When the news broke that the 90s sitcom Sabrina The Teenage Witch was being remade, we all had our doubts.
The original show was fun for children and teenagers but was not primetime television that warranted a return or remake. It seemed that Netflix and Warner Bros. Television was cashing in on the recent fashion for bringing back old popular TV shows to the small screen. But the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a whole different kind of beast than its original namesake. This new version of the adventures of a young witch has some of the original names of the characters in the 90s version, but the similarity ends there. Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a darker show with better production values and dare we say it, more wit.
Hailing from a comic book series of the same name, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is produced by the same team that brought us Riverdale and the show bears some of the same hallmarks of that series. It has a suitably nightmarish theme tune accompanied by opening credits that feel as if they have sprung from the pages of a bewitched graphic novel. Sabrina is born out of the success of Riverdale and undoubtedly producers are hoping to cash-in on the same audience with its pop cult-like visuals and snappy dialogue delivered by attractive young actors. The same stylistic choices from Riverdale are apparent; a teenage narrator, dramatic use of bright colours, nostalgic American music and just enough creepy horror elements to keep the audience jumping.
The cinematography of Sabrina is especially creative. The edges of each frame and shot are blurred adding to the off-kilter feel of the story in general, as if there is some sort of magical distortion in the periphery of your vision. Each scene is rich with detail from the decor of the Spellman’s home to the bright costumes and the filming locations, such as a sinister apple orchard and a spooky lush green forest. The setting of the story is the town Greendale, (just down the road from Riverdale) in which lives a community of witches who worship in the Church of The Night, a satanic religion or coven. Greendale is a town where it ‘always feels like Halloween.’ The archaic rituals and costumes of the witches are amusingly kitsch and means that the town feels like a modern day community that is at the same time permanently stuck in some sort of recent past.
Sabrina not only invokes a past era but pays homage to the horror genre and ghost stories. Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) herself is a horror fan, spouting off zombie film trivia to her friends. The show is filled with plenty of horror images such as a possessed and frankly terrifying scarecrow, a character being stabbed in the neck with a pair of scissors and a vision of numerous dead witches swinging from a tree. There are also enough magical creatures, witches, potions and satanic-in-jokes to shake a broom at. The spells in the script are especially fun, each one a little rhyming poem.
The show intentionally makes fun of itself, partly because Sabrina, half witch, half mortal is a modern girl and not afraid to examine the old and outdated religion she has been born in to. Shipka does a brilliant job as Sabrina torn between two worlds and forced to choose one on 16th birthday, dubbed her ‘dark baptism’. She is a great role model for young female viewers; feisty, intelligent and brave. Her real strength lies in her loyalty to her family and friends and despite her small stature she is a powerful witch, trying to use her magic for good, while also being a little mischievous along the way. Her attempts to modernise her satanic religion and exercise her own free will in the face of restrictive traditions would not go amiss in any story about someone growing up in an orthodox faith.
Sabrina’s family who run a mortuary (of course!) on the edge of town are witches Aunt Zee (an excellent Miranda Otto) and Aunt Hilda (Lucy Davis in a role that feels like it was written specifically for her). Also living in the Gothic family mansion is Sabrina’s cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), a pansexual warlock who is imprisoned in the family home for a crime he committed 95 years earlier. Each character is well drawn, multi-faceted and it is clear that the actors are enjoying working with the witty script penned by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa. Aunt Zee is dryly sarcastic and sophisticated, Aunt Hilda is warm, loving and just a little ridiculous, but it is Ambrose who really steals the show. Perdomo’s portrayal of the melancholy and wry warlock is both charming and sad.
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Although Sabrina fiercely loves her family and is attracted to the alluring magic of the witch world, she is deeply attached to her modern life and it is this conflict that is at the heart of the premise of the show. Sabrina’s love for her boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch), a sweet and kind young man and her close connection to her human friends, Susie (Lachlan Watson) and Rosalind (Jaz Sinclair) forms most of this introduction to the series. Susie is an especially interesting character, a girl who refuses to abide by the gender norms that are imposed on her by the society of Greendale and its school Baxter High.
The bullying of Susie by four macho male football players is both very real and frightening. The continual assaults on her are routinely overlooked by the school and the Principle, Mr Hawthorne (Bronson Pinchot) who is an example of rigid patriarchal power. The exchange between Sabrina and Hawthorne could have been lifted straight out of a real life news report in which a female student is sexually assaulted and the authorities do nothing. Fed up with the treatment of girls at the school, Sabrina and her friends form a club, ‘The Women’s Intersectional Cultural and Creative Association,’ ironically shortened to WICCA. Points should go to the genius script writer who came up with that in-joke.
The events in ‘October Country’ are a very clever way of injecting some real world feminism into the show. Later in in the episode Sabrina challenges the idea that Satan (or the Dark Lord as he is routinely named) should get to decide what she does with her own body. This may be a story about magic, but it is also a tale of young women standing up for themselves. Even the evil mean girls of the show, witches Prudence (Tati Gabrielle), Dorcas (Abigail Cowen) and Agatha (Adeline Rudolph), who dress alike, talk alike and spit curses, are shown as young women whose strength comes from banding together.
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‘October Country’ ends with Sabrina at a cross-roads. The episode effectively sets up the world she lives in and the dilemma she faces between choosing honouring her heritage by signing away her soul to The Dark Lord or truly following her own heart and choosing her own path. The final scene is a surprise visit from the mysterious Faustus Blackwood (Richard Coyle, who appears from his acting to massively be enjoying the part), High Priest of The Church of the Night, a sort of satanic pope. We suspect he has come to convince Sabrina to go through with her dark baptism, although the mystery of why will surely be explored in the rest of the series.
This is an updated version of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, still with plenty of humour, but with added feminism, more cult references and a few dark chills. It is the perfect visual treat for those dark cold nights of winter, like a warm slice of spicy pumpkin pie.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina: Season 1 is now available on Netflix.