By Terry Kelleher
March 10, 2003 12:00 PM

CBS (Sun. and Tues., March 2 and 4, 9 p.m. ET)

Wailing and gnashing of teeth are the order of the day in this miniseries about the terror that gripped the Puritan village of Salem, Mass., in the 1690s. But only in Part 2 do the melodramatics have real power.

The film opens with a frenzied scene of young girls screaming and pointing fingers in church. Witch here! Witch there! What the devil’s going on? Next, the script jerks us back 10 months and starts establishing the religious and social climate that contributed to this hysteria. As the characters shuffle about in their authentically drab grays and browns, the story bogs down in matters of property, politics and family rivalry. We get the idea that community leader Thomas Putnam (Jay O. Sanders) and the Reverend Samuel Parris (Henry Czerny) have some self-interest in driving the witch-hunt, but we gain too little insight into the mind of the key accuser, Putnam’s daughter Annie (Katie Boland).

The second half sharpens when two veteran British actors come to the fore: Alan Bates as William Phips, the colony’s skeptical new governor, and Peter Ustinov as his pompous, stone-hearted deputy, William Stoughton. Though confined to gazing heavenward and murmuring pieties in Part 1, Shirley MacLaine eventually gives impressive moral stature to the character of Rebecca Nurse, an alleged witch whose manifest innocence gives even Stoughton pause. On the other hand, you may weary of Putnam’s hand-wringing wife, Ann (Kirstie Alley), long before she moves to stop the madness.

BOTTOM LINE: Worthy but terribly trying