A perceptively produced and engaging historical drama, “Salem Witch Trials” is buoyed by its powerful performances. That is, if you can get past the first five minutes.
Director Joseph Sargent makes the confounding decision to begin the mini at the zenith of accusations of witchcraft as young girls, overcome with fear, face the accused who suddenly morph into screeching, green-faced demons.
In the ensuing four hours, however, it is obvious that scribe Maria Nation went to great pains to instill a sense of historical accuracy, weaving in subplots about community infighting, sexual politics and religious oppression in 1691 Salem, Mass. For the most part, her script offers many possible theories as to why a group of young girls would willingly play a part in 19 gruesome deaths without spoon-feeding viewers the answer. So why make with the “Scooby-Doo”-like antics?
As the mini flashes back to impetus of panic in the colony, the mini regains credibility. Night one introduces viewers to the dire circumstances of the time and place. There is no charter from England, so basically there is no written law. The oppressive Puritan religion is used to shame and scare its parishioners into good behavior. Indians, starvation and exposure are also a daily threat.
Even under such harsh conditions, a pall is cast on the community one particular winter. Ann Putnam (Kirstie Alley) gives birth to a third stillborn child. A neighbor’s barn is destroyed by fire and Ann’s husband Thomas (Jay O. Sanders) has lost a good deal of his wealth and standing in the community to some forward thinking businessmen.
With his job and reputation on the line, Rev. Parris (Henry Czerny) seizes on the notion that dark forces are abound in Salem and gets the rapt attention of his congregation. As his sermons become more stern and condemning, all of this fear, shame and stress is absorbed by the children of the town, in particular Annie Putnam (Katie Boland).
Annie, deeply disturbed by the death of her baby brother, senses the tension between her parents and the town. Her father shows more affection to the dog than to his own children, and the more Annie acts out, the more attention is granted to her.
Before long, a whole group of girls, frightened and confused by the mixed messages they receive from the adults, start behaving oddly. The accusations of witchcraft start flying, and with them come a sense of power for the girls.
In night two, panic grabs hold of the town. At first, the girls accuse the women with the lowest social standing in town, including Tituba (Gloria Reuben), beloved servant to the Parris children. Then it becomes anyone who speaks out against the trials. Rev. Parris gains new power with one of the leading roles in the witch trials, even if it further alienates him from his sickly wife, Elizabeth (Rebecca De Mornay).
New Massachusetts Gov. Sir William Phips (Alan Bates) sends his Deputy Governor William Stoughton (Peter Ustinov), a rigid Puritan, to preside over the hearings, but instead of bringing the town back to its senses, he calls for more hangings.
Soon the town is purged of Thomas Putnam’s enemies, as well as formerly respected community elders such as Rebecca Nurse (Shirley MacLaine). It isn’t until Ann, racked with guilt over these deaths, draws Phips back to Salem that order is restored.
Nation should be credited with creating a provocative account of such a shameful and confounding event in history — visual witchcapades notwithstanding. And for the most part, Sargent actualizes her story by creating a plausible climate and inducing believable performances from his actors.
Alley gets top billing as she’s given the biggest and most dramatic role; if this indeed marks a comeback, it’s a worthy start. MacLaine gives a surprisingly restrained effort for most of the movie but really shines when she becomes one of the accused. De Mornay also offers a strong turn as a voice of reason as does Bates as the showy William Phips.
While historically interesting and thought-provoking, the ugly hallucinations and difficult subject matter restrict the mini’s use as any sort of educational entertainment. Technically, the production is very well done. Nancey Pankiw’s sets reflect the cold and foreboding realities of the times while costumes offer viewers a glimpse of Puritan life beyond the big white collars and sacklike black dresses.