"The Crucible," a stunning new version of Arthur Miller's play, can be enjoyed on many levels - as a historical view of early America, a searing exploration of personal betrayal, a frightening look at mass hysteria and a pointed example of how one person's obsessive desire for revenge can have a destructive ripple effect in a small community.

And when you compare this story with more recent historical events, in which small American towns have been turned upside-down by prejudice and paranoia, it doesn't seem so far removed from the late 20th century.

That, of course, was precisely the point in 1953 when Arthur Miller first saw his play "The Crucible" produced in New York.

Miller wrote the piece as a thinly disguised indictment of Joseph McCarthy's House Committee on Un-American Activities, which headed up the anti-Communist fervor in the early '50s. As might be expected, the play was vilified by some critics, praised by others and seemed to strike a genuine chord with the theatergoing public.

What is truly remarkable, however, is how well the play holds up after all these years, even without that timely subtext. And this film adaptation, written by Miller and directed by Nicholas Hytner ("The Madness of King George") is absolutely riveting.

Set in Salem, Mass., circa 1692, the film begins with Abigail Williams (Ryder) and her teenage girlfriends being whipped into a frenzy as they dance around a fire in the woods during the dead of night, whooping, screaming, some of them dancing naked, in an apparent attempt to conjure up the devil himself.

And for good measure, Abigail invokes a charm designed to kill a local farmer's wife.

They are interrupted by the Rev. Parris (Bruce Davison), who is shocked by what he sees, and who will most certainly bring punishment down on the girls if they don't take some evasive action. So, Abigail, a Class-A manipulator, concocts a scheme that will put the girls in league - they will claim they have been possessed by evil spirits and plead for help and forgiveness.

But Abigail has her own agenda. It seems she has had an affair with local farmer John Proctor (Day-Lewis) and wants to get his wife Elizabeth (Allen) out of the way - thinking that if she does so, John will then be hers. But despite his indiscretion, John loves his wife, and in true "Fatal Attraction"fashion, this only serves to further enrage Abigail.

So, Abigail starts accusing others in town of being witches and influencing the girls' actions. Then she watches innocent people who are tried and sentenced to hang, as the entire town takes on a heated lynch-mob mindset.

But, of course, her real target is Elizabeth Proctor.

"Opened up" in the best sense by Miller and Hytner, "The Crucible" is filled with memorable scenes, vivid dialogue exchanges and a genuine sense of the period. Led by Day-Lewis, the ensemble cast is mostly excellent, with Allen, who was Oscar-nominated for her role as Pat Nixon in "Nixon," especially impressive.

Also quite good are Paul Scofield as Judge Danforth, whose pronouncements are influenced by Abigail's convincing performance; Rob Campbell as the more realistic and down-to-earth Rev. Hale; and an array of memorable character players.

Ryder, however, is all over the place, rolling her eyes, sneering wickedly and spewing out her lines in overheated emotion. After awhile, I began to find her performance redundant and overly contrived. And yet, somehow, the power of the film is such that this drawback seems minor.

If it were nothing else, "The Crucible" could be viewed as an important example of big-screen acting contrasts - a clash of wild-eyed, over-the-top performances (Ryder) and more subtle playing to the camera (Day-Lewis, Allen).

The more tempered performances are certainly the more gripping - and if Allen doesn't receive an Oscar nomination there is no justice.

Given the history of Oscar voters to give notice to the more flamboyant players, however, look for Ryder to get the nod.

"The Crucible" is rated PG-13 for violence and brief nudity.