bulletin board, plastic chairs. Everything looks perfectly normal, but there’s too much of it, and there are areas that are off-limits - the sixth floor is only accessible by elevator key, nobody’s allowed in the basement, so many secrets hidden behind the plainest of doors. There’s a history to this building, to the land on which it was built, and there’s a sense that whatever was there before the building was constructed has…infected the building somehow, an idea that becomes disturbingly literal at points to good effect.
I’m really pleased to see this explored - this idea of uncanny spaces, locations that look mundane on the surface but reveal greater strangeness the further you go, doesn’t get nearly as much attention in horror as I’d like, so I’m always happy to see it done well. On the other hand, as good as the persistent paranoia is, I don’t think it’s always calibrated as well as it could be. The further we get into the story, the more Dan and Melody discover, the harder it is for them to act like nothing’s wrong, but when the other shoe drops, it drops loudly. Lots of screaming and freaking out in front of people our protagonists should know better than to freak out around. There’s something to be said for depicting the horror of discovery quietly, at having to keep up appearances knowing what you know. There were times, especially in the second half of the series, when I found myself wondering why Melody and Dan couldn’t just keep their mouths shut, and it was a little distracting.
But then again, in addition to the idea of exploring mysterious, impossible spaces, there’s a layer of mystery on this show associated with forgotten media as well, which is another one of my favorite things in horror. The idea that in storage spaces and rummage sales and sidewalk vendor trays, there are things with vast secrets waiting to be discovered. Forgotten books and the grainy film footage of a television show that nobody ever saw. Films of horrible things, screened to a select audience in a secret bunker. Dan restores a set of tapes rescued from a fire, another set of tapes document the work of someone who was cataloguing hours of soap opera footage and slowly went insane, a suggestion that there’s this whole strange world just underneath the skin of this one, waiting to be discovered, This is absolutely my shit, and again, I’m pleased to see people working in this mode and doing so with skill. It beats the shit out of possessed dolls and the ghosts of evil nuns.
In terms of the overall tone, of the show, the word that keeps coming to mind is “subdued.” Performances are mostly low-key and quiet (with some exceptions - some that work, some that, as I outlined above, don’t work as well). We get to know more about most of the characters as the story goes on, and they’re all mostly recognizable as actual people instead of caricatures. The soundtrack is equally understated, consisting most of either diegetic songs (lots from the mid-90s) and a score dominated by ambient music, electronic hums and swells and the sound of audio interference. The cinematography is cold and desaturated in the modern day and warmer and more colorful at the Visser, which helps underline the narrative shifts between Dan witnessing things via tape and Melody experiencing them in real time. There’s very much a through-line that these are two people trying to connect across time and space, and the show does a good job of teasing new information in a way that slowly reveals the scope of what’s happening. Things connect in unexpected ways, things that come up briefly early on come back later as significant pieces of the puzzle, and in the end it’s all made clear, ending on an impressively inconclusive note that, if you’ve listened to the podcast, will give you some idea of what might come next.
And that’s what I’m wondering, where it’s going to go from here. I liked what I saw enough to want to see a second season, if only to see how they handle what comes next in the podcast. Here, they’ve taken the first of three stories and expanded it beyond what happened in the source material. I remember the segment about the Visser Building being the briefest of three stories, and the team behind this show did a good job of fleshing it out into a fuller story, so I’d be interested to see what they do with the far stranger and wilder territories that lie beyond the Visser Building, and I hope we get a chance to explore them.
Available on Netflix