High School Is a Battleground of Dark Forces in Netflix’s ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’
Netflix’s “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” takes the comic book character of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, who was also the subject of a successful late 90s sitcom, and transforms her into an addictive gothic fantasy. It’s the latest offering from showrunner Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who crafted “Archie” comics into the CW’s absurdly wild “Riverdale.” In that show Archie and the gang become buffed, angst-ridden soap opera figures battling serial killers, cults and uncovering underground boxing groups beneath juvenile hall. This first season of “Sabrina” makes an easier transition into dark waters because its subject matter is already primed for it. It’s still much fun, but now the dark rituals and satanic identities form a deeper take on being young and finding your identity.
Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) appears to be a regular teenager in the small town of Greendale. She goes to the movies with her friends, has a nice boyfriend named Harvey (Ross Lynch) and lives with her aunts, Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Zelda (Miranda Otto) as well as cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo). But Sabrina isn’t your average teenager, her aunts are witches and she herself is a half-witch. Her father was a warlock married to a mortal woman. Now that her Sweet Sixteen is coming up, Sabrina must prepare undergo a “baptism” which includes signing the book of “The Dark Lord.” She must also prepare to leave her mortal life and attend an academy designed to prepare her to be a witch. Part of this process is getting an animal “familiar,” a companion essentially. Sabrina finds one with the black cat Salem. This is all leads to one goal: Sabrina has to sign herself over to become a full servant of Satan (literally). But as the date approaches she is feeling unsure. Turning into a real witch and agent of Lucifer means leaving Harvey and her friends, this just as she’s starting to help form groups to fight bullying and misogyny on campus. Plus, doesn’t giving yourself over to the Devil, or anyone for that matter, mean giving up your freedom as an individual? Sabrina isn’t so sure it’s a fair trade. When hell’s representative Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle) arrives, Sabrina begins to face a tough choice which could mean defying the lord of darkness.
As with “Riverdale,” forget the comics and put aside the previous TV incarnation. “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” is closer in tone to something like “Harry Potter” or even “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” It’s shot cinematically, with lots of deep shadows and wide angles. The production design is worthy of Tim Burton with its dreary woods and the baroque house Sabrina and the Aunts inhabit. When this show talks about witchcraft it’s deadly serious as strange rituals are performed, blood oaths made and Satan tends to make appearances as a large, menacing black goat. There are tons of great pop culture references all over this first season. Sabrina’s room has a poster of the great Swedish silent horror film “Haxan,” some shots look like homages to recent terrors like “The Witch,” and of course at some point someone will make a mocking reference to nearby “Riverdale.” Like the “Harry Potter” books and films there are many archaic rules in this world concerning witches and bloodlines, and Sabrina is never quite sure she is being told the truth about her own parents’ deaths in an accident years ago. When she refuses to go through with the baptism, Father Blackwood takes her to a trial presided over by judges from hell wearing Inquisition-style pointed hats. Even Salem, the loveable sarcastic cat from the 90s TV show, is turned here into a silent companion capable of dispatching threats without a peep.
Fittingly, this “Sabrina” is firmly rooted in modern teen culture, even if we’re not sure what era it’s taking place in (there are no cell phones, computers or TVs for that matter). In classic horror fashion, the satanic antics are also fun metaphors for high school life. The adults are all oppressive agents of the dark one, including the misogynist school principal Mr. Morris (Guy Christie), who tells a harassed student she should consider changing schools. There’s also Mary Wardell (Michelle Gomez), a teacher taken over by a demon so she can make sure Sabrina enrolls in the witchcraft school. Satan is almost the ultimate symbol of patriarchy, as Sabrina is forced to sign over her soul for no other reason other than being the daughter of a warlock. In this show when she rebels it’s a symbol of female empowerment. But there are also some stronger storylines involving harassment. Sabrina plots revenge against the school jocks who violently menace her friend Susie (Lachlan Watson). She gets three other witches, who resent her for her mixed heritage but like having ghoulish fun, led by Prudence (Tati Gabrielle). They lure the jocks into a cave in a perfectly-edited scene scored to “Terrible Thing” by The Rescues, entrapping them in a guy on guy moment that will make them regret picking on any woman. Sabrina’s own struggles are perfectly relatable. The adults want her to conform to a specific lifestyle which could mean leaving her beloved Harvey. When you’re 16 breaking up pretty much means the end of the world. Some moments nicely combine the show’s supernatural angle with tender teenage experiences, such as a moment where Sabrina asks Harvey to find a birthmark.
The cast of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” all seem to be having a devilishly fun time making this show. Shipka is reminiscent of a younger Emma Watson. She’s mature and curious, now facing issues of literally cosmic significance. Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto are great as the witch aunts who also run a mortuary on the side (their specialty is making bodies look pristine). Otto in particular is menacing as Zelda, the one determined to keep Sabrina in line. Richard Coyle as Blackwood doesn’t even seem to be acting, he’s so comfortable and smooth in the role of Satan’s emissary, dressed in 19th century-style wear.
If some shows treat teens as shallow cartoons, here’s a supernatural drama that treats them with a refreshing level of maturity. As we have fun with all the goblins, inter-satanic battles and curses, we can also enjoy the way the writing deals with teen angst. If “Riverdale” is all soap opera, “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” is more poignant, even as it casts goofy spells.
“Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” season one premieres Oct. 26 on Netflix.