REVIEW: ‘Chilling Adventures of Sabrina,’ Part 1

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Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

Audiences have been in love with Sabrina Spellman and her aunts Zelda and Hilda for years. From the comedic teen television show, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, that ran from 1996 to 2003, to the cartoon show Sabrina: The Animated Series that ran for a year in 1999, fans have known and loved the Spellmans. But quite a few fans didn’t know where she started. Netflix’s original show, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, isn’t a direct reboot of the 90s show, but an adaptation of the dark comic book of the same name published by the Archie Horror line of Archie Comics. The 10-episode series follows the life of Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) as she turns 16 and must decide whether to belong to the world of witchcraft or the world of humans and how she can balance both all in a town where every day is like Halloween. The show follows her life at school, with her home life with aunties Zelda (Miranda Otto) and Hilda (Lucy Davis) and her cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), all as we learn about the world of magic that she inhabits.

If you’re a fan of Riverdale, you’ll be excited to know that that the series developer behind that series, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, is also behind the helm of Chilling Adventures. Aguirre-Sacasa is also the Chief Creative Officer of Archie Comics which helps adapt such a deeply dark and unique comic series. On top of that, this isn’t his first foray into horror, having written the script for The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014) and the adapted screenplay for Carrie (2013) it’s no surprise that this show knocks horror out of the park.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina was originally in development during September 2017 for The CW. The network is the home of Riverdale and this series was intended to be a companion series to the existing Archie Comics property. However, in December 2017, the project was moved to Netflix. All that being said, the shows share similar qualities, from uses of color, a dark mood, blurred frames, and a timeless quality. There are even easter eggs from Archie Comics and the appearance of a familiar Riverdale face. Although the two are not on the same network they are very much in the same vein.

However, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina being moved to Netflix was the smartest decision made in regards to the property. This move allowed it to blend horror, satanic imagery, and all-in-all some disturbingly brilliant scenes like an exorcism, appearances from the Dark Lord, and vivisections with all with the tropes of typical high school dramas. There are mean girls, – the weird sisters, Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), Dorcas (Abigail F. Cowen), and Agatha (Adeline Rudolph) – love triangles, and friendship struggles and triumphs. Both identities of this show are present and clear but also seamlessly blended together in a way that makes the relationships in the show sing and the sets and effects feel magical and familiar all the same.

As already mentioned, another one of the great things is that Chilling Adventures has a timeless quality is similar to It Follows in that there are small moments where you think you know the time it’s set in and other moments when a reference disproves your theory. This will help the show age well and creates a point of connection to the audience but also enough mystery to keep the plot moving. Some women wear 50s dress, there are old cars and black and white television sets. But there are also MacBooks, iPhones, and references to “fast zombies” which don’t occur until Return of the Living Dead (1985) but was popularized by 28 Days Later (2003).

This deliberate setting is one that is used to an extent in Riverdale but is executed at a higher caliber here. It isn’t distracting and makes The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina feel like it’s taking place in a world apart from ours. With the opening the show stating “this year” we work on Sabrina’s time, not our own, and this lends to the narrative and the visual storytelling involved. Without a place in time, a horror-filled setting the costume and creature designs are phenomenal. The use of red in Sabrina’s clothing choices serves as a stark contrast to the gloomy and murky world of Greenvale and the weird sisters are perfect goths that still pull out the “on Wednesdays we wear pink mentality.” The design of the Dark Lord is a great use of practical effects and the minimal showings of him both help build the tension around him while also maintaining enough distance to keep it looking believable. The visuals of the show are perfection, with each episode making use of all elements of the scene to frame the actors and tell the story.

Although I’m tired of seeing iterations of European magic and Wicca, Chilling Adventure’s take on the magic was a breath of fresh air. This is due to a script filled with “Hail Satans,” references to Satan, and ultimately treating this message as something set apart from how we conceive of good and evil within traditional Christian structures — something we rarely see witchcraft without. While other shows and movies focus on “light magic” this series works at looking at in a dark and devilish setting.

With Bahamut statues everywhere and dark masses, the ability of the show and make you become sympathetic for darkness is something that should be applauded. Especially through the characters of Sabrina’s aunties, Zelda and Hilda, played by Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis respectively. Each of which have different relationships to the Church of the Night, the coven the Spellmans are members of, and with Sabrina’s growth into her witchy powers and lore throughout the show.

But it’s through their distinct personalities that showcases their love of their niece and their positionality in the larger world of witchcraft. Their relationship with each other is genuine. Otto and Davis portray motherly love and sisterly pettiness in the best of ways. Their exchanges and the scales they balance in Sabrina’s life are believable and their performances will resonate with almost anyone with the obvious need to play favorites — I love you, Zelda. Their dichotomy also helps the exposition in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, laying out the world for the audience.

Although it’s true that there is an ominous plotting for Sabrina’s binding to the Dark Lord, the struggle isn’t one between good and evil, and it isn’t about God and the Devil. It’s a pathway toward maintaining humanity when power is available to claim and her aunties guide her through this. Sabrina acts as the audience in episode two, asking about the difference between the Dark Lord and the Devil and Evil versus free will. Magic is never truly evil and Sabrina is never truly good.

