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Dan looking at a CRT TV bathed in blue light Photo: Clifton Prescod/Netflix

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What the best found-footage stories all have in common that Archive 81 misses

The Netflix show is at its eeriest when it’s in the uncanny valley

Archive 81 opens on a woman begging into the camera, frantically making her plea through the distortion spat out by a mid-’90s camcorder. The frame is cramped. There are flickers and black lines of noise. We are primed, in this moment, for a series that’s in touch with the limitations of old media and the things that may hide in its flickering crevices. The footage in question is ostensibly part of an anthropological project on residents of the Visser apartment building, and it’s being restored by analog enthusiast Dan Turner (Mamoudou Athie) at the behest of a shifty benefactor. He has to do it at a remote facility because the tapes are too damaged to transport, burned in a fire that destroyed the Visser.

The woman is Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi), the grad student responsible for much of the footage. At first, we only see her through the grainy video she shot, in sharp contrast to the crisp, present-day scenes of Dan fiddling with his tools, unspooling tape and taking cartridges apart with his gloved hands. As the series goes on and Dan fixes and then digitizes the tapes one by one, he learns what she learned: The Visser plays host to a supernatural cult.

But before that, Archive 81 does something unexpected. Not halfway into the first episode, we unceremoniously leave the confines of Melody’s viewfinder and watch her point the camera around a New York City street. The found-footage conceit melts away, the crummy picture quality traded for a past whose clarity hardly differs from the show’s color-desaturated present. It’s a contrast that’s jarring in all the wrong ways, indicative of the show to come: a story bursting with evocative potential that largely misses the opportunity to use its multiple forms of media to their fullest extent.

Melody filming herself in a mirror in a still from Archive 81 Photo: Netflix

Admittedly, the heyday of found-footage movies has long passed. The genre became oversaturated by cheap, derivative films that tended to come out in Octobers and Januarys. These days, the format only crops up occasionally, often to supplement a story otherwise told in a more traditional format, like Archive 81. Certainly the format has limitations, and it’s not difficult to imagine that Archive 81’s halfhearted employment of found footage may be a concession to those limitations — the podcast it’s based on is made up entirely of in-universe audio recordings.

Found footage is known for rarely holding up to scrutiny, either because of small details like inexplicable music cues, or because it rarely offers a plausible reason for anyone to keep filming rather than sensibly dropping their camera and running for the exit. Sensitive conversations are frequently and easily recorded through slightly open doors, and the camera always falls in such a way that we still get a look at the gross, scary things the camera-holder couldn’t face. Better, maybe, for Archive 81 to do away with most of it rather than weathering the potential shortcomings and the strain to justify why someone would have a camera in every scene.

But the show’s solution doesn’t smooth over that awkwardness — in fact, it invites it, requiring us to watch Melody awkwardly tote her camera everywhere. From the typical first-person viewpoint, it’s not something we think about as often. Seen from the outside, it’s strange to watch someone point her camera at people who are all curiously on board with being invasively filmed.

We do, however, empathize a little more with Melody when we can actually see her, as opposed to just glimpsing her in mirrors and hearing a voice behind the camera. The show does present one minor character entirely through found footage, which seems like a concession that the format works in terms of creating atmosphere, but not so much when stretched across eight episodes. If we need to care about Melody, we need to see her. And when we’re seeing and identifying with her, moments like another dinner guest clawing at her own face gain an additional layer of concern. We fear what may happen to Melody the person much more than we might have feared for Melody as a depersonalized voice behind the camera.

Two characters in Archive 81 talking to each other in a bedroom Photo: Clifton Prescod/Netflix

When done right, however, found-footage horror can be incredibly effective, puncturing the filmmaking conventions we’ve grown numb to through repeated exposure. Not only does a film like Koji Shiraishi’s Noroi: The Curse leverage the gritty imperfections of old media, it builds a plausible world by interspersing footage from such eclectic formats as game shows, using onscreen text to present itself in a somewhat sensationalistic, amateurish mode before the genuinely freaky things occur. One of the characters is even an actress playing herself.

Likewise, The Blair Witch Project was famously supplemented by a TV documentary treating the events as real, featuring interviews and documents that carefully built a believable backstory. Touches like this are even effective in lesser efforts: The Poughkeepsie Tapes presents itself as a true-crime documentary that intersperses a serial killer’s gruesome home movies into the action, while The Tunnel uses interviews and security-camera footage as it follows an ill-fated news crew.

