Love At Stake

Director:John Moffitt                                      
Patrick Cassidy, Kelly Preston, Bud Cort

"Long, long ago," says the narrator at the beginning of Love At Stake, "in merry ole England, there lived a warm and friendly, happy-go-lucky people who lived life to its fullest. Unfortunately, this movie isn't about them. This movie is about another group of people; so self-righteous, so sanctimonious, they even called themselves...Puritans." Yes, this is a comedy about Puritans, and it's the first of its kind that I can think of. Maybe that's part of the reason why I thought Love At Stake was so hilarious. This movie has all the makings of a cult classic, and I'm surprised that with its memorable cast and its general hilarity, that it's not become a cult movie. The only reason I can think of for its obscurity is that the major studio that released it gave it an inept theatrical release.

Actually, though the movie takes place in a Puritan colony, and involves people of the Puritan faith, it's not really a jab against fundamental religion. It does show elements of religious hypocrisy, the silliness of the thinking back then, and satirizes the Salem witch trials, but the movie only explores these themes on occasion. Much of the movie is devoted to the kind of humor found in movies by Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker and Mel Brooks - sight gags, puns, slapstick, and the idea of doing anything for a laugh. Though I would have liked to have seen a comedy skewering fundamental religion (and I still do), I did laugh a lot at Love At Stake - more than enough to give it my recommendation. There's a lot of effort to please audiences in this particular movie.

It's 1692 in Salem (a later tombstone says 1698, though.) Local baker Sara Lee (Preston) is overjoyed that her childhood sweetheart Miles (Cassidy) has returned to be the new assistant at Salem's church. But not is all well in Salem; the mayor (Dave Thomas) and the judge (Stuart Pankin) are in a panic, having squandered the money given to them by investors to buy surrounding land for the construction of Heritage Mall and Puritan Village. They get a brainstorm: If they accuse and execute people for witchcraft, it gets them the right to seize their victims' land. As they begin to execute this plan, a sexy stranger (Barbara Carrera) enters town to visit her cousin, and Miles catches her eye. What nobody knows is that this woman actually is a real witch, and her passive spell casting just adds to the hysteria building in Salem.

There are many different kinds of humor in Love At Stake, and it's surprising that overall each type manages to work. At several points, the movie neatly skewers clichés like lovers running to each other in slow motion (the lovers here keep missing the other's outstretched arms) and the "spinning newspaper" image (the camera pulls back to reveal the newspaper is stationary, tacked onto a revolving table); not only are these clichés transformed into absurd images, viewers also see how stupid the original clichés were in the first place. There are sight gags, like a carriage having a bumper sticker reading, "Honk if you love King Charles", or the Judge reading Screw Ewe magazine ("Baa Baa Baaaad Sheep!") The movie also manages to use some scatological humor to great effect, being actually amusing for once. One scene manages to outdo an infamous scene from Blazing Saddles, by being longer (and louder) than anything Mel Brooks ever imagined. There's also some hilarious tasteless humor with Bud Cort's character when he's stricken blind, and makes an ass out of himself through the rest of the movie, goofing up because of his lack of sight. (I guess the filmmakers realized they could safely poke fun of the blind, because anyone who would be really offended wouldn't be able to see this movie.) The gags keep coming at a machine gun pace, so if one gag fails, we know that soon we'll get a gag that will make us laugh. I admit the second half is kind of weaker than the first, with the humor relying more on (forced) slapstick, though it still has a good deal of laughs. The only humor of the movie that didn't work was one scene where, during a night of burning people at the stake(*), the citizens of the town make jokes at the screaming and burning people (and their later burnt corpses) and sing, "Kumbaya". This scene was too sadistic and mean spirited to generate any laughs.

The actors seem to be having a great time. Wisely, Cassidy and Preston, the heroes and most "normal" characters of the movie play it straight, making their reactions to the going-ons in town funnier than if they had played frenzied comic characters. Cort does well in a slapstick comic role, willing to make himself look ridiculous, as when his blind character plays the piano and bobs his head a la Ray Charles. Dave Thomas and Stuart Pankin make a great teamup as two people with different personalities but equal in the moron department. Barbara Carrera is suitable sexy and devious in her actions. There are also a few cameo appearances, the highlight being when Dr. Joyce Brothers visits Salem and tries to explain her psychological theories to the dimwitted people of the town.

The ending seems curiously rushed; it almost feels like the final few minutes were written on the day of shooting, because within a matter of a couple of minutes the crisis is averted in a contrived manner and the movie ends. It also leaves one or two minor plot threads not resolved, though in a movie like this, one isn't exactly concerned with the plot - the movie is an excuse to laugh for 83 minutes, and I did find Love At Stake more than funny enough to give my thumbs-up to. Actually, looking at that ending again, it contains a subtle message attune to the well known saying, "Those who can't remember the past are doomed to repeat it," so the ending isn't a complete washout after all. And speaking of that saying, I think I've found an exception to it - because I'm fondly thinking of Love At Stake as I write this, and I want to see it again.

UPDATE: Mary Ellen Nigh sent this:

"Just read your review of Love At Stake.  I also enjoyed this movie, almost despite myself.  I am an amateur genealogist and am a direct descendent of one of the women charged, tried and convicted of being a witch during the Salem Witch Trials.  I was glad to see your note at the end of the review, however one problem.  By the time the hysteria ended there were over 200 victims in various jails throughout Massachusetts (Because the local jails couldn't hold them all).  Some of the victims did manage to escape and had to hide far from their families and homes (my ancestress was one of those).  The insanity ended when the "girls" was foolish enough to accuse Lady Phipps (the wife of the Royal Governor).  I hope that you don't mind some additional information."

* Not many people know that in real life, nobody found guilty of witchcraft at the Salem trials was actually burned at the stake - all were hanged, except for one man who was pressed to death.

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See also: The Last Remake Of Beau Geste, Zoo Radio, Pandemonium