Netflix’s much anticipated, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina stars Kiernan Shipka as Sabrina, a Holly Golightly-esque half-witch, half-human high school student learning to make her first adult decisions. The show opens with Sabrina, her boyfriend Harvey, and her two best friends at an old cinema house watching black and white horror movies. As the crowd flinches in disgust while zombies gnaw on their latest victims, Sabrina merrily munches her popped corn. These twenty seconds perfectly summarize the overall tone of the new Sabrina.
Horror fans will be delighted at the number of little homages littered throughout the pilot. In one scene Sabrina dances to The Ronettes’ Be My Baby that is very reminiscent of Winona Ryder’s dance in Beetlejuice, minus the levitation. The devil himself bursts from a tree the same way Christopher Walken’s Hessian emerges from the Tree of the Dead in Sleepy Hollow. A mix of classic horror and ’50s plastic charm, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa has married Disney princess stories and the weirdly dark ’80s era of Disney and sold it to Netflix.
Sabrina has all the trappings of a princess. Her father was the high priest of the Church of Night. Her parents were killed in a tragic accident. Orphaned, she was taken in by her co-dependent and abusive (to one another) aunties. She even bites into a shiny red apple and is nearly rendered helpless. With Snow White’s headband hairdo, Sleeping Beauty’s lilting singing voice, and Cinderella’s can-do spirit, Sabrina finds herself up against the devil himself. Her first big-girl decision is whether or not to sign her name in the Book of the Beast.
With her sixteenth birthday fast approaching, her satanic religion requires her dark baptism. After which, Sabrina will be transferred to the School of the Unseen Arts. The princess already has bullies. The Weird Sisters, Prudence (Tati Gabrielle,) Dorcas (Abigail F. Cowen,) and Agatha (Adeline Rudolph). They are delightfully cruel mean girls. They dress like Wednesday Addams with a little color. Their magic is strong and their glares long. I instantly wanted to be a part of their clique.
Magic is the best part of this show. Instead of relying on camera tricks and special effects, the words of the spells are the magic. Sometimes Latin, sometimes creative rhymes, or thirteenth-century magic using yarn and a wooden spindle, the spells and hexes make the magic feel real. Magic is a power Sabrina has been learning to cultivate for a while, but with growth, its effect is beginning to change. She now has responsibilities to her coven and her friends that she didn’t have to deal with before puberty. Like any teen, she begins to rebel.
For example, she is expected to pick a trained familiar from a book sent by the academy. Familiars are ghouls disguised as animals that can assist witches on their journeys. Sabrina decides to call for a familiar in the woods, one who would be her equal upon arrival. A ghoul arrives. Tall, clawed, and shadowy with a deep bellowing moan it says, “I heard you call in the woods. And I came.” He names himself Salem. Instantly, their friendship becomes the most important. It’s the beginning of Sabrina breaking the rules and breaking away from tradition.
It is only after Salem comes that Sabrina begins to consider whether or not she wants to sign the Book, a move too far for Zelda (Miranda Otto,) a devout follower of the Dark Lord. Prim and proper this version of Zelda isn’t just taunting. She’s downright murderous. Very concerned about how others in the coven view her family, she will get Sabrina to her baptism or die trying. Hilda (Lucy Davis,) is a beacon of love and light. A tea-brewing Mrs. Potts-type, Hilda is happy to indulge all of Sabrina’s questions about joining the Church of Satan.
The Chilling Adventures is not afraid to shy away from blood and gore. Scissors to the neck, swarms of spiders, killer scarecrows, ghostly hangings, and dead bats plague Sabrina in the first hour of the series. Using vaseline smudges on the camera lens, the show is given an eery look. It’s like the edges of Sabrina’s world are melting. In a way, they are. She’s lying to her boyfriend and friends, she’s keeping secrets from her family, and she’s questioning everything she’s been taught.
“The path of light, or the path of night, but not both,” Zelda tells Sabrina. This is the big question haunting Sabrina. Can she follow the Dark Lord and still remain faithful to the mortal community she loves, to the mother she never got to know? The pilot gives a good indication she will be spending much of the season bouncing back and forth between light and good.
Sabrina and her boyfriend, Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch), have an adorable chemistry together. A little dweeby but naturally good-hearted, he could easily be Archie circa season one of Riverdale. The gooey teen romance is disarmingly charming. I couldn’t help but root for them to make it. But, Sabrina is lying to Harvey and he knows it. She can’t tell him she’s a witch or she’d be breaking a covenant. Witch secrecy post-Salem Trials is imperative. Little by little the secrets are already beginning to affect their relationship.
While I couldn’t help but root for their relationship, I did also root to see a little less of it. Two dates and two walks home are featured in the first episode. The last one is vital to the plot, the first helped establish they’re in a relationship. The second, Sabrina was trying to be honest. The third should have been cut.
In a series with only ten episodes, it’s surprising that the baptism didn’t happen at the end of the first episode. Instead, viewers are left on a rather dull note with the arrival of the head of the church, Father Faustus Blackwood (Richard Coyle.) Not knowing him, or what kind of power the head of the church has, his arrival halts a moving train.
A few other aspects of the show brought me to a halt. Annoyingly, Sabrina is referred to as a half-breed by the Weird Sisters. These types of slurs have often been hurled at Black and Brown people who had a white parent. Sabrina’s exclusion from witch sisterhood based on her genes feels like a white girl wearing brown people’s pain.
Pain seems to be in abundant supply for all of the minority characters. Suzy (Lachlan Watson), who has yet to identify a gender, is sexually assaulted by the football team. In the middle of the school day, the boys lift Suzy’s shirt to “see what’s really under there.” Watson identifies as gender non-conforming and it is my hope that Suzy can live their truth, whatever it is, sooner rather than later. This is an important character. I want Suzy to be given justice.
Ambrose, Sabrina’s cousin, is brown and queer. Spellman Mortuary is essentially his prison. He’s bound to the house. In the first episode, it seems he has no friends, love interest, or desires outside the house. I sincerely hope these characters do more than assist Sabrina on her adventures and exist as torture porn for the viewing audience.
That said, there’s a lot to love about The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. The soundtrack is killer. Every song about evil, devil worship, and bad women is highlighted in a fun and spooky way. There’s a nice subtle reference to Riverdale that made me smile. Shipka is always enjoyable. I look forward to watching the rest of the season and hope the pace picks up quickly.