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Dragging The Lake

'Windswept,' by Lawrence Carradini


'Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692,' by Richard Godbeer. Oxford University Press.

Katherine Branch, a young indentured servant in the Westcot household, suffers terrible fits. When a medical examination fails to find the cause, the local healer suspects witchcraft -- not an unusual supposition in an early American colonial town in Connecticut. The afflicted girl accuses several neighbors, but only two go to trial -- Mercy Disborough and Elizabeth Clawson, who have had disputes with the Westcot family.
So begins an elegant telling of a little-known judicial episode long eclipsed by the more notorious Salem witch trials of the same year.
The author, an historian whose book is based on his research for a doctoral thesis, follows the trials with the backdrop of daily life in a Puritan community. He also dispels deeply-held assumptions and stereotypes about the era.
The author argues that the Salem witch trials were a tragic anomaly. Salem notwithstanding, he uses the 1692 Connectictut trials to depict what he argues was more typical of legal proceedings. Witchcraft claims were often met with skepticism, and the law required for rigorous examination of witnesses' testimony and other evidence.
A judge might even ask a jury to reconsider a guilty verdict if he was not satisfied that prosecutors had proven their case. With lively and suspensful story-telling, Godbeer does bring a corrective sense of balance and reason to views of a time so integral yet so little-understood in American history.


'Ed Wood, Special Edition.' Directed by Tim Burton. Rated R.

A perennial Halloween favorite, Tim Burton's 1994 tribute to the creator of 'Plan Nine from Outer Space' with Johnny Depp in the title role Martin Landau as Bela Lugosi is finally available on DVD.
Extras include a campy video to Howard Shore's title music, with a fetching Goth gal writhing and crawling through a campy dance with overtones of Beatnik brass and graveyard glam. A segment of behind-the-scenes footage is hosted by a characteristically droll Depp, decked out in a form-fitting angora sweater the likes of which were favored by Wood.
Also worth watching: a moving tribute segment, "Making Bela," about the delicate work of dramatizing the tragic life of Lugosi, who in is final years starred in several of Wood's signature films.

'Stranded.' Directed by María Lidón. Rated R.

Just when it seemed as if no one could possibly tell another original story about a manned expedition to Mars, of all places, Spanish director Maria Lidon and writer Juan Miguel Aguilera create the a stunning saga of an international space crew's ordeal on the red planet. When their capsule crashes, killing their captain, the crew members must establish a new chain of command and face anguished questions about their survival. It soon becomes clear that their resources won't sustain all of them, forcing three members, including the new captain, to leave the capsule. They decide to explore the Martian surface until their oxygen runs out, recording what they see, including a shocking underground discovery.
The crewmembers' individual fates evoke the tragedy of Robert Falcon Scott's doomed South Pole expedition as well as the childlike wonder of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoom chronicles. Suspenseful and powerful, 'Stranded' is both an elegant cautionary tale and celebration of the spirit of exploration.

'The Village.' Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Rated PG-13.

Admirers of this film decried the lack of attention it received when first released, and rightly so.
At first blush, this film looks like yet another one-dimensional take on the savageries of small town life, where superstition stands in the way of compassion and sound judgement. But this film is a courageous departure, whose characters, despite their anachronistic manner and dress and fear of the woods, are exuberant and likeable. They're also dedicated to preserving their tranquil way of life, which they believe is maintained by a pact with an unseen shape-shifter. One condition of that pact: no one trapses into the creature's woodland habitat. Most villagers are fine with that, until a self-reliant albeit blind young woman named Ivy decides she must get help when her new husband Lucius (Joaquin Phoenix) is seriously injured. For all their ingenuity, the villagers have little in the way of effective medicines, as seen in the plight of a mentally troubled young man (Adrien Brody.) It is suffering such as his and Lucius' that forces Ivy, her blindness notwithstanding, to consider the unthinkable: a journey through the woods to the ambiguous 'towns' beyond the perimeter, in the hopes of securing remedies.
The tremendous cast includes William Hurt and Sigourney Weaver as wise but short-sighted village elders, and draws its strength from real-life enclaves such as those of the Amish and the failed Utopian communes of the mid 19th century. DVD extras include an engaging short film made by the director as a child.


'The Ray Bradbury Theater.'

The USA network television series, hosted and co-produced by Bradbury himself, is an uneven retrospective of some of Bradbury's celebrated short stories. The new DVD collection includes all 65 episodes, including a handful based on chapters from "The Martian Chronicles" (which originated not as a novel but as a collection of short fiction.)
Among the more effective and enjoyable offerings: "The Pedestrian," in which David Ogden Stiers plays a scofflaw in a futuristic world; "The Dwarf," whose protagonist is a pretty young midway hawker who discovers an amusement park patron's secret torment, and "Tyrannosaur Rex," in which a clay animator uses his craft to get back at his overbearing boss.

Some episodes are too choppy, with endings that leave the viewer confused. Even Peter O'Toole cannot compsenate for the diminished coherence of "Banshee," inspired by the wailing ghost-woman of Irish folklore. "Boys! Grow Giant Mushrooms In Your Own Cellar" starts out with in a promising fashion, with a youngster's nursery of fungi in a gloomy basement, but the premise does not lend itself to the power of the original tale. It may simply be that someBradbury stories that don't lend themselves well to the television media, or require more than can be achieved with a cable television show budget.
For all its faults, the series is a wonderful act of preservation, with Bradbury's quirky introductions and insights into his own creative process. Both within and outside the horror/suspense genre, Bradbury remains an historic conduit between this century and the last and the model for the art of short fiction, which in irony worthy of Bradbury, faces its own uncertain future.

-- All reviews by Meg Smith.