How ‘Archive 81’ Blurs Past and Present to Guide Found Footage into the Future

Netflix’s supernatural found-footage horror series, Archive 81, takes a step forward to guide the found footage subgenre into new territory. While found footage media has historically focused on the external construction of authenticity, Archive 81 instead turns inward. This redirection of intentions its preoccupation with early film forms and media establishes a restructured relationship between past and present. With this, the series displays how an ongoing exchange of proximate and distant forms make up our contemporary digital media landscape. 

Based on the podcast of the same name, Netflix’s adaptation follows Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), a film archivist, as he restores and digitizes a collection of damaged VHS cassette tapes recovered from a mysterious 1994 apartment fire. Beneath the soot and ash, Dan uncovers Melody Pendras’ (Dina Shihabi) journey leading up to the fire and discovers a demonic cult hovering over the tragedy. Throughout the series, we witness the handheld footage alongside Dan and also step into the 1994 scene with Melody. With one foot in the present and the other in the past, viewers oscillate between timelines, film form, and identification. This ongoing switch in perspective formally separates Archive 81 from found footage’s big players like The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Paranormal Activity (2007), but the series’ dedication to media, seen with Melody’s hi8 footage, the coveted Vos Society snuff film, and the series’ opening vignettes tethers the series back to the subgenre.

Mamoudou Athie as Dan Turner, Season 1, Episode 1 – ‘Mystery Signals’ (COURTESY: Quantrell D. Colbert/Netflix)

Archive 81 opens with Melody’s final recorded entry while in the Visser apartment building. The stretched footage and scratched audio are accompanied by a recorder’s clicks and internal mechanics, creating an audiovisual bond and companionship between content and medium. Melody frantically looks into her camera and calls out for help before the jarring handheld moment abruptly ends. While the sequence is chaotic, there is a familiarity in the disorientation. The shaky handheld camera work and the distorted image both echo the many-found footage films that have come before it. Simultaneously capturing the horrific scene and the viewer’s gaze through a first-person point of view, found footage employs a vulnerable and tactile view that is assaultive and dangerous. It formally frames the horror genre’s preoccupation with blended binaries and renders every dark corner as suspicious.

These blended distinctions are present during the first episode, “Mystery Signals,” when Dan restores the first tape while officially employed by Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan), a billionaire eager to uncover the truth of the Visser fire and the fate of his brother Alexander Davenport/aka Samuel Spare (Evan Jonigkeit). After cleaning and repairing the tape, Dan and the series’ viewers watch the footage of Melody arriving at the Visser apartment. First, we see a medium shot of the Sony monitor playing back the 1994 clip, and then slowly, we push in toward the monitor, and the footage fills the entire frame, removing the monitor from our view. It’s as if we are now digitizing Melody’s footage in our own homes. Then, suddenly we are no longer viewing the footage from Dan’s POV, but instead, we are oriented in 1994 with Melody at our side – transformed from a recorded clip, clipped from a moment, into an active scene, presently seen and heard. From this point in the series and on, we continue to shift back and forth between these perspectives, muddling the clear sense of past and present but always looking to the camera as our anchor in both.

Dina Shihabi as Melody Pendras, Season 1, Episode 1 – “Mystery Signals.” (COURTESY: Netflix)

The camera within found footage media plays many roles: an extension of the character’s view, a separate onlooker, a stand-in for ourselves and a line of communication. Seen with Melody’s panicked plea for help or Heather Donahue’s tearful apology in The Blair Witch Project, characters turn to the camera during their most vulnerable moments. Heather’s present moment of distress is long in the past for viewers, however, Archive 81 transforms the subgenre’s delayed line of communication into an ongoing exchange. 

An exchange between Melody and Dan is first present in the third episode, “Terror in the Aisles.” First, we see Dan in the bunker, cross-referencing the compound’s security cameras to pinpoint blind spots, and then suddenly, he is sitting in the 1994 Visser community room with Melody. Marked by faint floating lens flares and a serene score, the scene displays Dan and Melody sharing a quick and pleasant conversation. Melody’s walkman and headphones keep her character tethered to her timeline, while Dan’s Criterion Collection Ministry of Fear (1944) t-shirt points to digital restoration and our present. Dan definitely has a Letterboxd account.

Shihabi as Pendras and Athie as Turner, Season 1, Episode 3 – ‘Terror in the Aisles’ (COURTESY: Netflix)

Midway through the same episode, another exchange occurs. Dan and Melody connect again, this time in the stairwell of the Visser – lens flares hover throughout the scene and Dan comforts Melody, reassuring her that her kindness is a “feature, not a bug.” At first, Archive 81 suggests that these moments with Melody are just dreams, however, while digitizing the footage later that day, Dan witnesses 1994 Melody reference their conversation to her friend Annabelle (Julia Chan). Somehow these present yet abstract conversations have altered the past and the physical tapes, and to blur boundaries further, onscreen Melody begins to address Dan directly and the two begin to communicate in real-time.

