Forget everything you know about the wholesome teen witch from the original Archie comics and the ‘90s sitcom, this dark version of Sabrina Spellman (played by Kiernan Shipka) and her world bears a much closer resemblance to the likes of Rosemary’s Baby than Bewitched. Based on the comic book series of the same name by creator Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina sees its titled character, a half-mortal, half-witch, caught between the two worlds.
She has close friends at her high school in Greendale, and a doting, mortal boyfriend in Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch). They have no clue that she’s also a witch, or that her Aunt Hilda (Lucy Davis) and Aunt Zelda (Miranda Otto) have been grooming her to pledge her allegiance to Satan himself on her sixteenth birthday. Balancing her two opposing worlds is a struggle for Sabrina, especially when dark forces beyond her control or knowledge pose a constant threat upon those she loves most.
This is an expansive, fully developed world and, the viewer is plunged straight into the deep end from the get-go. The first episode hits the ground running and never lets up, as we’re introduced to the key players surrounding Sabrina’s inner struggle between her beloved mortal world and the world of witches she’s been raised under. There’s not a single character in this series without their own character arch, which often proves to be a difficult juggle the further into this world the story goes. When Sabrina enrolls in the Academy of Unseen Arts, a Satanic version of Hogwarts, the mortal characters are forgotten about entirely until Sabrina comes home again. Similarly, while in Greendale, most of the characters from the Academy are relegated to the background.
Sabrina’s beloved familiar, Salem, is introduced very early on and has a completely different origin and personality than his previous iterations. In short, he’s nothing short of amazing and steals absolutely every single scene he’s in. The only downside, though, is the aforementioned issue with juggling characters means that Salem isn’t featured near as much as he should be and is one mystery the writers seem insistent to draw out as long as possible. One thing is never forgotten, though, the oppressive evil of the Dark Lord is always playing some role on the trajectory of Sabrina’s story.
From a visual standpoint, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is stunning. The set pieces are pure Halloween, designed with the horror fan in mind. There are nods and Easter eggs at every turn to horror, from Suspiria to Hellraiser, and the fall setting encompasses the holiday spirit. There’s a dark whimsy to the series’ aesthetic that isn’t afraid to get ugly when the horror calls for it. And since we’re dealing with Satan, it often calls for it. The earlier episodes tend to employ a strange blurred background focus that gives an almost fisheye lens look, but it’s mostly dropped as the season progresses, thankfully.
The cast is perfection, too. Shipka, who plays the inquisitive witch with a strong moral compass, is instantly charming. Davis and Otto are bewitching as Sabrina’s Satan-worshipping guardians, and Michelle Gomez exudes bewitching confidence as Madam Satan. But the biggest surprise, though, is that of cast member Tati Gabrielle as Prudence, the leader of the Weird Sisters. Prudence is a fearsome witch with a grudge against Sabrina, but Gabrielle imbues her with enough magnetism and vulnerability that you can’t wait to see more of her story unfold.
The inaugural season of Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a blast. Its story and character elements are a bit overcrowded, but it’s so much fun and briskly paced that it doesn’t really matter. Sabrina Spellman grounds a world deeply submerged in Satanism, witchcraft, and horror, wrapped up in the whimsical bow of Halloween. It’s complex and unpredictable, making for a series full of zombies, demonic possession, dream demons, witches, ghosts, and more. Above all, it’ll leave you begging for more Salem.
This review is based on the first eight of ten episodes of “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”, which will arrive on Netflix October 26th.