Mass Hysteria


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Mass Hysteria
"With so many smart films about modern day witch hunts out there, it's not clear why anyone would watch this one."

Salem, Massachusetts belongs, like Whitby in Yorkshire or Glamis Castle in Angus, to that strange category of places made famous by events that never actually happened. Each year, in the run-up to Halloween, it's flooded by tourists who believe it lies under a curse and want to know the history of its witches, when the whole tragedy of the place is bound up with the fact that there were no witches, just ordinary people who were falsely accused and died brutal deaths because of it. There's even a belief that the witches must have been sexy and promiscuous, when sexual jealousy was part of the inspiration for those accusations.

For local people, the tourists may be irritating but they are also a source of revenue. Plays are performed throughout the old part of the town, portraying various takes on the historical events or just feeding the witch frenzy. Paige (Geena Santiago) performs in such a troupe alongside her friends Turner (co-director Jeff Ryan), Devin (Scott Swayze), Margie (Alexandra Dietrich) and Charlie (Luke Deardorff), but she has dreams of a more estimable acting career and is on the verge of leaving for New York City. It's on her last night that things go wrong. As she has doubtless done many times before, she points at an audience member when uttering a curse - and the man dies.

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Is this sheer bad luck? As the film develops, there are hints of a nasty, fast-acting infection taking hold of the tourist population; but infections, as we have recently seen, are beyond the understanding of many, who would far rather find human targets for their anger and distress. Local preacher Samuel (producer Matt Perusse) has never liked Halloween or the performers who make a living around it, regarding them as unchristian. Soon he's blaming Paige directly for causing the death in the theatre, whipping up a mob to hunt her down. A modern day witch hunt has begun.

Like many a film made by locals about famous places or events that happen there, Mass Hysteria combines the blessing of insider knowledge with the curse of assuming too much knowledge in the viewer. It provides a lovely tour of the old town and its traditions but tends to forget that its audience might not know how locations relate to one another, which becomes problematic as the hunt develops and it's important to keep track of how close people are. There's also an assumption that we'll understand where all the characters are coming from emotionally, with most of them getting next to no development.

Santiago makes a decent lead. Her character is so level headed, however, that it's hard to believe she's ever really in danger given how ridiculously everyone else behaves. The tourists are all one-note, Samuel has no real motivation beyond his shallow religious conviction and there's very little reason to care about any of them. Beyond the running around and shouting, not much happens. With so many smart films about modern day witch hunts out there, it's not clear why anyone would watch this one. Some may enjoy the multicoloured vomit and light bloodshed. There are some mildly funny lines. Technically, it's surprisingly polished given the circumstances in which it was made - but thematically, given the material it has to work with, it's astonishingly bland.

Reviewed on: 01 Oct 2020
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Mass Hysteria packshot
A group of Salem witch trial re-enactors find themselves at the centre of a modern day witch hunt.

Director: Arielle Cimino, Jeff Ryan

Writer: Jonathan T Coleman, Christopher O'Connell

Starring: Geena Santiago, Jeff Ryan, Scott Swayze, Alexandra Dietrich, Luke Deardorff, Destry Allyn Spielberg

Year: 2019

Runtime: 66 minutes

Country: US


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