This Riverdale-ified reboot of Sabrina the Teenage Witch is chock-full of scares, sex and a hefty dose of camp, making for a 21st-century Gothic delight.
It is not at all an astute, original observation that horror, even in a subtle way, tends to reflect current events. Vampires once represented xenophobia, and, in more recent times, the fear of STIs. Zombies made a comeback right around the same time as “internet addiction” became a thing. And now, in the late 10s hellscape of #metoo backlash and a heavily conservative Supreme Court, witches are making a return. Premiering with all too appropriate timing on Netflix is Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, a fun, creepy series ostensibly for teens, but with a bleak and cynical core.
Created by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa (Riverdale) and based on his graphic novel reboot of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, it sets out right away to make sure the audience doesn’t confuse it with the lighthearted TGIF sitcom of the 90s, with a gruesome murder that takes place less than ten minutes into the first episode. That sense of menace and suspense doesn’t let up for even a second, making this one of the most tightly paced, exciting horror series in a very long time.
Our titular heroine, Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka, Mad Men), is a “half-breed” witch, the daughter of a powerful warlock father and a mortal mother. Orphaned after her parents were killed in an accident, she lives in the little mining town of Greendale with her aunts, motherly Hilda (Lucy Davis, Wonder Woman) and no-nonsense Zelda (Miranda Otto, Eowyn in the Lord of the Rings series), and her cousin, Ambrose (Chase Perdomo, who walks away with every scene he’s in). They’re all witches, and not the folksy, reading tea leaves kind of witches either, but rather black magic conjuring, human flesh consuming instruments of the Devil.
But other than that, Sabrina is just your average high school student, with budding feminist BFFs Roz (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson), and a nice boyfriend, Harvey (Ross Lynch, My Friend Dahmer), whose dad owns the local mine. Sabrina is so attached to her ordinary mortal life – even if it means occasionally locking horns with her officious school principal (Bronson Pinchot, all but oozing smarm from his pores) – that she’s reluctant to sign the Book of the Beast on her sixteenth birthday, a ritual that will induct her into the Church of Night. Though it’s required of her as a half-witch, it means having to leave her school to attend the Academy of Unseen Arts (think of it like Hogwarts, but everybody’s a Slytherin), and, more importantly, renounce all mortal connections, including Harvey.
Showing up in Greendale just in time to make sure Sabrina doesn’t have any second thoughts are Faustus Blackwood (Richard Coyle, Crossbones), a high priest in the Church of Night, and Madam Satan (Michelle Gomez, Doctor Who), who disguises herself as Miss Wardwell, one of Sabrina’s teachers and the unofficial town historian. On the flip side, Sabrina’s tormented by the Weird Sisters (Tati Gabrielle, Adeline Rudolph, and Abigail Cowen), a trio of mean girl witches who don’t want her infringing on their territory. All these characters have their own reasons for either upholding or interfering with (or both, in some cases) the will of the Dark Lord, a cloven-hoofed creature that’s likely to be one of the scariest pop culture monsters of 2018.
If you’re wondering if the whole season will be devoted to Sabrina dithering over whether to sign the Book of the Beast, well, that’s resolved pretty fast, and the rest of the season focuses on the fallout of her decision. There’s also a murder mystery involving a possible witch hunter, demonic possession, mortal family drama, murdered child ghosts, a trial defended by none other than Daniel Webster (as in “The Devil and”), and a mysterious puzzle box—and that’s all just during the first five episodes. That’s a lot of plot, and yet somehow, it’s juggled with proficiency, while never losing its unique, darkly comical edge.
Should Netflix ever produce spinoffs of their shows, I would happily watch a series dedicated entirely to Aunt Hilda and Aunt Zelda. Otto brings a delicious Bette Davis-like camp to her performance as Zelda, and is a perfect contrast with the lovable Davis, who plays Hilda like a dotty English nanny. The villains are all wonderfully, appropriately hammy, particularly Gomez as Madam Satan, who sometimes looks as if her Miss Wardwell disguise doesn’t quite fit. Her scenes with Coyle’s Blackwood crackle with creepy energy, as they seem to be both working towards the same goal while still diametrically opposed to each other.
There really are no false notes so far in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (except perhaps that they insist on leaving off “the” at the beginning of the title). It exists in a strange, unsettling netherworld in time, where Sabrina wears angora sweaters and everyone drives around in vintage cars, but Blondie is on the soundtrack and two of the characters are pansexual and genderqueer (the fact that these are simply character traits and not plot twists is a marvelous example of how far we’ve come in creating entertainment for anyone beyond a typical cishet audience). Though the Spellmans must keep their identities as witches a secret, it’s clear that something infernal is rumbling under dreary little Greendale, where the sun never seems to shine, and it might be something more horrifying than even they could imagine.
Perhaps the best part about Sabrina is how unabashedly feminist it is. The first episode concerns Sabrina and her friends starting a school club called “Women’s Intersectional Culture and Creative Association” (W.I.C.C.A.), against the wishes of the principal. In both sides of her life, witch and mortal, Sabrina faces constant pushback from men, who often fall back on “tradition” as to why she can’t make her own decisions. When she casts revenge spells on those who wrong her (or her friends), they’re humiliating, intended on making them feel weak and small, emasculated, if you will.
Maybe it’s not the right thing to do, but it sure feels good doing it, and that combined with Sabrina’s very human stubborn streak will make her a formidable opponent against the Dark Lord. “I want both power and freedom,” Sabrina tells Prudence, one of the Weird Sisters, who replies “The idea of you, of any of us, having that terrifies him.” When Sabrina asks why, Prudence answers “He’s a man, isn’t he?”