Archive 81: an Urban Wyrd Review

Archive 81 is a 2022 Netflix series developed by Rebecca Sonnenshine based upon the podcast of the same name created by Daniel Powell and Marc Sollinger (which I have not listened to as of yet, so cannot compare in this article).

Its premise follows the recruitment of Dan Turner (Mamadoudou Athie) as an electronic media conservator tasked with restoring fire-damaged videotapes shot by missing film maker Melody Pendras (Dina Shihabi).

The show encompasses numerous elements of the Urban Wyrd. Apparently the term Urban Wyrd has caused confusion amongst some people, so it may be worthwhile to briefly explain the concept again here.
The Urban Wyrd designation was created and first contemplated by author & film-maker Adam Scovell on his Celluloid Wickerman website and was developed /investigated further in the pair of multi-contributor Folk Horror Revival: Urban Wyrd books published by Wyrd Harvest Press.
The Urban Wyrd is not ‘folk horror in a city’ though elements may sometimes be shared, and it was in reference and relationship to folk horror that the discussion first arose.

Urban Wyrd is not a genre, but a mode that relates to the incidence of the Uncanny, the Weird and the Eerie with specific relationship to the built-up environment, particular buildings, liminal edge-lands (such as motorway motels, service stations and sometimes suburbia) and/or to technology (including analogue and outdated forms).

The Urban Wyrd is frequently to be found where concepts such as Hauntology and Psychogeography occur on film, literature, music and art (both in the original academic remit of these subjects and in the development of their pop-cultural aesthetic).
The Urban Wyrd mode may therefore be applicable to narratives and/or imagery featuring haunted houses, uncanny urban geography & architecture (including transport stations and underpasses etc.) as well as haunted media (photography, digital, video etc) and also to supernatural, folkloric and/or occult excursions/infiltration into the modern world. Psychological relationships to the environment or technology may also be a factor. Concepts of time are also frequently a consideration.

(As with Folk Horror), ambience, aesthetic and that certain ineffable something that you may struggle to verbalise but know when you see, hear or feel it may also be apparent in items featuring modes of Urban Wyrd.
The concept of the Urban Wyrd is not a strict label or manifesto but more-so a feature or features that can be used to associate different films or media that share these similar themes, aesthetics or elements. Although it can be a topic for academic study, the designation of Urban Wyrd can and should be more widely and generally used as a handy way for people who like one film or book or song or artwork using the motifs described to find others featuring them that they may also enjoy.
Many of these elements just mentioned can be found in Archive 81.

Without giving too many spoilers away, a resume of Article 81 follows.
Dan is employed by a company named LMG to go to a remote complex to repair and restore a quantity of damaged video tapes filmed by Melody Pendras – a young woman who went missing in the 1990s following a fire at the Visser building, an apartment block built on the foundations (and history) of a former mansion belonging to the enigmatic Vos family. Melody is drawn there on a tip-off that her birth mother who abandoned her as a baby was a resident there. Family history plays a role within this drama which follows several different narratives apparently separated by time but united by people and place. As Dan delves further into his work he discovers a link to his own family and realises his task is far more than just being a regular job.

The show flits between found-footage and several story-lines occurring at different periods of time and also dream-narratives. The footage itself and its strange qualities is reminiscent of Koji Suzuki’s ‘Ringu’ (adapted to film in 1998 by Hideo Nakata and remade in 2002 by Gore Verbinski as ‘The Ring’) and whilst being quite a creature in its own right, Archive 81 wears its inspirations and influences on its sleeve. Rather than being derivative though a further meta narrative is added to the mix giving another layer for viewers and fans to mull over. We see references to movies as diverse as ‘Solaris’, ‘Night of the Living Dead’, ‘Ministry of Fear’ and even ‘The Secret of Nimh’. Stephen King’s 1977 novel ‘The Shining’ is referenced and similarities can be drawn between the show and Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 cinematic reworking of King’s book. The Visser Apartment/ Vos Mansion bears similarity with ‘The Shining”s Overlook hotel with its winding corridors, dark history, art-deco soirees and the feeling that the building is haunted not simply by the people that died there but by its own brooding character. Association can also be drawn to Ira Levin’s 1967 novel / Roman Polanski’s 1968 film ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ with its mysterious apartment neighbours and occult ritual occurrences. Indeed there are elements of Polanski’s other Apartment Trilogy films ‘Repulsion’ (1965) and ‘The Tenant’ (1976) to be found in Archive 81’s make-up also.

