Sunday, January 23, 2022

Review: Archive 81

There's a lot of material on the streaming services these days, so when something appears which is actually really good, it's worth shouting about.

Netflix's ARCHIVE81 is such a show! It's an 8 part, hour long set of episodes, chronicling the story of a man named Daniel (Mamoudou Athie) who is hired by Virgil Davenport (Martin Donavan) of a company called salvage and preserve a set of Hi8 video tapes recorded back in 1994 by a woman named Melody (Dina Shihabi) ... it's all tied in with an apartment building in New York called the Visser which was destroyed by fire, and what happened to Melody at that time ... As Dan digs deeper, so he finds himself reliving Melody's nightmare as she investigates the Visser for an oral history of the place as part of her PhD. She records everything on her video camera and so it's all there to be salvaged and played back in the present day.

The strangeness starts to emerge as Virgil seems to know that Dan's family was killed in a fire when he was a child, and also that Dan must work out of a deserted facility in the middle of nowhere ... with no contact with the outside world. Dan's father appears on Melody's tapes proving that he's somehow involved in it all ... and a young girl, Jess (Ariana Neal) who helps Melody make contact with some of the apartment's residents also seems involved somehow.

As the episodes progress we're introduced to a strange cult operating out of the Visser, worshipping an ancient icon, and using an unnerving aural chant to invoke a fugue-like state ... And the mystery piles on as more people are introduced, including a present-day Melody who turns out to be an impersonator, Melody's friend Annabelle (Julia Chan) starts drawing images of a mystery-woman who turns out to be the original leader of the cult ...

I'm not going to say much more as the complexity and twists and turns of the production are one of it's strengths. It's got a great structure, with Dan in the present day looking back at Melody in 1994, and Melody in turn is seeing things from 1924 ... it's something of a crash of years and ideas as this icon-worship has persisted through the years and forms a backbone for the narrative.  Another strength is the sound design - and as part of the ritual is a strange humming cadence, this is used, along with a simple yet chilling note sequence in the music and sound design, so that the whole production becomes permeated with dread and horror as you watch. It's very clever.

The show is based on a podcast, also called Archive81, which can be found on Apple Podcasts (, and all major podcast apps. The Archive81 Wiki explains that it's a found footage horror podcast created by Dead Signals about ritual, stories, and sound. It describes the Podcast thus: After Daniel Powell goes missing following employment by the Housing Historical Committee of New York State, his friend Mark Sollinger receives hundreds of hours of audio of his archiving there. The audio, released by Mark in the form of the podcast, documents Dan's listening to an extensive collection of cassette tapes, containing interviews from a high-rise apartment building in 1994. So it certainly has a similar background to the TV show.

I found the show totally engrossing, and very creepy. As Dan listens and watches the old tapes back, alone and isolated in this strange compound, so we visit 1994 with Melody ... and when Dan and Melody actually meet and interact, then you know that some deeply weird stuff is going down here ... each episode brings something new, and the nightmare deepens the farther you get.

If I had one complaint, it is that I would have given the last half hour or so a good script polish as there are elements there which just leave questions hanging as to what actually happened, and you don't want that after 8 hours of great drama.  It's telling that there's already an article on DigitalSpy explaining the ending, and the search is also one of the selections on Google - it seems a lot of people felt the same way as I did ... what did happen?  And that's not really what you want.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Review: Jack In The Box: Awakening (2021)

The Jack in the Box
 was a fairly decent 2019 film, now available on Prime. The premise was simple, there's a 'haunted' Jack in the Box toy, which, if opened, allows the demon within to emerge and to take 6 victims. 

Written and directed by Lawrence Fowler, the film manages to stay serious, and also manages to add a pretty decent new villain to the great horror pantheon ... though quite why this demonic Jack is claiming all these victims isn't clear ... 

Move forward a couple of years, and now we have The Jack in the Box: Awakening, a sequel of sorts, but one where Fowler seems to forget the rules he established in the first film, and now presents the demonic toy as some sort of wish-granting entity. The box has been obtained by the son (Matt McClure) of a dying old lady (Nicola Wright) and she opens the box.  The demon (James Swanton) will then take 6 lives, and once this has been done, it will grant her a wish - to be well again.

And thus the film plays out as per the first, with a variety of people: cooks, housekeepers etc being stalked and taken by the Demon ... strangely as this happens, so the old woman seems to get better ... looks like her wish is being granted as the killings progress ... But will she gain her health again at the end? And will feisty housemaid Amy (Mollie Hindle) win out? You'll have to watch to find out!

The main downside to watching was that on the preview copy, they had decided to put the text SCREENING PURPOSES ONLY over the bottom quarter of the screen, all the way through ... very distracting!

I enjoyed the first film a lot. I felt it showed promise, and had a nice, simple premise. Certainly it's cut from the same cloth as many other films from Hellraiser to Wishmaster and so on, but the makeup is good on Jack, and the actor playing him is suitable creepy.  I was reminded too of the 2018 Channel Zero season The Dream Door which featured the character of Pretzel Jack ... only that was far superior!

The sequel however is to be commended for not just rerunning the same plot as the first film, but also in trying to find a new angle, the writer/director seems to have played fast and loose with his 'rules' ... and the problem with that is then your franchise starts to lose credibility ... You need to stick with the rules and legend you have created, and only expand ... you can't start changing....

THE JACK IN THE BOX: AWAKENING is out now on Digital & DVD in the UK and available in the US on January 18th 2022