Thursday, October 9, 2014

The Crucible (1996)

The Crucible is not the fantasy/horror movie I've been looking for, since finding out that Salem's Lot is about vampires and not witches, but it is, at least, about the Salem witch trials. It's a very convincing period piece - in set, wardrobe, casting and language - that plays like a colonial courtroom drama. But it's one of the most riveting (and chilling) courtroom dramas I've ever had the pleasure of watching, every bit on par with the likes of A Few Good Men. And considering the historical significance of the Salem witch trials, I couldn't imagine a more fitting dramatization of the mass hysteria that contributed to such a heinous corruption of justice, resulting in the state-mandated murder of too many innocent people.

Winona Ryder stars as Abigail Williams, the scorned lover of John Proctor (Daniel Day-Lewis), a married man who resents his adulterous affair with her, and is trying to redeem his honor and good name. Guided by the voodoo traditions of a local slave woman, Abigail leads the village's young maidens in a ritual to incur the love of the men they each fancy, but takes things too far. A local Reverend catches them in the act, and fear of the devil's influence soon takes hold of the town. In absence of concrete proof of the supernatural, yet firm belief in the powers of god and the devil, even the court of justice finds itself beholden to sensational testimony. The less scrupulous townsfolk see in this an easy opportunity to get rid of their enemies, and soon accusations of witchcraft, not easily disproved, are flying. As tension builds, and the death toll mounts, John Proctor finds himself in a tenuous position; he may be able to put an end to the hysteria, but what will it cost him? And more importantly, how much is he willing to pay, to right the sins of his fellows?

It might be that you need the right sensibilities to properly enjoy this movie. It's not really about witches - just the fear of good Christian men and women falling into temptation and consorting with the devil. And it takes a little warming up to the period setting - the language, in particular, can be a hurdle. But if you give it a chance, once the trials commence, the tension just continues to build as the whole town falls apart over what begins as superstitious fear and ultimately reveals itself to be a travesty of misjustice, that the wheels of bureaucracy (even in colonial times) are mostly powerless (or careless) to stop. You don't have to be religious at all to appreciate it, you just need to have concern for the horrors that superstition and the justice system are capable of exacting on a population of more and less innocent (but all decidedly human) citizens. For myself, I give the movie my highest recommendation; it was a real surprise and a treat for me.

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