There are also non-film associations that can be found in Archive 81 which will be of interest to those curious in the different aspects of the Urban Wyrd mode and also in wider aspects of the occult and paranormal outside of fiction.
The inclusion of Spirit Photography and Psychic Art works on both an aesthetic and narrative level. The name of the art group as Spirit Receivers and the examples of much the art shown seems strongly to allude to the book ‘World Receivers‘ which details the works of Georgiana Houghton. Hilma Af Klint and Emma Kunz – three artists of the 20th Century whose paintings were conducted through spiritual mediumship. (Another good book on that subject is Not Without My Ghosts and for Spirit Photography an excellent book is The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult).

In reference to pop-Hauntology (ie. that form associated to examples of popular culture as explored by Mark Fisher rather than the original political-philosophy form devised by Jacques Derrida) Archive 81 features strongly there both in aesthetic and topics covered. The attention to analogue technology, the literal ghost in the machine and genii loci – spirits of place; brings to mind ‘Ringu’ as mentioned previously, but also Nigel Kneale and Peter Sasdy’s 1972 TV play ‘The Stone Tape’ and the Electronic Voice Phenomenon {EVP} experimental studies pioneered by Friedrich Jürgenson, Hans Bender and Konstantin Raudive) have a strong hauntological quality as does the element of the movement of time that occurs within the unfolding tale. This is continued in the sound design brilliantly crafted by composer Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow (one of the geniuses behind the Excellent Trip-Hop outfit Portishead). The combination of atmospheric music, drone and other aural invocations and evocations helps to induce a sense of unsettling perception – almost to the verge of inducing anxiety in the viewer (I myself have found myself ear-worming the prayer-song); this attention to sound likens Archive 81 to other films with significant Urban Wyrd content such as ‘Sinister’ and ‘Berberian Sound Studio’ (which also share the themes of uncanny elements within the actual media of film and video), and also to the works of David Lynch. The stilted slow dialogue also is reminiscent of the cinema of David Lynch and some of Stanley Kubrick’s work (‘The Shining’ and ‘Eyes Wide Shut’) however at times it does heighten the awareness of it being acted and therein lies a question as to how well the show was cast. There is another point however that lots of viewers have seemed to take issue with and that is the season’s finale. Again without giving away Spoilers, I personally don’t have a problem if that is how the show ends totally, although I do have a question /issue as to one of the character’s actions which culminated in that conclusion. The ending however does allow potential for the narrative to resume and develop further if Netflix decide to green light another season.

All in all, I enjoyed the series, it ticked numerous other interest boxes of mine and I was impressed by its techniques aimed to unsettle. Aesthetically I liked it, though for some of the special effects I personally would have opted for a more Less is More approach and it has inspired me to give the original Podcast a listen.

Reviewed by Andy Paciorek

Yellowjackets: Season 1 Review

The premise of the Showtime series Yellowjackets following the 1996 stranding of a team of female high-school football (soccer) players, their coaches and one of the coach’s 2 teenage sons following a plane crash in a remote Canadian forest and the ensuing tribalism, primal instinct and desperate endeavour to survive, echoes tales such as William Golding’s 1954 novel ‘The Lord of The Flies’ (adapted to film in 1963, 1975 and 1990), the TV show ‘Lost’ (2004 -2010), the book and TV series ‘The Terror’ (adapted from Dan Simmons’ 2007 book in 2018) which was based on the true 1845 case of the disappearance of the ships HMS Terror and HMS Erebus in the Canadian Northwest Passage and the 1993 film ‘Alive’ directed by Frank Marshall which was based upon the true-life 1972 airplane crash that left members of the Uruguayan Old Christians Rugby Union Team stranded in the snow of the Andes for 72 days, (in which time cannibalism of those who did not survive the crash and aftermath was resorted to as a tragic but necessary means of survival).
Add to the mix, the female coming of age drama of offbeat teen films such as ‘Heathers’ or ‘The Craft’ and that gives the basic gist of Yellowjackets.
It is seasoned however with aesthetic and cult/occult elements of folk horror and also crime thriller action as the story also picks up in the present day following the lives of several of the survivors and how they are still haunted by the 19 horrific months they spent in the wilderness.

