I admit to watching almost no television (in fact, nearly zero most of the time). I became offended by its growing insipidity (not to mention cultural and moral bankruptcy) back in the early ’80s and pretty much weaned myself off it. The occasional HBO or Netflix fantasy series may still capture my attention (Game of Thrones, Westworld, Carnivale, etc.) but for the most part I’ve been immune. But the other day on Corey Hutcheson’s New World Wytchery web-site I came across a list of shows involving magic and witchcraft that he found entertaining. I skipped over the Scandinavian animated series Hilda and went straight to The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. This is an energetic romp through various cult-film clichés regarding Satanism that never takes itself too seriously. It strives for high camp and only occasionally goes off the scale on the low end. I noted in the opening credits that it is based on Archie Comics characters (and the lead role of Sabrina Spellman could not be more pitch-perfect in this regard), but Riverdale was never this dark. Just don’t expect anything too balanced or nuanced regarding the Craft; these people are firmly in the grip of the “Dark Lord” (who seems curiously benign) and relishing it.
The casting has some inspired choices. Kiernan Shipka, who played the young daughter of Jon Hamm in Mad Men (my wife tells me this, I’ve never watched it), is well-placed as the “All-American girl” Sabrina who happens to be a half-witch born of a mortal mother and supernatural father (which is the source of most of her troubles). Miranda Otto, whom I remember best as Eowyn in The Lord of the Rings, does a nice turn as Zelda, the Spellman family matriarch (kind of a less-dignified Morticia Adams or Lily Munster clone) and accomplished witch; Bronson Pinchot, whom I haven’t seen since the sitcom Perfect Strangers, plays the slimy high-school principal, George Hawthorne, to perfection (envision a creepier Geoffrey Jones); Richard Coyle, whom I confess to having never seen in anything else, is convincing as the chilling Father Faustus Blackwood, high priest of the Spellman’s Satanist Church and head of the School of Unseen Arts (you might be forgiven for thinking this is just Harry Potter with a blonde female protagonist, but I find it decidedly more twisted); Michelle Gomez, who is just slightly over-the-top as Mary Wardell, erstwhile high-school teacher lately possessed by the Dark Lord’s lieutenant, Madam Satan; and Chance Perdomo, another unknown to me, impresses as pansexual cousin Ambrose Spellman, who has been magically confined to the Spellman estate for previously attempting to blow up the Vatican. The backstory to all of this is more intriguing than I might have expected, although much of it is standard fare: Sabrina’s ostensibly murdered parents, the drearily familiar high-school backdrop with its mandatory post-pubescent misfit girls and bullying male jocks, the Spellman Mortuary as a central location for the action, the cartoonish “coven” and the semi-clueless, “heart-of-gold” boyfriend are some examples.
I especially like the supernatural special effects and the depiction of the demonic entities, which are what one would expect from this sort of thing but not greatly overblown. The “sleep demon” in the episode we watched last night (who tortures her victims through their nightmares) has to be the ugliest and most menacing evil presence since Nosferatu. Best line so far: Zelda, in her shared demonic nightmare with her frumpy sister Hilda, who is being amorously (and improbably) pursued in the dream by George Hawthorne, mocking her sister by saying: “You know what they say, ‘You can’t polish a turd.'” There are a few kitschy touches as well: a high-school girl’s club with the unfortunate acronym “W.I.C.C.A,” and “Daniel Webster” as Sabrina’s lawyer at her trial, who calls the three infernal judges “your Dishonor” with no hint of irony, among many similar inversions of titles and descriptors to render them “evil and averse.” My only quibble so far is that they show Satan with an upright pentagram on his brow, when Aleister Crowley will tell you it should be upside-down. Overall, I’m having some fun watching this series (probably the most in this particular genre since Harold and Maude), which originated in 2018 and has eleven episodes so far.