‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’ Review: Netflix’s New Series Is Scary Good

     October 26, 2018

chilling-adventures-of-sabrina-kiernan-shipka-sliceThere is no trick to the treat that is Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Netflix’s adaptation of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa’s comic of the same name. The updated story is a far cry from the days of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and yet, it encompasses many of the same themes of the original Archie comics and other iterations. It’s just that this time, the story is wrapped up in a moody, dark, funny, and stylishly atmospheric package that could be not be a better herald of fall and the Halloween season.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina stars Kiernan Shipka as the titular teenage witch and orphan Sabrina Spellman, who lives with her fabulous aunts, Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto), as well as her charming cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), who is under house arrest. The series picks up just before Sabrina’s sixteenth birthday, which will be marked not by a traditional celebration, but an old tradition: a Dark Baptism under a blood moon where Sabrina will sign over her soul to the Dark Lord. Except, Sabrina isn’t so sure she wants to do that. She’s only half a witch (on her father’s side), and she’s spent her entire life living at home with witches and going to school with mortals. At Baxter High, she has two best friends (Jaz Sinclair’s Roz and Lachlan Watson’s Susie) and a sweet boyfriend, Harvey (Ross Lynch). What’s the rush to tether oneself to the Dark Lord?

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Image via Netflix

And yet Sabrina is rushed, mostly by her Aunt Zelda, as well as the High Priest, Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle), both of whom are eager for Sabrina to join the coven. Surprisingly (and thankfully) that’s not a story that gets stretched out the length of a season, but one of this enthralling series’ very first predicaments. It’s the start of Sabrina’s adventures, not the end, as she finds a way to honor both her mortal and supernatural heritage.

That duality is present throughout the rest of this first 10-episode season (the series has already been picked up for Season 2), which sees Sabrina and her friends take on issues as varied as bullying and demonic possession in both the human and witch realm. The series uses its Vancouver filming location to full effect, making Greendale a chilling, gloomy, but ultimately cozy backdrop to these adventures. Fires crackle in almost every room, and the sets are filled with homey touches and unique artifacts that make you feel immediately immersed in Sabrina’s world. And it is Sabrina’s world — Shipka is in almost every scene, and the show lives or dies on her charm (and it very much lives). A bleary-eyed, out-of-focus touch to the filmmaking keeps the show visually off-balance, and it’s mirrored by a certain theatricality to the proceedings (which manages to be delightful instead of campy or grating). That theatricality is elevated by Otto, Davis, and the rest of the adult cast delivering deliciously stage-worthy performances (performances that also help smooth over some of the not-as-polished scenes with the younger cast).

Everything ultimately works in concert, including the series’ excellent pacing. If you dare to look away or glance at your phone, you might miss something pivotal, and yet, the show never feels like it’s burning through plot. The overarching question is whether Sabrina will ultimately choose the Path or Light or of Night, and each episodic vignette plays into that in naturally occurring ways. (Another triumph of the series is its organic exposition, especially early on. It jumps right in and explains what you need to know when you need to know it, yet things are never confusing or forced). The show also does a wonderful job giving depth and dimension to its characters, especially those whose motivations are not immediately clear, such as the Snape-like figure of the Devil’s handmaiden, Miss Wardell (Michelle Gomez), who takes the form of a Baxter High school teacher to gain access to Sabrina. Sabrina’s classmates at her new witch school, like Prudence (Tati Gabrielle) — one of the Weird Sisters, who torment her — also end up with shading and depth that illustrate how heroes and villains aren’t always easy to spot in the series. (It should also be noted that this is almost a show that delights in its many varied female characters; this is a show about women).

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Image via Netflix

Sabrina, though, is unabashedly a hero. She fights for justice and equality like a superhero, because honestly, who but a 16 year old would have the moxie to call out the Devil and defy him? But though Sabrina often triumphs, she also must face dire consequences for some of her brashness. No matter what, though, she always barrels forth with unending energy and positivity. That positivity, in the face of such utter darkness, also plays into the show’s humor, which is in abundance. It’s often sly, but there are lovely moments like how Zelda continuously kills Hilda (who keeps coming back), or how the Devil loves roast child but hates onions. And yet, Sabrina (like its heroine) is ultimately earnest rather than overly clever or cynical. Characters learn from their mistakes, and there are genuinely sweet resolutions. In one of the season’s stand-out episodes, the Spellmans fall under the thrall of a Dream Demon, who exposes their deepest fears in nightmares. It’s a common trope, and yet, here it’s given a new, spooky (and sometimes funny) twist. There’s not a sigh of relief and a group hug to end things, but there is a sense that these revelations will continue to shape the story in realistic and organic ways. The world of Greendale may be full of darkness and magic, as are its characters, but ultimately their relationships are grounded in something very tangible and real.

There is so much to explore in this world, so much lore that is constantly being revealed, and so many new layers to the magic Sabrina is just now learning to use and control. And yet, no one in her mortal life knows anything about it, least of all sweet Harvey. In those moments, Sabrina’s relationship with Harvey feels like a throwback to the original Archie comics than anything else, or to an innocence that doesn’t seem possible when there might be cannibalism or blood sacrifice in the next scene.

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Image via Netflix

As for that darker side to Sabrina, there are some genuinely spooky moments and decent jump-scares within the series, but not enough to chase away the horror-averse. The show uses a lot of practical effects and makeup for its supernatural encounters, not exclusively, but enough that it again helps make this world feel tangible and possible. That’s true right down to its animals, like Salem, Sabrina’s familiar, with whom she communicates. He doesn’t actually speak, as in previous series (at least, not that we can hear), but he remains an important part of the story, as do all of Sabrina’s characters. The show finds the space to give time to all of them, letting everyone have their own plots that ultimately connect to Sabrina’s own, and yet, also feel distinct while never slowing the series down.

Finally, for those worried that the show may be a touch too Satanic, there’s an interesting moral world to Sabrina that’s unexpected for a series that is about praising the Dark Lord. But there are a lot of surprising things about Sabrina, the fall’s first truly binge-worthy new show. It’s a delight and an obsession, and the scariest thing about it is just how good it is.

Rating: ★★★★★

All episode of Season 1 of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina premieres Friday, October 26th on Netflix.

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