There was something different about this show, and I knew it. It reminded me of something I’d seen before, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. The oddball pacing, the naturalistic feel and a strange silence where you feel like there’d normally be music. The whole feel of it leaving you off-kilter. And then it hit me: Aaron Moorehead & Justin Benson’s movie, The Endless. The creepy-around-the-edges floating dread mixed with a tinge of either sci-fi or the supernatural. Or both. Along with a narrative that, like their films, told part of the story through old videotapes. I had this feeling of déjà vu even before episode three and four popped up, which were, lo and behold, directed by Moorehead and Benson! It just made sense.
Now, telling a tale that is fleshed out by the ghost of old video tape isn’t new. Known as a “found footage” film. After all, we’ve all seen The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and Chronicle, among hundreds of others. These films are generally sci-fi or horror in nature, or a combo of both. The trick here is that you can essentially tell a ghost story without making the person or people literal ghosts. They’re speaking to living characters and to the audience from the great beyond. In sci-fi that beyond could be deep space, another dimension or just somewhere on another plane. In horror that beyond could be any number of other worlds: hell, heaven or somewhere in between. Whatever the case, video allows us to see a person and see/hear his/her story despite them either being missing, dead or elsewhere. It’s a super-convenient plot device, and one that’s used to a great extent in Archive 81. After all, our lead character, Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi), is a PhD student recording her dissertation as a video documentary about a specific building in NYC. And our co-lead, Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie), is an archivist whose expertise is restoring old and damaged audio and video tape. Convenient!
Now, you may ask, why are we still doing this Hi8 camcorder thing in 2022? Shouldn’t we have moved on to digital iPhone footage, or even uploaded Vimeo files or something? What’s up with this old, physical media? Well, the aforementioned Melody started her dissertation about this mysterious building in NYC, The Visser, in 1994. Ah, the old old. I’m a little unclear how PhDs work and what a dissertation is, so it’s a little weird and/or unclear how or why Melody is allowed to be called Dr. Pendras by just filming some people talking about an old building, but I feel like there’s a lot of stuff in this series that kind of falls apart if you dig one layer deep. Like how is Melody paying for her room in said apartment building, her video tapes and her food without any discernible means of income? We find out, after all, that she grew up an orphan and is certainly not a person of means and has no parental or other support system to funnel her cash. This shouldn’t be surprising, I guess, since the series is based on a podcast. A genre in its fictional format that isn’t exactly known for its deeply connected narratives.
Details aside, the show does a good job of setting a mood. Though, in another questionable plot point that clearly defies logic, Dan is sent out to this compound in the woods to work on restoring Melody’s old video tapes, left behind in 1994 after a fire at The Visser that killed most of its inhabitants. Brought to the compound at the behest of a creepy rich CEO guy, Virgil Davenport (Martin Donovan), who heads a mysterious company that nobody seems to know anything about. Okay… First, the excuse for bringing Dan all the way out to this house in the middle of nowhere with no Internet and no cell signal is that the footage is too fragile to move. So, we may ask, how did the footage originally get from NYC out to this house in the first place if it’s soooo fragile? And also, these are Hi8 tapes, plastic-encased tapes that could easily be put in foam-lined cases and brought wherever pretty easily. It ain’t nitrate film from the early 1900s. Also, this dude, Virgil, works in a giant midtown Manhattan building with the name of his company, L.M.G, in huge letters on the side of it. Seems a weird move for a company that’s “shadowy” and trying to stay under the radar to buy an office tower and stick 100-foot high letters on the outside advertising they’re on the inside.
I swear, I’m getting to it. This show, when I think back on it, is kind of bonkers. It’s this amalgam of horror/occult, mystery, sci-fi and supernatural with a bit of multiverse and possibly time travel thrown in. I mean, they throw the kitchen sink at this thing. It zigs and zags, but in this very controlled way. And I don’t know if it’s a matter of being a lower budget endeavor, or if it’s intentional, but with all of this there are very few giant set pieces or crazy-ass action scenes. It’s very insular and, often, kind of quiet. Much of this had to do with Athie’s acting style, which seems to involve him being very still and precise with what movements he does make. He projects power and intensity without having to constantly yell or throw himself around. Much like he did in his turn as Basterd The Antichrist in the indie flick, Patti Cake$.
I won’t go too much into the plot, as it’s almost too complicated to explain, and I could possibly spoil things accidentally. But suffice it to say that Dan sits out in this creepy house in the woods watching these 25-year-old tapes of a woman in an equally creepy apartment building. And through this, the two create this cosmic connection across time and space. And, you know what, I don’t think I could explain that shit even if I wanted to. Pushing on Dan is the aforementioned evil rich dude, Virgil, who continues to mysteriously fund Dan’s stay at the house, along with paying his salary to document what is on these damaged tapes of Melody’s. The question is, who is this Virgil dude, why is he having Dan bring them back to life and what is it he hopes to get from them? Or does he even hope that Dan succeeds in recovering the footage in the first place? We don’t know. And even when we do find out his motives, it’s still a bit fuzzy. By the end, though, we do generally understand who’s on what team. Maybe.
This may all sound pretty simple, but I left out all the wackiness that wends its way through the narrative. There are comets, cults, magic mold, ancient interdimensional deities, exorcisms, seances, snuff films, demons, psych wards and witches. It’s a lot. Both to keep track of, as well as to stuff into eight episodes of television. The way they left it, they’re certainly expecting a season two, so I wish they’d pulled back a little bit to give things some breathing room. Not that the pacing was hectic per se — in fact, sometimes it was utterly glacial — but they still managed to get a lot of story into those eight hours. Maybe a little too much story as we headed toward the conclusion of the season. Because the first few episodes were riveting, mainly because the mystery built in this very creeping manner. Which made it feel unlike a lot of shows out there. But once they kind of hit the gas three quarters of the way in, it sped a little out of control and was tough to keep up with. I really did enjoy myself, however. And they did leave it in a really interesting place to set themselves up for season two. I do hope they’re able to dial things back a little bit and really focus less on the over-complicated blood sacrifices and gods and stuff and bring it back to Dan and Melody and how and why they are connected in this bizarro universe.