chilling adventures of sabrina review

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina takes a horror movie approach to Sabrina the Teenage Witch, crafting a dark and violent series. Loaded with great production design, and blessed with several strong performances, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina none the less succumbs to exhausting exposition, and uneven storytelling. It might still cast a spell over you, though.

No laugh track, no brightly-lit sets, no wise-cracking cat puppet. Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is about as far-removed from the Sabrina the Teenage Witch sitcom as one can get. Adapting the comic book series of the same name, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is a dark, twisted take on the Archie Comics character – a show that doesn’t shy away from gloomy darkness, graphic violence and everything in-between.

There’s a lot to admire in this wicked little show, but more often than not, Sabrina is a victim of its own ambition. The first season attempts to pack in so much mythology that it grows exhausting, to the point where you’ll become annoyed at the new elements being introduced before old ones have had a chance to breathe. Sabrina already has the go-ahead for a second season – Netflix ordered two 10-season episodes at once – so you would think the writers would save some of this stuff for season 2. Instead, they fire up a cauldron boiling with an overdone potion.

In its attempt to bring audiences into this creepy new world, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina suffers from an abundance of exposition. Nearly every episode has a character going off into a long monologue explaining the origins and meanings of a particular witchy element. There’s nothing wrong with keeping the audience up to speed on this material, but there has to be a better way to keep us informed than just simply letting a character spell things out in unsubtle detail.

Tone is also an issue here. Sabrina wants to be unapologetically dark, and that’s great. But it also wants to be a fun, somewhat campy experience. And those two things don’t mesh very well. More often than not, the show comes off seeming like the Kidz Bop version of The Witch.

sabrina aunts

In Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, soon-to-be-16-year-old Sabrina Spellman (Kiernan Shipka) is torn between two worlds. She’s half mortal, half witch, and while she lives in a spooky funeral home with her witch aunts (Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto), and warlock cousin (Chance Perdomo), she also attends a normal high school, has normal human friends, and even a boyfriend, the likable but kind of clueless Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch).

But Sabrina is going to have to make a choice. When she turns 16, she’s expected to go through with her Dark Baptism – a ceremony in which she signs her name in Satan’s book and pledges herself to the Dark Lord and his cause for eternity. She’ll also have to leave her school and friends behind, and attend the Academy of the Unseen Arts – a school for witches that’s kind of like Hogwarts, but with a lot more murder and devil-worship.

To make things more complicated, a demon has murdered and then assumed the form of one of Sabrina’s teachers, Ms. Wardell (Michelle Gomez). She has her own dark plans for Sabrina, and Sabrina is totally oblivious to Wardell’s true nature.

This may sound like a fairly straightforward set-up, but it’s just the beginning. From here, Sabrina launches into an overstuffed season, introducing new stories, new characters, and new conflicts at a breakneck pace. To Sabrina’s credit, it’s not afraid to be episodic. Unlike many other Netflix shows, Chilling Adventures isn’t constructed like a 10-hour movie. Instead, it has the common sense to let multiple episodes stand on their own, and tell their own individual, self-contained stories. These standalone episodes are the season’s highlights – they’re far more interesting than the ongoing plot surrounding Sabrina’s torn-between-two-worlds struggle. One of the strongest episodes involves characters trapped in a string of nightmares – a scenario clearly lifted from “Restless”, one of the best episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer – a show Sabrina clearly emulates. Unfortunately, not all of these episodic stories work. Several, in fact, are downright forgettable. 

Thankfully, Sabrina has Kiernan Shipka anchoring it. The Mad Men actress makes for an immensely likable protagonist, and she brings a wry sense of humor to the part that’s more in her line delivery than the script itself. Shipka plays Sabrina as someone who is perpetually amused at her situation – even when things get bloody. It provides a nice balance to the darkness, and the audience will likely be happy to follow Shipka’s Sabrina through hell and back, both literally and metaphorically.

Shipka is aided by the wonderful work of Lucy Davis as Aunt Hilda, and Miranda Otto as Aunt Zelda. Davis’ Hilda is endlessly sunny, a smile practically glued to her face, while Otto’s Zelda is doom and gloom personified – a droll, somewhat spooky figure prone to bursts of violence. The two aunts want very different things, and while Zelda wants to push Sabrina head-first into her Dark Baptism, Hilda is more willing to hear her niece’s objections out.

Chance Perdomo is amusing, if a bit under-used, as Sabrina’s helpful cousin Ambrose, who is confined to the Spellman funeral home under house arrest. The show never quite figures out what to do with Ambrose, and resorts to giving him an overabundance of exposition, but Perdomo makes the most of it. Tati Gabrielle also makes an impression as Prudence, leader of the three Weird Sisters – a pack of mean girl witches who have it in for Sabrina. But like Ambrose, Prudence is a bit underwritten.

Richard Coyle steals the show as the menacing Father Blackwood, the High Priest of the Church of Night who is hell-bent (pun definitely intended) on making sure Sabrina goes through with her Dark Baptism. Coyle is clearly having a blast playing the nefarious Blackwood, and I only wish the show had more for him to do.

chilling adventures of sabrina show

The rest of the cast, meanwhile, fails to impress. Michelle Gomez is too over-the-top as the evil Ms. Wardell, and Ross Lynch neglects to make Sabrina’s boyfriend Harvey Kinkle interesting – you’ll likely forget he’s even part of the show until he pops up from time to time.

Sabrina’s strongest assets are its production design and cinematography. The show looks great – atmospheric, haunting, and even downright scary at times. The way the series portrays supernatural forces is effective, and even believable at times (or as believable as seeing a goat-headed demon bursting through a tree trunk can be, at least). Numerous scenes are shot with deliberately blurry edges – an effect that recalls some of Roger Deakins’ work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. It makes the imagery here extra dreamy, and even slightly old fashioned. Sabrina is interested in blurring past and present – the show is clearly set in modern times, and yet characters dress as if they’re from another era.

With Halloween right around the corner, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina’s ghoulish charms will no doubt go over well. The autumnal atmosphere is appealing, and the show’s reverence for horror movies is charming – there are several episodes that pay direct homage to certain horror flicks like The Exorcist and even The Fog. But one can also sense a much better show buried under all this atmosphere, clawing to get out. Perhaps now that the growing pains are over with, the inevitable second season will thrive. For now, though, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina leave something to be desired. You’ll probably have fun, but when all is said and done, you’ll likely long to conjure up something more rewarding.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina debuts on Netflix on October 26, 2018.

Cool Posts From Around the Web: