Best of 2018: Netflix's Chilling Sabrina and Haunted Hill House

Netflix has been on fire this Fall with not one but TWO fantastic series. Truth be told, many of Netflix’s original offerings have been middling at best so my expectations were not super enthusiastic for a teen witch reboot and yet another Hill House adaptation. Boy was I wrong, and a result I almost passed two of the best horror series ever. Here’s my thoughts on those.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina

With the dirge of sitcom reboots cluttering the TV landscape, the last thing we needed was a redux of the campy teenage witch show. Thankfully we didn’t get that. The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is wickedly entertaining and deliciously dark visual feast that reinterprets the original comic book into something truly special. Every shot is carefully composed on the screen with sumptuous sets,  darkly whimsical costumes, fish-eyed cinematography adds a disorienting touch, and the perfect cast embodies this vivid world. This is a fun ride that conjures quite a spell.

Conceived as a companion piece to the (often dark) CW show, Riverdale, this show creates its own fully realized world where witches are hidden in plain sight. The remarkable Kiernan Shipka plays the titular role, a teenager about to blossom into adulthood, whose very blood has been promised to the devil in exchange for great power and immortality. It means leaving all that she knows behind, including her friends, boyfriend and school, and it’s all just too much for this plucky and smart girl.

Evoking the devil-centric subgenre of 70’s horror movies, I was surprised at how unabashedly "satanic" the show is. Yet I wouldn’t say that it glorifies the devil since there’s a strong undercurrent of subversion going on. Capturing the zeitgeist exquisitely, it dares to question why the dark one (often referred to as a male) should subjugate witches (females) to his will. Throughout the season, both of Sabrina’s witchy aunts go against their sworn oaths and defy Satan, which leads to the greater question of where the loyalty of this coven lies. There’s a clear struggle of will, further complicated by the distinction made between humans and witches (as if they are a different species) and some puzzling, half-hearted attempts at wickedness.

This leads to one unexplainable fumble. Late in Part 1 characters seem to make a series of decisions that go against their very nature. Normally this kind of strife is good but some of those choices seemed motivated by furthering the plot along than staying true to the characters. This type of character manipulation evokes telenovela shenanigans instead of fully supported actions but perhaps more will be revealed in Part 2 (premiering in April 2019).

The Christmas Special (!!) which premiered Dec. 14 is a delightfully odd duck that takes a look a the darker side of the season and incorporates an interesting bit of folklore from Iceland. Again I'm confused by satanic witches celebrating the solstice with decorated trees, mountains of cookies, and a yule log but perhaps I'm too rooted in Christian traditions to fully recognize alternative pagan rituals. Personally, I would love to spend the evening at the Spellman house.

The Haunting of Hill House

The name Mike Flanagan may not  ring a bell, but he is the mastermind behind The Haunting of Hill House serving as the creator,  writer and director of all 10 episodes. He is also the director of Gerald’s Game, Hush, Oculus, Ouija: Origin of Evil, and the upcoming The Shining sequel, Doctor Sleep. This guy just keeps knocking it out of the park in horror and has surpassed even the once interesting James Wan. The throughline is clear: he knows how to write scripts that are rooted in very real, deep emotional turmoil, and then films them beautifully in well orchestrated shots. Timing is everything in horror and he knows how to play the beats and stay ahead of the audience.

For these reasons, Hill House succeeds brilliantly first as a family drama that captures the audience and then when the story is well underway, scares them with the horrors inflected on them. Horror series are particularly difficult to pull off since they are episodic and have to repeat the beats over and over, closing the current arc after each episode. It’s almost impossible to maintain any momentum. Which is why binging this show in two or three episodes cycles really helps.

The structure of this story is also quite unique, jumping around in time and space but doing so in smart way that actually adds to the suspense and story (unlike every episode of American Horror Story that uses this same technique to delay gratification and with no artistry whatsoever). The first few episodes revolve around a specific character while fleshing out the exposition and slowly revealing the haunting. By the time you get to episode 5, a crucial horror is fully revealed in a surprising and thought provoking way. Episode 6 is a masterwork of filmmaking with long, uninterrupted takes which happen in both the present and past! We the rush through towards the finale that is both satisfying, emotional, and resolute, which is probably the most surprising part.

The most interesting aspect of this show is how good it is the second time around. A second viewing is requires not only to see all the connections you missed the first time, but also all the ghosts. Every episode has at least one ghost that lingers somewhere in the frame at some point. It’s a little creepy that they were there the first time I watched it and my conscious mind didn’t register it, my subconscious certainly did. Every episode was unsettling in subtle ways that I didn’t even comprehend so kudos to Flanagan for creating a truly unique experience.