Stream to Scream: “SALEM: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON”Fearful Features,Movies/TV,News Ken W. Hanley
When it comes to horror television, there seems to be a certain expectation in terms of what audience you’re gunning for. For fans of more serious scare fare, THE WALKING DEAD and PENNY DREADFUL have spawned many grounded, unabashedly bleak TV series of the same vein. Meanwhile, less serious series such as AMERICAN HORROR STORY and ASH VS. EVIL DEAD offer more humor and general bloodshed than its counterparts. And then there’s the horror shows of network television, most of which offer the genre elements as a framing device around melodramatic, angst-driven romance stories and cheeky humor.
Though it may appear to be the latter on a superficial level, WGN America’s SALEM lands somewhere between the former two categories of horror programming yet with something much more pure to the genre within its heart. Largely eschewing digital FX when it doesn’t absolutely need them, SALEM evokes the provocative, immersive experience of Hammer Horror with providing the exploitative flamboyant edge of modern macabre. Add in a largely ingenious concept- a series following the Salem Witch Trials spurred on and manipulated by the actual witches- and SALEM offers something much more visceral and clever than those who mistake it for a CW-esque fringe frightener.
Created by Corman protege Adam Simon and STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION producer Brannon Braga, SALEM’s first season runs before it walks, leaping into action with a shocking and bloody first episode that includes torture-by-crushing, burned flesh, full body make-up FX and a brutal possession sequence where a young woman is bound like a bloodhound and forced to point out witches. But even as for all the violence and luridness on display, of which certainly gains gravitas in the latter half of the season, SALEM is as good as it is because of the characters on display and the strength of its scripts. By never making any character truly good or evil with extra dimensions and convictions to their particular causes, SALEM avoids falling into the world of caricatures sometime associated with the growing ensemble of AMERICAN HORROR STORY.
While the second season of SALEM is where the show reaches horror nirvana, there seems to be something for every kind of fright fan in the series first season. For gorehounds, there’s dismemberment, torture, beheadings, executions, stabbings and much, much more, almost all of which are achieved with spectacular practical FX work. For fans of witchcraft and the supernatural, there’s tons of fantastic mysticism to sink their teeth into, with plenty of rituals involving blood, demons, illusions, cursed animals and manipulated nature on display. And for fans of the more Gothic and psychological horror, there’s a certain stylistic flair that comes with the period piece setting and cinematography that is guaranteed to capture eyes and imaginations.
SALEM’s first season also comes to life in part to the stellar cast attached to the series, each of whom bring their unique skill set to the story at hand. Janet Montgomery is absolutely excellent as lead witch Mary Sibley, whose romantic sub-plot is as rich as the outright diabolical plans and spells she puts into action. Meanwhile, a superbly matter-of-fact Shane West plays her troubled foil, while Ashley Madekwe, Elise Eberle, Seth Gabel, Tamzin Merchant, Iddo Goldberg and Xander Berkeley all hold their own as the various tortured residents of Salem. However, the first season’s strong second-half is bolstered by the appearance of Stephen Lang as Increase Mather, bringing the sadomasochistic witch persecutor to life with purpose and gravitas.
Overall, SALEM is the perfect example of a show not to judge by its cover art, as the series is honestly one that features many of the touchstones that makes the genre so damn memorable. Although the first season may not be the petrifying perfection of some other fright fare, it’s more than a solid start into the Lovecraftian fictional recreation of SALEM, especially considering how far the show pushes its standards and practices department. It’s certainly a season worthy of your time, and one that will likely make the wait for the second season on the streaming service much more difficult.
The Complete First Season of SALEM is streaming on Netflix Instant.