SPELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (15)

Creator: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

Starring: Kiernan ShipkaRoss LynchLucy Davis

Review: David Stephens

As the inspiration for successful horror crossovers, the world of “Archie Comics” would seem to be a very unlikely source. First launched in 1939, the U.S. comic line was famous for creating the character of Archie Andrews, and all the other wholesome characters that came to typify a more innocent era of illustrated entertainment. But after the character was re-launched successfully, Archie met a Predator (seriously!!) and a Sharknado in fun spoof adventures. More importantly the dead (heh!) serious series “Afterlife with Archie” had the crew experience a grim no-holds-barred zombie apocalypse, and the CW show “Riverdale” has reinvented the universe as a genre-inspired drama. However, the character of Sabrina Spellman was always an important part of the Archie Universe, with the original wacky “Bewitched”-type scenario translating perfectly into the much-loved 90’s sitcom “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”, starring Melissa Joan Hart. Whilst this new series owes a debt to all that history, it is mostly based on the comic book “The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina”, and is a much more mature take on the shenanigans of the sixteen year-old sorceress. Now streaming on Netflix, YGROY takes a look at this coming-of-(m)age story. 


Sabrina Spellman (an excellent Kiernan Shipka) looks like an ordinary teenager, with a devoted boyfriend (Harvey Kinkle played by Ross Lynch) and a supportive circle of friends. But unbeknownst to them, ‘Brina is actually half-mortal/half-witch and has a destiny mapped out for her. She lives with her aunts in the Spellman Mortuary (Hilda and Zelda, played by the brilliant pairing of Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto), and has a decision to make ahead of her 16th Birthday. The big day is on 31st October (‘natch) and prompts the rite of a “Dark Baptism”. This will mark a retreat from the mortal world, and an induction to the Academy of the Unseen Arts. But more ominously it means that Sabrina will need to sign the Book of the Beast and pledge allegiance to the “Dark Lord” (who is exactly who you think it is). Loyalty to her mortal friends and unconditional love with Harvey weighs heavily on her mind, but she is continually put under pressure to succumb to the dark arts. When she finally makes a decision, it will impact on all those around her. The suspicious attentions of Mrs Wardell (the always dependable Michelle Gomez) and some family secrets just complicate things further for the young spell-maker, who just wants to be her own witch. 


You can pretty much tell that you’re in for a treat with this series as soon as the credits play. Rivalling “Stranger Things” as the Netflix opening you’ll never want to skip; it pays homage to its comic-book source with a healthy dash of E.C. horror imagery, and even cameos the illustrated Sabrina along with the original cartoon Teenage Witch. Not only that but you get a clip from “Night of the Living Dead”, a discussion of “fast-zombies”, “Bad Moon Rising” on the soundtrack, and a fairly bloody murder… all in the first 10 minutes! This endearing show has an obvious love for the genre, and has pretty much seamlessly bolted it onto an effective teen drama, whilst still maintaining a dose of creepiness and humour. Not bad going for a new show, and judging by initial feedback and early reviews, it’s a bit of a winner-sinner (chicken dinner optional). But if your only previous date with ‘Brina was the hit U.S. sit-com, then you’re going to be surprised by the level of darkness and some of the mature themes running through the show. Don’t expect crappy animatronic cats sarcastically back-chatting or magic spells turning people into pineapples (yeah, that happened). 


Set in Greendale (just over from Riverdale) the series is set in a unspecified time period, apart from an opening caption that says that it’s currently “October of this year”. But the lack of modern technology, along with ancient TVs (only showing Black-&-White films), old automobiles, and dial telephones seems to place it in the 60s. Despite that, “Sabrina” still manages to incorporate the modern sensibilities that you’d expect in current media. Misogyny, sexuality, religious extremism, female empowerment; are all subjects touched upon… although not in a story-stopping “preachy” way. Rather than developing into a witchy “13 Reasons Why”, the story arcs take in all manner of horror tropes and incorporate them into the main themes. So you’ll get appearances from genre staples like killer scarecrows, zombies, goblins, and demons… but as they’re run through the “Archie” filter it makes them a little different. Some references channel a touch of Lovecraft (check out the title for episode 5 and the importance of “Psychopomps”). Some standalone episodes directly homage films like “The Exorcist” and “Nightmare on Elm St”. And if you’re worried about being ostracised by the horror community for watching a “rebooted kids show”… don’t be. It is very closely linked to characters and storylines from the mature comic, and is certainly not ashamed to get bloody and adult at the right moments. Cannibalism, evisceration, throat-cutting, and … err … flagellation; all make for important moments in the narrative. And after all, the prime storyline is about a young girl being pressurised to (literally) sign her very soul over to Satan. Most horror fans have already taken it to their heart. 


A great deal of the likeability in the show comes down to the excellent cast. Shipka is marvellous as the lead and nails the inherent traits of the character. Sometimes looking small, sweet and vulnerable, she almost seems to grow in physical stature during some sequences, as she protects her friends and exerts her need for goodness and righteousness. Davis and Otto are a delight as the odd-couple Aunts, whose true natures and emotions are subtly revealed during the ten episodes. They are ably supported by Gomez, who looks to be having an absolute ball here, as much as she did during her stint on “Dr. Who”. Chance Perdomo and Richard Coyle are also worthy of mention in their roles. The first few episodes do channel some of the more cheesy humour from the source materials. “Penny Dreadful for your thoughts?” and “Succu-bitches!”; being two such examples. Demonic high court judges are called “Your Dishonour”, and people mutter “Praise Satan” nonchalantly instead of “Oh God” or something. However the tone does noticeably change during the course of the season, as the stakes get higher and the tone gets darker, leading to some possibly game-changing developments. It means that Season 2 (already filming) is immediately being eagerly anticipated. And that’s good news, because as enjoyable as the show is, it feels like that it could still be improved upon. Some major plot-threads need to be resolved, and the main arc is only just beginning. Also, the personal brushes that Sabrina’s BBFs have with the supernatural feel a little rushed and inconsequential in comparison to the Teenage Witch’s ordeals, and those characters could do with some more development. But there’s every indication that future seasons of this show will deliver the promised goods and remain as effortlessly entertaining as this one was. Look out Buffy, ‘Brina’s coming for your crown… 

November 19, 2019

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Inventive and fresh (but still faithful to the comic and sit-com), Sabrina is a surprising treat. Shipka is perfect as the title character, and the rest of the cast are just as watchable. But it’s the canny way that the whole show tiptoes between whimsy and genuine darkness that will delight casual fans and genre addicts alike. There’s tons of promise and it could become a real successor to “Buffy”.
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