Archive81 proved a surprise Netflix hit, a slowburn horror series that wears a number of influences on its sleeve: Rosemary’s Baby, The Shining, The Ring, The Twilight Zone, Alex Garland, David Lynch and Mike Flanagan. Never less than engaging (thanks primarily to superb lead performances and polished production values) the cumulative effect over eight episodes is like playing a game of genre Bingo: witches, haunted houses, cult rituals, cursed recordings, spooky corridors, snuff films, evil tomes, seances and sacrifices, possibly mad and unreliable narrators, and ancient evil deities. The last ingredient, readers may recognize, marks the series’ most conspicuous influence: the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft.
BEWARE: SPOILERS AHEAD…
Based on a podcast of the same name, the setup is simple: Dan (Mamoudou Athi, restrained and compelling), a film archivist/restorer, is hired by the CEO of a shadowy company to recover videotape footage damaged in a fire. Offered $100,000 and the use of a remote Catskills compound (with up-to-date video technology but predictably no wi-fi and spotty cell phone service), Dan immerses himself in the “found footage” recorded in 1994 by Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi, spirited and vulnerable), an NYU graduate student working on a thesis project about mysterious New York apartment building, The Visser. Gradually she — and by vicarious videotape extension, Dan — discover that the Visser houses a cult that worships an alien deity and is bent on opening an apocalyptic gateway between worlds.
Lovecraft & Fear
The nature of the cult and the deity it worships evokes Lovecraft, best known for the “Cthulhu Mythos” in which a menacing race of ancient aliens (the “Great Old Ones”) threatens unwitting humans from the “shadow-haunted Outside” beyond the known universe. The showrunners offer their own clever twist on the mythos, inventing a cosmic demon god, Kaelego, and a ritual that takes place when a certain meteor passes near the earth, thinning the “veil” between worlds. (The design of the Kaelego statuette might be a subtle nod to Lovecraft’s 1934 sketch of Cthulhu.) The strange, iridescent mold growing in the Visser recalls the alien meteorite in “The Colour Out of Space,” which blights the landscape and drives those who encounter it to madness. Filmmaking duo Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead directed two episodes of the series, further tying the sensibility to Lovecraft. Their 2017 sci-fi horror film, The Endless, featured an epigraph from Lovecraft: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
Inevitably, once the “unknown” becomes “known” the effect—like a law of storytelling physics—is underwhelming. The last episode veers into silliness as the all-powerful Kaelego is glimpsed as a kitschy CGI monster. A final twist, with the main characters swapping timelines, seems both arbitrary and not exactly horrifying (although, admittedly, some might imagine waking up in 1994 to be the ultimate in cosmic horror). For the majority of its eight episodes, however, Archive81 sustains a palpable mood of menace and tense, simmering uncertainty, hinting at horrors beyond the ken of its sympathetic protagonists.
Anxiety of Influence
Above all, the series raises the question of Lovecraft’s enduring influence and appeal. There is so much to object to in Lovecraft—the silly names (“Yog-Sothoth”, “Nyarlathotep”), purple prose, and noxious racism, for starters— that it’s miraculous, in a way, that his influence has not only survived but thrived across the media spectrum of books, graphic novels, movies, television and video games.
The explanation may be simple: that in spite of the puerility and purpleness of the prose (some would argue because of them), Lovecraft manages to communicate a deeply unsettling, uncanny sense that beneath civilization’s veneer lurks an indescribable chthonic chaos of brutality, evil and fear. “Life is a hideous thing,” he wrote, “and from the background behind what we know peer demoniacal hints of truth which make it a thousand-fold more hideous.” A bleak sentiment, no doubt (don’t read Lovecraft for consolation — his writing has the opposite effect of those UV light therapy lamps), but a bracing one that resonates in the age of existential threats like pandemics and climate change.
