Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, first-look review: this reboot is absolutely nothing like the Nineties original

Kiernan Shipka stars as Sabrina - CAS101c_0051
Kiernan Shipka stars as Sabrina - CAS101c_0051

If you were a child when Sabrina the Teenage Witch was a big deal, you’ll have fond memories of sassy sorceress Melissa Joan Hart, her kooky aunts Hilda and Zelda, her devoted floppy-haired boyfriend Harvey and, of course, Salem, the fairly unconvincing but charming animatronic talking cat.

And now, a reboot! A chance, after all these years, to sit down with all the family and relive the show’s late Nineties glory days! Think of the lighthearted laughs! What a delight!  

Stop. Instead, take your laptop into a dark corner with a strong drink – Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is, quite deliberately, nothing like the sweet little sitcom you remember. While Harvey, Hilda, Zelda and Salem are all present, there are no cute makeover spells and Britney Spears cameos here. In fact, this dark twist on the tale of Sabrina Spellman the high school “half-witch”, the product of a warlock father and mortal mother, has more in common with its Netflix stablemate Stranger Things than it does with the original (comic book nerds, we know Sabrina has taken many twists and turns in print, but we’re square-eyed here).   

From the makers of Riverdale – another Netflix show which is considerably darker than your average teenage drama – Sabrina 2.0 stars the always excellent Kiernan Shipka (Mad Men) as our girl next door witch. She’s not quite as petulant and sardonic as Sally Draper here, but she’s just as strong and enchanting.

The story begins in the run-up to Sabrina’s 16th birthday, which she’ll celebrate with a “dark baptism” and enrolment in witch school. The trouble is, Sabrina’s a little torn – does she want to embrace her spooky destiny or is she happy at Baxter High with her oblivious boyfriend Harvey (Ross Lynch) and her best friends Ros (Jaz Sinclair) and Susie (Lachlan Watson), who are both battling their own, rather more down to Earth, adolescent issues?

Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto - Credit: Diyah Pera/Netflix
Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Davis and Miranda Otto Credit: Diyah Pera/Netflix

So far, so Nickelodeon, but this incarnation of Sabrina also features murderous zombies, terrifying demons, a dead twin living in his sibling’s stomach, casual after-school exorcisms, other-worldly orgies and, perhaps most terrifyingly of all – and this isn’t so much a spoiler alert as a heads-up for any passing arachnophobes – millions of spiders creeping into a man’s house and crawling all over him. Aaaaaaargh.

While there's plenty of humour and romance to be found, this isn’t a high-school comedy, it’s a horror series, with some genuinely scary moments. Sabrina the witch might be forever a teenager, but Sabrina the show is all grown-up. It’s a clever move, since those of us who enjoyed the perkier version from our youth will tune in out of curiosity, while a new generation of Netflix junkies can take this sexier, more sinister version at face value.  

Like Riverdale, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina takes place in a curiously timeless setting. The characters are largely wearing mid-century clothing, Baxter High School has a distinctly Fifties feel and the whole town of Greendale appears frozen in time.

The retro aesthetic adds to the overall creepiness – it just wouldn’t feel as atmospheric if everyone had contoured cheeks and hair extensions while snogging to Ed Sheeran songs, and yet there are occasional hints that all is not as it appears, with the teenagers using iPhones, ordering lattes and chatting about feminism and sexuality in a decidedly contemporary way. 

Kiernan Shipka isn’t the only cast member who shines – Michelle Gomez (Doctor Who, Gotham) is sublime as sinister teacher Miss Wardwell, and The Office's Lucy Davis nails the warm and cuddly Aunt Hilda. With season two pencilled in, we’re hoping the character of Ambrose, Sabrina’s pansexual British cousin and confidante (played by newcomer Chance Perdomo), gets a little more airtime. Sure, his whole existence involves him being trapped in the Spellmans’ gothic mansion cum funeral parlour, but it does mean his involvement in the bulk of the action is a little limited.

Salem the cat is still essential to a few of the storylines, though, and that’s the main thing – although this time he is less about sarcastic one-liners and more about saving Sabrina from death, demons, eternal damnation and what-not. Aww.