In fact, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina focuses on the evil acts witches do instead of witches and warlocks automatically being evil and Sabrina having to choose between them. Sabrina also must learn to make choices instead of expecting everything to go her way. Towards the end of the season this makes Sabrina seem almost bratty, but when things fall apart, she has to learn her lesson. She has to grow up.

Sabrina is a character who is strong-willed to a fault, curious, and ultimately a character that represents the power of witchcraft and the empathy of humanity. She extends this empathy to all those in her life, from her human friends and boyfriend to her Academy of the Unseen Arts enemies, and even to those who have proven to be dark and twisted beyond repair. Kiernan Shipka’s portrayal of Sabrina is perfection – aside from a weird accent that comes into some scenes – and it’s clear to me as a horror fan that she will have a long career as a horrific leading lady.

She was actually a lead in one of my favorite horror movies of 2017, The Blackcoat’s Daughter. She was perfectly creepy and believable in that movie and to see her in situations from an exorcism to experiencing her inner worst fears, she delivers in her acting. Not to mention she looks like Sabrina walked off of the page. She is also able to play off of other actors well, adjusting her level of emoting for the setting in a way that shows clear switching between the ‘Brina of the human world and the Sabrina of Satan’s world.

She excels when paired with her human friends, all of which have their own stories throughout Chilling Adventures of Sabrina which are handled well enough to lead into part two with a great footing. Most notably Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch) whose family history and his love for Sabrina adds to the story instead of feeling like it ways down her character, like some teen romances can come off as. But here is where Shipka showcases ‘Brina’s vulnerability with Harvey that rounds out the complexity of the character.

However, in some of Shipka’s darker scenes, she struggles to maintain the innocence of the half-human Sabrina and it seems half done, although this is in only one or two scenes it sticks out against a stellar cast that also moves from sympathetic to dark quick. But as we see more of Sabrina, she is less sympathetic. This is by design and well done.

That being said, when paired against Tati Gabrielle’s character of Prudence, she doesn’t hold my focus. I’m not sure if it’s because of how striking Gabrielle looks, or if it’s because she is truly the better actress, but when she’s on screen I don’t look at Sabrina. As the leader of the weird sisters, Prudence has a blind faith in the Dark Lord and a history of her own. She grows n the show, but she grows in her own way.

Yes, Sabrina is there showing the Prudence and the weird sisters humanity, but Prudence doesn’t sacrifice her power in her growth but gets the free will that has been denied her by her blind faith. She moves past the initial mean girl trope and into a complex character that grows beyond it. There is enough time to see her explored in a way that she is explored in a fairly deep way and her sisters, Agatha and Dorcas are two characters I want to learn more about but as background mean girls they did their job as the trope while still maintaining a presence and not getting lost in the scenes.

With an extremely diverse cast, it’s important to note that some have taken issue with the lack of racial politics in Chilling Adventures of Sabrina . Although I don’t agree with the assessment it is an important opinion to take into consideration given that people’s positionalities will inform how they view different issues in the show. Primarily the feud and actions between Sabrina and Prudence, specifically in regards to race.

Before we wrap it’s also important to mention Ambrose, a warlock and Sabrina’s cousin played by Chance Perdomo. Ambrose is under house arrest, pansexual, and a loyal cousin, and advisor. Perdomo is a stellar presence on camera and ultimately a vibrancy to the darkness almost akin to Hilda while still moving in the darkness that is the Dark Lord’s world. An artist, a lover, and a warlock who is in love with life in spite of being held under house arrest. There is more to be told to his story that we are teased in the last two episodes, and I can’t wait to see more of his story in part two, out of all the characters on the show. We’ve seen him as the big brother and now I want to see himself.

Overall, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina balances the elements of teenage drama and horror effortlessly using classic horror tropes and monsters while grounding it in teenage life. It has a stellar cast that works with each other while the writing is also a balance of comedic timing and satanic references.

However, while the series balances genres, there is too much of a disconnect between the world of magic and the world of mortals. There should be some, but those who are a part of the Church of the Night are also supposed to walk in the mortal world and with the exception of the Spellmans it doesn’t seem like any of them would fit in at all. And maybe they aren’t supposed to but with Sabrina as the anchor between the two worlds Shipka has a lot to balance and with the rest of the cast squarely on one side or the other, it’s difficult for to do.

That being said the introduction of Sabrina’s human friends into the world of magic is a little rushed and the blending of the worlds leaves something to be desired. But this weird imbalance fixes itself in the last episode where the worlds come together and their existence in the same space makes sense.

As part one, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is amazing. For a horror fan. For a fan of Riverdale. The show hits the mark on multiple fronts and was a perfect watch for the Halloween season. With season two already being filmed, we’ll have to wait until 2019 for the conclusion to this story, but this is the ending leaves us longing for it. With twists, tropes, and turns I’ll be tuning in.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is streaming exclusively on Netflix.


Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Part 1
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    Rating - 9/10
9/10

TL;DR

As part one, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is amazing. For a horror fan. For a fan of Riverdale. The show hits the mark on multiple fronts and was a perfect watch for the Halloween season. With season two already being filmed, we’ll have to wait until 2019 for the conclusion to this story, but this is the ending leaves us longing for it. With twists, tropes, and turns I’ll be tuning in.