Chilling Adventures of Sabrina review: Netflix’s Halloween treat for Riverdale, Exorcist fans
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Cast - Kiernan Shipka, Ross Lynch, Lucy Davis, Miranda Otto, Richard Coyle
Rating - 3/5
A prerequisite for Satanism - or at least LaVeyan Satanism, the more popular offshoot founded by the very on-brand occultist Anton Szandor La Vey - is that to be a Satanist, one must first be an atheist. Not too many people would know this, and understandably so – after all, how many religions make a complete disbelief in God a mandate for membership?
Similarly, once you go beyond this surprising first step, you’d realise that Satanism isn’t at all like what the movies have shown us. There is an element of ritual involved, as we’ve seen in so many ‘70s and ‘80s chillers - but it is, first and foremost, a humanistic religion.
Watch the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina trailer here
The tenets of Satanism, and its celebration of natural human tendencies such as greed and lust and revenge, play an uncomfortably major part in the new Netflix series, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, which, before you forget, is largely aimed at teens.
So it’s good to remind ourselves that a crucial part of teenage rebellion is to question one’s faith. Sabrina was born a witch - or, to be precise, a half-witch. On her 16th birthday, she is expected to take part in a sort of unholy communion ceremony and pledge her eternal allegiance to the Dark Lord. But like many kids her age, she has neither the understanding nor the inclination to make decisions such as this - indeed, she learns very late in the game that there is a decision to be made at all. And she isn’t entirely convinced.
Her parents - her father was a High Priest of the Church of Night and her mother was a ‘mortal’ - died under mysterious circumstances, and were persecuted during their lives for having entered into such a relationship. Sabrina was sent to live with her two aunties - they’re opposing personalities and almost equally devout - but her real life is with her friends at Baxter High, where she lives like a regular American teenager. Confirming her allegiance to the Dark Lord would mean dropping out of her school and enrolling at the Academy of Unseen Arts. There Sabrina will learn to harness her powers as a witch, and would be expected to turn her back on her mortal side, once and for all.
This moral dilemma - whether to cast out ones past in favour of an uncertain future, all in an effort to find ones true identity - is the conflict at the heart of the show. Whereas Harry Potter couldn’t wait to put his muggle past behind him, Sabrina is having a more difficult time making up her mind. One key difference could be that it was in the Wizarding World that Harry first felt loved, but Sabrina has had a rather comfy childhood, all things considered. If anything, the show’s fantasy version of Satanism - with all its wonky rituals and cloaked men - seems a bit strange to her, a little archaic.
Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is intended as a companion piece to the CW’s Riverdale series - both belong to the Archie Comics universe, are created by the same man, and share Lee Toland Kreiger as lead director. At one point, Sabrina and her friends even make a slight reference to Riverdale high school, perhaps teasing a future crossover.
There’s certainly a lot of tonal and visual cohesion to the two shows - the same luxurious cinematography, the retro production design, and effective teen drama. However, Sabrina is easily the more surprising of the two - while Riverdale’s central conceit was that it was a teen murder mystery, Sabrina has more in common with the Satanic horror films of the ‘70s. For a show aimed at teens, featuring teens, it has an impressively cine-literate streak - horror fans would spot several hat-tips to their favourite movies.
But none of this - the lavish production and the fresh new take - is worth anything if the story they’re telling feels rusty, which it often does. Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, the architect of the Archie universe, opts for a very episodic approach, with each of the show’s 10 chapters essentially serving as self-contained stories, and a larger arc to tie them together, of course. But in this day and age, episodic television feels almost as old-fashioned as the idea of crusty old men worshipping the devil.
Kiernan Shipka, as Sabrina, is a tad too overenthusiastic for the tone this show is trying to establish for itself - her performance is a little too sitcom-y, too reminiscent of the ‘90s Sabrina the Teenage Witch show than moody teen dramas such as Veronica Mars or Bates Motel.
With minor adjustments The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina could be Netflix’s new A Series of Unfortunate Events, but with Umbrella Academy in the offing, the streaming service’s offbeat YA material seems to be cannibalising itself.
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