For my money, the most effective update of Lovecraft for the 21st century is Victor LaValle’s masterful novella, The Ballad of Black Tom, which manages to distill the best of Lovecraft by confronting (rather than ignoring) the xenophobia and racism in his writing. But I’ll save a discussion of that for another (bleak, rainy, cosmically horrific) day…
I read some Lovecraft moons ago, as a teenager, and found him altogether repellent. There seems to be no Good in his universe, only malevolent (or at least indifferent) Old Ones behind everything–“higher powers” that can at best be placated. I think you’re correct that the renewed fascination for this type of horror is indicative of our present-day anomie–the sense of being unmoored from all the old realities without being able to find new bearings. It reminds me of Einstein’s comment (can’t remember the exact wording) that the biggest question of them all is “whether the Universe is benevolent.” Something like that.
On that strange note, it’s remarkable that there are actually small groups out there who take the whole Cthulhu mythos (and its near-relatives) quite seriously, and who wrap their lives around the Cthulhu cult. (See for instance https://entertainment.howstuffworks.com/arts/literature/cthulhu3.htm) That these groups often dovetail with various forms of Satanism and sometimes far-right politics should, I suppose, be no surprise, but disturbing for all that. (Contrast that, e.g., with the “world” of Stephen King, where one always senses the existence of an option for choosing Light or Good in the darkness.).
I’m curious: Does Archive81 deal at all with that “option”?
Sometimes i think the whole point of the horror genre is to give us the opportunity to confront our terrors, and the evils we all know exist, first on the level of imagination, so we can better make sense of it in the real world. But Lovecraftian horror never seems to make room for choices other than submission or seduction…or am I misremembering, or misunderstanding? Maybe I should pick it up again for a new look.
I agree that horror, at its best, is a philosophical genre, posing questions about grief, loss, the afterlife, the nature of good and evil, the limits of human knowledge, and so on. This is probably what makes Lovecraft compelling to some creators today, if repellent to others: his writing poses the fundamental question: is the universe malevolent? One might not like Lovecraft’s answer (or even the question) but it’s an idea that resonates in our time of pandemics and climate extinction, to say nothing of the horrors of the 20th century. I think a writer like Victor LaValle in “The Ballad of Black Tom” managed to write a very “Lovecraftian” novella while essentially turning the source material on its head.
Thinking about Archive81, a comparison with another popular Netflix horror series, Midnight Mass, is instructive. MM owes much more to Stephen King (and Mike Flanagan’s Catholic upbringing) than to Lovecraft. There’s a sense in Midnight Mass of a metaphysical battle between good and evil that allows for human agency, often in the form of self-sacrifice. Archive81 has sympathetic protagonists who are arguably more proactive than Lovecraft’s — his “heroes” tend to exist almost in a passive dream-state with tendencies to fainting spells! — but in a way this made for a bit of a muddled climax. The show was more successful, in my view, in its early episodes when it committed to mood and atmosphere over conventional plotting / action. In other words, maybe the showrunners tried to have it both ways and should gone either “full Lovecraft” or embraced more of a Stephen King approach.
Indeed, the question of whether the Universe is malevolent or benevolent might be the bottom-line question behind all horror. And a lot of spec fic and SFF as well.
We’re still in the middle of Midnight Mass–fascinated but a little freaked out. We got sidetracked, but I’m eager to finish it, come what may. It makes me think of biblical passages such as “even the Elect may be deceived,” or “even if an angel from heaven should preach another Gospel, let him be accursed.” Something like that. (A cautionary tale about mystical experiences filtered through human weakness and desire…?) I’m eager to see where Flanagan goes with it! Either way, you gotta love a show that’s willing to spend ten precious minutes of screen time on two guys sitting on folding chairs, discussing the problem of evil in re the existence of God.
Haydn, such a thoughtful and eloquently sculpted piece about this topic of cosmic horror.
It is a genre that I find difficult to “enter.” I so appreciate your careful, nuanced treatment.
Awaiting “another (bleak, rainy, cosmically horrific) day… ” when you share your thoughts about Victor LaValle’s masterful novella, The Ballad of Black Tom, which manages to distill the best of Lovecraft by confronting (rather than ignoring) the xenophobia and racism in his writing.