‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ is dark, silly, scary, and wonderful

Oct 24, 2018 at 1:00 am
‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ is dark, silly, scary and wonderful
Courtesy photo

Born from the subversive reimagining of the Archie comics that is the hit CW series Riverdale (which just started its third season), Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a hot new Netflix series just in time for Halloween. Is it a "reboot" of ABC sitcom Sabrina the Teenage Witch? Not so much, but fans may recognize some characters (including Salem, the cat). Based on a comic series written by showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, this newly-imagined Sabrina brews a potion similar to the one that has made Riverdale so popular: adolescent sexual tension, identity exploration, and the eternal middle class teenage struggle of doing what's right and doing what's expected of you. But where Riverdale's dark tone is supplanted with subversive humor and a giddy wholesomeness, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (CAOS, heh heh) is full-on horror, with the violence, suspense, and occult trappings to go with it.

Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka, Mad Men) is about to turn 16, which, being half-witch and half-mortal, means she is also required to undergo a "dark baptism" that requires her to leave her mortal existence behind. The town of Greendale has a history of witchcraft, as 13 accused witches were hanged in the woods in 1692. But very few of the town's residents know this secret history, and the witches, still practicing their dark arts, like it that way, including Sabrina's family. Her aunts Hilda (Lucy Davis, The Office) and Zelda (Miranda Otto, Return of the King) run a mortuary, with the help of cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), in a huge, spooky mansion on the outskirts of town. It's not clear why they're British and Sabrina is American, but Hilda and Ambrose are rather sweet and eccentric, while Zelda is cold and domineering. Preparing Sabrina for her baptism, Hilda makes a green herbal drink containing tannis root, a clear reference to Rosemary's Baby, and that's only one of many cheeky nods to various classic horror films.

Sabrina's cute boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch) is devoted to her, and she can't quite figure out how to tell him that she'll have to leave school and her friends behind in just a few days to fulfill her destiny as a witch. Meanwhile, her friend Susie (Lachlan Watson, a non-binary actor) is being bullied by jocks, and her friend Rosalind (Jaz Sinclair) wants to form a club to dismantle the white patriarchy. Despite the timeless look due to its old cars, gothic mansions, and hints of Victorian style in the costumes (especially on a trio of young witches from the Academy of Unseen Arts, with the Colonial-era witchy names of Prudence, Agatha and Dorcas), the series is awash in topical themes. Standing up to bullying from all corners seems to be Sabrina's superpower and tragic flaw.

The show's visuals are delightful, with many nods to Riverdale's eclectic, detailed backdrop. But I did notice some odd moments, such as when Sabrina and Harvey go apple picking (Sabrina must find a specific tree for a divination spell), and the orchard's trees are covered in white blossoms. I was reminded of 1973's The Wicker Man, where filming a blossoming orchard meant tying flowering branches onto trees in frigid Scottish weather: Timing is everything, as any witch (or production designer) can tell you. But occasional inaccuracies aside, audiences are sure to love the show's look, like a Hammer horror film drenched in rich colors and ambient lighting.

Each episode (of the several I saw) ends on a satisfyingly suspenseful note, guaranteeing late-night binge-watching for horror fans. The episodes do feel a bit long however, most clocking in just under an hour, and I felt like the storytelling could be tighter. The interesting back and forth between the worlds of adolescents and adults, mortals and witches, makes for some good dramatic tension. Sabrina, as the character who bridges these worlds, is somewhat unevenly played by Kiernan Shipka, with her dialogue often sounding a bit awkward. Remembering her outstanding work in Mad Men, I wonder if the actress might benefit from more rehearsal time (often in short supply in fast-moving TV productions). But generally, the cast is uniformly excellent, especially Doctor Who's Michelle Gomez as schoolteacher Mary Wardwell, and Coupling's Richard Coyle as Father Blackwood, the emissary of the Dark Lord, a shadowy, terrifying presence who appears in many guises.

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