The narrative of the show flits between different periods of time in the main characters’ lives – before the crash – during their wilderness time – and 25 years later – so we see some of the roles played both by teen/young adult and middle aged actresses. This provides for good drama as we see the evolution of their inter-personal relationships which in adulthood here are as complex as their adolescent times – more-so because of what the weird feral period they shared and the strange experiences they have lived through. Experiences which are teased out slowly with a lot of speculation and anticipation inspired within the viewing community.

In the adult casting there is good interaction between some actresses familiar to the horror/ weird genres with Juliette Lewis cast as Nat (an off-off the wagon substance abuser who as played by Sophie Thatcher was an alternative teenager who despite their mutual love of football, was left-field to the other girls), Christina Ricci as Misty ( acted by Sammi Hanratty as a teen, another girl on the social fringes who desperately wants to fit in but as the story develops we discover alarming facets of her character) and Melanie Lynskey (perhaps known best in this community for her childhood role as Pauline Parker in Peter Jackson’s 1994 ‘Heavenly Creatures’, a retelling of a true murder case whereby childhood innocence was lost forever) as Shauna who both in adulthood and as a youth (played by Sophie Nelisse) has a complex relationship with sex and loyalty. The other adult survivor we encounter mostly in Season 1 is Taissa (played by Tawny Cypress and Jasmin Savoy Brown) a strong-willed character who has made a success in her life, both in law practice and then as a senate candidate; however her life is more haunted than she may project.

Melanie Lynskey as Shauna in YELLOWJACKETS, “F Sharp”. Photo credit: Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME.

Other characters also lay paths of intrigue – Ben the only adult male and team coach to survive the crash, Van, Laura Lee – a born-again Christian and the enigmatic and mystical Lottie. I will not drop major spoilers but we are left curious wondering to how the fates of these characters will play out (there apparently being 5 seasons of the show planned, there is much to be revealed in time).

Juliette Lewis as Natalie in YELLOWJACKETS, “F Sharp”. Photo credit: Kailey Schwerman/SHOWTIME.

But there is another element to Yellowjackets and that is the presence of folk horror motifs. Following the discovery of an old seemingly-abandoned cabin in the woods, things begin to take an even stranger turn than the nightmare of being trapped miles from anywhere with an encroaching hard season and limited supplies, from having to pull dead friends, colleagues and in one instance a parent from the wreckage site of a plane crash and bury them. The cabin has a history and a mystery. A supernatural presence is in play, but is it real or the imaginative manifestation of traumatised, stressed minds? Was it there inherent, in the cabin – in the woods, or brought to the site by one or more of the team? Whatever it was did it stay there or did it follow the eventual survivors back to ‘civilisation’?

From the opening scenes of the very first episode we encounter a girl being hunted down in the snow, we see a fireside rite of fur-clothed and masked figures. We are led to believe that ritual cannibalism occurs (we are led to believe certain things throughout the series however only for the paths we are following to change direction) but certainly a new (or old?) religion starts to fall upon the survivors’ camp and tribute paid to gods of dirt and sky. A religion reluctant to stay in the woods perhaps. And who is the figure named by fans as the Antler Queen? The season leads us to believe it is a certain member of the team, but can we be sure that we have not been led on a path with branches and chicanes?
And then there is the symbol. A mysterious sigil that seems to have predated the team’s descent into the forest but has followed them out of it, appearing on a postcard involved in a blackmail plot that several members.

I enjoyed the show and its genre-bending style and look forward to season 2.

Review by Andy Paciorek