Chilling Adventures of Sabrina – Part 1 (2018)
Happy Birthday, Witch.
Hot on the heels of the success of Riverdale, the CW’s sexed-up, soapy, modern take on fresh-faced comics mainstay Archie and the gang, comes Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a terrific, horrific new iteration of everybody’s favorite teenage witch.
This is, of course, not the first time Sabrina Spellman, a half human/ half witch who has to juggle her responsibilities in the supernatural world with her life in the mundane realm, has hit the small screen. Back in the day, we got Sabrina the Teenage Witch with Melissa Joan Hart in the title role, who had fun, family-friendly supernatural exploits from 1996 to 2003.
But this is 2018 (or at least it was when this was released), so out goes the Teenage Witch’s pastel-hued, pre-watershed, kooky-spooky escapades, and in comes lashing of sex, violence, horror, intrigue, betrayal, and honest-to-Beelzebub Satanism — all done in an arch, camp, tongue-in-cheek style that should work wonders for a knowing, media-savvy audience, and drive more conservative viewers to apoplexy (how the fundies haven’t worked themselves into a lather over this one yet is beyond me).
There is a statue of Baphomet at Sabrina’s witch school, folks. That speaks volumes.
The 2018 version of Sabrina, played by the eerily innocent-looking Kiernan Shipka, Flowers in the Attic (2014), is 15 going on 16 and lives in the picturesque but slightly off-kilter town of Greendale, where her aunts Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto) run the local mortuary. She has a doting boyfriend, Harvey (Ross Lynch), and close friends in the outspoken Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and the put upon, gender-fluid Susie (Lachlan Watson, and top marks for inclusivity and representation) — all of whom she may have to say goodbye to, as on her 16th birthday she’s due to sign her soul away to the Dark Lord and begin her studies at the Academy of the Unseen Arts. But it turns out that selling yourself to Satan in return for untold magical power isn’t necessarily the smart play …
Narratively, Sabrina ’18 throws a lot at the screen in hopes that something may stick. Almost all of it does, and we’re offered a plethora of story strands that we might follow at some point in addition to the main thrust. Fascinating characters drift in and out of view, like saturnine, pansexual cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), who doesn’t let being magically bound to the confines of the Spellman house stop him from getting into trouble; Ms. Wardell (Michelle Gomez, Doctor Who fans), Sabrina’s favorite teacher, who happens to be possessed by a primal and vengeful demoness; the Weird Sisters (Tati Gabrielle, Adeline Rudolph, and Abigail Cowen), a triumvirate of bullies at the Unseen Academy (who are basically the magical equivalent of the Heathers), and on and on.
But the greatest joy in Sabrina is textural. The show revels in its lurid, gothic atmosphere and witch-chic trappings. The production design is wonderfully rich and layered, clogged with cobwebs, drenched in shadows and littered with spook-deco furnishings. In-jokes and Easter eggs abound, sure to delight keen-eyed horror-heads — characters are named for horror icons both obvious and obscure, Sabrina and her buds analyze scary movies over milkshakes, and even the set dressing gets in on the act (clock the skylight in the Spellman parlor, Argento fans).
Speaking of horror, the new show certainly doesn’t shy away from it. Sabrina ’18 spills more blood in one episode than its forebear did in its entire run, and the show is packed to the gills with monsters, demons, curses, and more. The witches here are good old-fashioned Salem-style consorters with devils, not Margaret Murray-style neo-pagans — although the feminist action group Sabrina and her friends set up at school is called WICCA.
Yes, there is a strong feminist bent running through Sabrina, which should come as no surprise. Overtly, Sabrina uses her powers to protect people from alpha male douchebros (Susie is beset by bullying football jocks) and the like, but beneath the surface, it’s all about trying to get out from under patriarchal control systems. Witchcraft may seem at first taste to be all about ghoulish girl power, but the Church of Night is devoted to the service of the notably masculine Dark Lord in general and his main man on Earth, Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle), in particular. With what would have been, in a simpler series, the obvious counterpoint to the mundane and mainstream being revealed to have feet of clay, perhaps the big bad isn’t [REDACTED FOR SPOILER PURPOSES] but blind ideology itself — consider that when you hit the storyline wherein one young witch looks forward to being ritualistically cannibalized by her sisters because being selected to be eaten is seen as an honor.
The show’s biggest flaw is that there’s just so much going on, narratively, thematically, and even visually, that watching it can be an overwhelming experience, as it juggles characters, plot threads, backstories, lore and mythology, metatextual references and more. It’ll certainly reward repeat viewings, though — and it deserves, and will doubtlessly attract a fanbase who’ll be up for that. Spooky kids rejoice — Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is gruesome good fun for woke witches.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Travis Johnson