TV miniseries review: Salem Witch Trials (2002), directed by Joseph Sargent
Salem, Massachusetts, late 1600s. Some girls get into hysterical fits and claim to be controlled by witches. The whole town soon erupt in hysterics and start accusing women (mostly) of witchcraft, and what happens to those accused of witchcraft? They are executed.
Salem Witch Trials is a TV miniseries following the events of a region that get caught up in religious paranoia slash neighbourly disputes. There are the Putnams, where mother Ann (Kirstie Alley) gives birth to a still-born child and goes a bit mental with grief. Her husband (Jay O Sanders) quarrels with another family, and is not happy when his younger brother Joseph (Zachary Bennett, and it took me quite a long while before I suddenly exclaimed “HOLY CRAP, it’s Felix!!”) goes off to marry the daughter of the person he’s quarrelling with. One of the Putnam daughters, Annie (Katie Boland), is one of the children most eager to name the women of the town witches.
Meanwhile, Reverend Samuel Parris (Henry Czerny in a long-haired wig) struggles with basically having been bought by the locals to be their priest, and his wife Elizabeth (Rebecca De Mornay) is ill.
Things go from bad to worse for everyone when an old clergyman, William Stroughton (Peter Ustinov), comes to town to suss out the witches. He’s nothing if not eager. Not even respectable townsfolk like Rebecca Nurse (Shirley MacLaine) are safe when everyone’s out for blood.
This was a difficult watch. Not because it’s not the most amazing miniseries ever, but because the mass hysteria gripping everyone is truly frightening. It’s pretty clear that Annie Putnam was if not certifiably insane, at least extremely attention-seeking, and seemed to love getting everyone’s attention by being the one pointing out who’s a witch. Every time people turned their attention away from her, she would name another witch …
Her mother … good grief. She had a few loose screws too, but at least she came to her senses every now and again, and was one of the first to realise killing people based on incredibly flimsy charges perhaps isn’t the way to go.
The good thing about this miniseries is that it’s a good way of understanding what happened and how it could happen – and what needed to be done to stop it. Still, that it could happen in the first place is so very sad. That they told the story by following certain characters through the event was more or less inevitable – Elizabeth Gaskell did the same in Lois the Witch – but that they focused on the most out-there characters was … I’m not sure I liked that so much. I would had an easier time relating to someone like Rebecca Nurse, than the hysterical Mrs Putnam. On the other hand, I bet Kirstie Alley had fun with all the writhing and screaming she got to do.
Mrs Parris, despite being ill, realised her husband held more influence on her “afflicted” children than any would-be witches, and she dared to take her children and leave town. It takes courage and determination. Good on her!
I was a bit confused at one point, because I thought Annie had some kind of hysterical vision (she had had a few by that point) about [a couple of people], but it turned out no, it wasn’t a vision or what she would love to have done to these people, but in fact was those people being apprehended and thrown in jail. Abominable child nonetheless, but the rapid change confuse me. One minute, the people are there, next there’s a shot of Annie looking … scheming, and the next, it seems as if she’s having a daydream, except she isn’t.
If you want a bit of lighthearted entertainment, this ain’t it. It’s both depressing and frightening to see how people could act toward their neighbours when the chips are down. Turning the other cheek? No, accuse them of witchcraft and watch them hang, and when attention threatens to turn away from you, rinse and repeat. So, despite wanting to put half of the characters in the stocks and watch them rot, it was still a fairly good watch. Just not the best or the most pleasant one ever.
3.4 out of 5 nooses.