"Salem Witch Trials" is a wail of a movie. Also a moan, a groan, a shriek and a scream. It's hard to imagine a more punishing way to spend four hours in front of a television set -- or to recall a film that asks more of an audience and gives it less.
The most conspicuous failure of Maria Nation's script for the two-part CBS film (airing tonight and Tuesday night at 9 on Channel 9) is that it doesn't justify digging all this up again, except that the docudrama is reputedly based on recently unearthed information about the ordeal and that, curiously enough, the last five Salem women to be wrongfully convicted of witchcraft weren't officially pardoned until 2001.
In his 1953 play "The Crucible," Arthur Miller used the grim Salem saga -- a community gripped by a lethal form of mass paranoia -- as a metaphor for the latter-day witch hunts of Sen. Joe McCarthy and his fellow anti-Commie cuckoos. But Nation doesn't appear to be using it as a metaphor for anything. She just lays it out there, confusingly and unconvincingly, a lest-we-forget lecture that actually makes forgetting seem preferable.
The trials could be seen as an extension of the male chauvinism and outright misogyny of the Puritans and their era; almost everyone charged with witchcraft is female, and any sign of lustfulness in women is considered unseemly. But the film depicts so many terrified women twirling themselves into hysterics -- weeping and squealing and freaking out -- that the point is lost.
Kirstie Alley plays Ann Putnam, a character who at first acts as though she might be the one to stand up to the deranged male accusers and assert herself. But then she turns out to be quite the whimpering ninny, too.
Alley's idea of acting is to build up to the big line in a speech and then whisper it so it can't be heard. And from the looks of things, she wasn't quite as heavily padded to play the zaftig heroine of "Profoundly Normal," another recent CBS movie, as it seemed at the time. When she moves about rooms in "Salem Witch Trials," she looks as if she could use a tugboat escort.
The cast is pretty auspicious for such a dank downer of a movie. Rebecca De Mornay appears as the wife of the town's ambitious new minister (Henry Czerny), who helps whip up the general frenzy as part of a cunning power play; Peter Ustinov arrives in Part 2 as church elder William Stoughton, a superstitious old fool; Alan Bates soon follows as Gov. William Phips, one of the few characters with even an ounce of sanity, and, as Rebecca Nurse, another of the accused, Shirley MacLaine unwisely agreed to a nude scene, backside only.
No, Rebecca's not gettin' it on with a farmer. She's required to undress in the courtroom so her body can be searched for marks that would identify her as a witch. Like so much of the procedure at the trials, this was a hypocritical formality since virtually any old mark would do.
Director Joseph Sargent is a hardened pro who must have grown a little soft in the head since his last picture. He doesn't do much to help the audience tell one character from another, and with everyone dressed alike in bleak black and white, it's not easy. Alley, with her 14-pound coiffure, is recognizable, of course, though much of her screen time is given over to just sitting, listening and mulling.
Alley mulls, and the other women scream. This includes the little girls of the community, any of whom will pitch a fit at the drop of a stitch. Their hands flutter wildly while they hurl themselves around, yelping and screaming and crying. These seizures go on and on and on, and just when you've recovered from the last one, a new one starts.
At first the screaming is annoying. Then its excess becomes laughable. Finally one is numbed by the ludicrous repetition. It doesn't help that color is drained, literally, from much of the movie and that the interiors are drab and ugly. It's not likely Ethan Allen will be unveiling its new Witch Trial Collection any time soon. When the villagers gather as a mob, which is the only way they do gather, it looks as if there's been an explosion at the Quaker Oats factory.
Part 1 opens with many of the screamers already at full tilt. A shrieking girl points to an alleged witch, and we see what she thinks she sees, a menacing green specter floating in the courthouse air. This gimmick is dropped, though, and in most other such scenes we don't share whatever visions the deranged girls think they see.
Soon it's "Ten Months Earlier," the merry Salem of winter 1691, apparently about as much fun as winter 2003 in metropolitan Washington. A long printed prologue ensues to tell us "it is seventy-one years after the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth" and that Salem is a community whose only government is the church.
"Into this world," the prologue goes on, "a handful of girls are about to unleash a terror so great that it will forever curse the town of Salem." So then, girls come by the "handful" here and conspire to unleash "terror"? Actually the script cites a number of causes, including a family rivalry (the Putnams vs. the Porters), church politics and simple if absolutely staggering stupidity on the part of the Puritan villagers.
As if there weren't enough screaming in church, there's soon a scene of Alley in childbirth with all the screaming that entails, followed by the realization that her baby boy was born dead, thus precipitating hysterical tears. Sargent gives us repeated looks at the dead baby as Alley cradles, cuddles and sings to it.
Then she has a vision, and it's a pip: MacLaine with her arms full of dead babies, floating around the room -- an occasion that, of course, calls for still more screaming and general apoplexy.
William Proctor (David Christo), apparently the only young man around for a hundred miles, entertains a few of the local girlies by doing birdcalls from a tree. They're all enjoying the fun until a prude snaps, " 'Tis sinful! Stop it!" We never see William again. Maybe he flew away. Soon a wagon to which two naked fat women are shackled rumbles by while the minister rails against "unholy fornication."
The minister is a monster who looks upon Alley and other women with lust in his eyes; when he sees three women cavorting around a bathtub, he seems to be composing a letter to Penthouse Forum in his head. There was no Penthouse then, of course, and no TV, either, so little girls had to interpret the way eggs separate when broken as their evening's entertainment. When one of the girls thinks she sees a coffin shape in an oozing yolk, she naturally goes into a screaming fit, the Salem equivalent of, oh, sending an e-mail. Or breathing.
The film is inordinately depressing because viewers even slightly familiar with the story know that a happy ending is pretty much out of the question and that the truly guilty won't be suitably punished. At least in Michael Reeves's 1968 cult classic "The Conqueror Worm," about fanatical witch hunts in England, Vincent Price as the Witchfinder General is hacked to bits in the final frames by the boyfriend of one of his victims.
In "Salem Witch Trials," we see cartload after cartload of women hauled out to the hanging tree and executed, their meaningless deaths accompanied by still more screaming, wailing and rolling about on the ground by onlookers.
Anyone's mind is bound to wander when confronted with a spectacle as riddled with redundancy as this one. My mind wandered to a scene from "The Band Wagon," a very funny old MGM musical about the theater world. An overenthused director tries to turn a cheerful Broadway play into a pageant about the horrors of Hell -- bodies writhing in flame as lost souls succumb to "eternal damnation."
On hearing this misinterpretation, Oscar Levant, as the play's co-author, sarcastically remarks, "That'll leave 'em laughing."
"Salem Witch Trials" may inspire viewers to giggle and chuckle here and there, but it's more likely than anything else to leave 'em sleeping. No matter how awful the content of the 11 o'clock news, it's bound to seem welcome by comparison.