Technology’s power to connect distant space is not a novel observation. During this moment, Melody and Dan’s exchange looks exactly like Dan and Virgil’s video chat in “The Ferryman,” my Google chat meetings with my coworkers, and ultimately behaves like any ol’ phone conversation. Connecting at a distance is a part of our everyday routine. However, Dan and Melody’s distant exchange through Dan’s monitor and Melody’s camera extends beyond spatial boundaries and kindles an interplay of past and present. Archive 81 has found a way to narratively display the found footage subgenre’s formal desire to immerse the present audience in distant and past events. The interaction between past and present becomes more and more entangled as we see the progression of exchange evolve. First, with Dan and Melody interacting within past/1994 settings, then into shared exchanges, seen through the boundary of a screen, and then finally with Melody materializing within the present in “Spirit Receivers.” 

This shared moment also features the hovering lens flares that appear in the previous exchanges. The effect is dreamlike but also a symptom of the subgenre’s self-reflexive condition. A lens flare occurs when light reflects and bounces within the camera lens. The flares present in these scenes suggest a liminal space. And like the light caught within the lens, Melody and Dan find themselves caught in the middle. Archive 81’s collapse of past and present is narratively driven, formally expressed and aesthetically indebted to the found footage mode itself.

Dina Shihabi as Melody Pendras, Season 1, Episode 3 – ‘Terror in the Aisles’ (COURTESY: Netflix)

While The Blair Witch Project catapulted this mode into a popular subgenre, found footage can trace its lineage back several decades. Alexandra Heller-Nicholas recounts this rich and expansive history in her work Found Footage Horror Films: Fear and the Appearance of Reality and cites Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds radio broadcast from 1938 as well as the highway safety videos from the ‘60s as early impulses for “authentic” horror media. This impulse became even more graphic and controversial – seen with films like Faces of Death (1978) and Cannibal Holocaust (1980) as they flirted with snuff film allegations. Archive 81 weaves this found footage history into the fabric of the first season. These threads are sometimes faint and unassuming, like Mark Higgins’ (Matt McGorry) horror podcast “Mystery Signals: True Tales of the Secret City” which stands as a great nod to the convincing horror and science fiction broadcasts of the past. 

If the podcast is a slight stitch, then the Vos Society snuff film is the integral and repeated pattern that connects each episode to the whole. During “Ferryman” audiences are transported back to 1924 and witness the value that the Vos Society places on the camera, as it is an embraced and active participant within the ritual’s circle. Just as a moment’s impression is traced onto celluloid, the cult’s reverence for the camera is then transferred onto the film itself, seen with Samuel and the rest of the 1994 Vos Society members’ reverence for the reel. Whether it’s the original celluloid or a copy is never a concern for the 1994 members, it’s the film’s imprint they are after.  The members value the film because it acts as both a key and a map – it is a powerful window to the Otherworld and it provides instructions for the ritual itself. The Vos Society’s obsession with the snuff film is motivated by their desire to replicate and repeat, impulses that guided both the horror and science fiction genre.

The 1924 Vos Society, Season 1, Episode 7 – ‘The Ferryman’ (COURTESY: Netflix)

While the Vos Society snuff film is an example of repetition situated within Archive 81’s narrative, other found-footage horrors have approached repetition and recreation through form. Before The Blair Witch Project premiered to a wide audience, the directors launched an elaborate marketing campaign dedicated to authenticating the fictional events. The campaign, which consisted of a website and made-for-TV “documentary,” extended the film and lore beyond the public theater space and into the private home. Through a series of hyperlinks, users shuffled through details of the fabricated investigation and led themselves further and further into the Blair Witch maze. If the website sparked curiosity then the mockumentary confirmed concern. Equipped with authoritative talking heads, sensational news segments and a guiding voiceover, Curse of the Blair Witch was convincing. The Blair Witch Project’s consistent commitment to intrusion was founded by preying on audience expectations and recreating trusted media tropes. 

While immersive intrusion isn’t necessarily on Archive 81’s to-do list, the series does display a firm handle on tropes and expectations through the isolated, yet narratively linked, opening vignettes. From a declaration of identity – seen with Melody’s found footage in the first opening – to bright advertisements and artist profiles, Archive 81 displays a wide range of styles and conventions to point back at itself as a collaboration of media. Just as with the lens flares during the exchanges, the series’ consistent references to historical and contemporary media uncover the exciting and dynamic tension* that emerges when explored.

Athie as Turner, Season 1 Episode 8 – ‘What Lies Beneath’ (COURTESY: Netflix)

It’s in these moments of tension, like digitizing the hi8 analog footage, that Archive 81 explores possibilities for the found footage subgenre. And while these exchanges of media and collapses of past and present are often coded as violent and dangerous – seen when a Vos Society member reaches through the monitor to physically assault Dan or when Beatriz (Sol Miranda) relentlessly scratches her own face to shreds while reciting Dan and Melody’s conversation during a seance – Melody’s rescue is made possible through the interplay of media. These exchanges complicate the binary of proximate/distant and even physical/abstract and ultimately reassure that the found footage subgenre’s commitment to media is a “feature, not a bug.”

*Yes, this is a reference to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

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