The best uses of found footage draw us in to the point that we stop thinking about their little tricks and implausibilities, and even use these obstacles to their advantage or outright address them. The protagonist of Murder Death Koreatown is made detestable because he is constantly filming when he really should not be. Diary of the Dead includes narration from the film’s editor, who explains which cameras were used and why she has added music for effect.

Most of all, though, the presence of an in-film camera handled by the characters onscreen makes us aware of all that we might not be seeing. The format creates empty space for something to be potentially lurking within, while still staying out of frame. A limited POV is claustrophobic, and it can make us feel appropriately trapped. We fear what we imagine is being withheld, and this is what makes Archive 81 such potentially fertile ground for the format. Not only does the series implement found footage, it uses found footage steeped in the imperfections of old recording methods, like a silent film from the 1920s, or snippets shot with a short-lived black-and-white camera made for children. The format excels at giving the impression that the viewers are there within the movie’s space. We see this best in Archive 81’s early episodes, when the series will show things like Melody setting up interviews, or idly filming the contents of her own apartment. But as the series goes on, this eerie rendition of the past as filtered through a camera appears less and less, as though it was no more than a buffer between flashback sequences.

Dan watching a video of Melody in a still from Archive 81 Photo: Netflix

That may sound like a nitpick, but the problem isn’t necessarily about logic. Within the concept of the show, it more or less makes sense; the more Dan watches Melody’s footage, the more drawn in he becomes, to the point where he begins having visions of her. We can rationalize the clear-as-day flashbacks as the sort of thing he sees in his mind; he’s filling in the blanks.

But that’s the issue with Archive 81. By letting us not only see outside the camera view, but see it very clearly, the show fills in all the blanks. Its clear visions of the past are so much less atmospheric than its occluded ones. They lack the power of suggestion that helps create the dread of horror fiction. Think of something like The Ring, with its decayed video tape with distorted picture and sound. It looks like an awful portal to another place. Then, when a hair-monster crawls out of the television static and into reality, we learn that’s exactly what it is. The imperfection and fuzziness of old media like videotapes or worn strips of film work to obscure the onscreen image, as though we’re trying to view something through a grimy window.

Among independent horror games, it’s popular to imitate the style of rudimentary PlayStation 1-era polygons under a similar ethos — we project powerfully imagined horrors onto the sparse imagery. And last year alone, several films took advantage of analog media to similar ends. Broadcast Signal Intrusion took its inspiration from the unsolved 1987 signal hijackings that featured a man in a Max Headroom mask, while Censor uses cramped aspect ratios and blurry picture to tell a story centered on Britain’s “video nasty” moral panic about the availability of violent horror movies on VHS. The Empty Man, while set in the present day, includes a lot of scrounging of old media. The tension comes from images that are, to us, inadequate and unclear. We find something unsettling about these imperfect depictions, in much the same way that so many horror movies feature a creepy drawing by a child. We imagine what’s not there.

Someone working on a piece of technology with tools to restore it, shot from above Photo: Netflix
Melody shot through her camera in a grainy still from Archive 81 Photo: Netflix
A cult looking at their idol in a still from Archive 81 Photo: Netflix

For additional effect, the use of blurry footage and fuzzy pictures offers a stark and unsettling contrast to our view of the investigator sifting through them. The camera of a film or a TV show tends to push in on these images until they become grotesque, like they’re not meant to be stared at for so long in such close proximity. The world should not be so still, so motionless; under extended observation, the unnatural qualities grow more and more apparent until it’s all we notice. Archive 81 appears, on some level, to be aware of this effect as it indulges in the same tricks. Most of the TV episodes even open with period recreations of things like a ’90s newscast, a movie review show, or even a black-and-white Twilight Zone imitator. We are meant to see shapes in the static and the noise. But just as the show drops the distortion of the found-footage flashbacks, in season 1 these moments are only ever a buffer, a little splash of flavor that washes out quickly.

There’s a certain irony to the fact that a Netflix-exclusive series predicates itself on the texture of older media formats. Like similar works, Archive 81 ends up arguing that this media has a tactile quality that isn’t easily replicated by a mouse cursor moving over a folder icon, or the interface of a streaming service. It supplies visual actions and visual interest for a visual medium: Tapes must be removed from players, reels must be changed, file cabinets opened, papers flipped through. Plenty of thrillers have used this to their advantage, featuring reams of tape, stacks of documents, strings of photos in darkrooms. They provide the physical representation of what a character has done and what they’re up against. Perhaps, then, it is appropriate that Archive 81’s first season never quite puts its finger on the greatest strengths of analog-style horror, that it’s mostly a decoration around what’s ultimately a fairly straightforward horror series.