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Straw Dogs (1971)

Now that all the furore has died down, it's clear for us all to see - Straw Dogs is not a horror film. It's also kind of hard to see what all the fuss was about, as well. Perhaps watching it on murky pirate video for all those years lent it a "nastiness" which was never there in the first place?

Looked at through 21st century eyes on pristine quality DVD, Peckinpah's west country Western is quite obviously a brilliantly made, disturbing film, but horror? Only if The Outlaw Josey Wales is horror. After all, both flicks have rape, revenge, and bucketloads of violence, as do many of the latter day "cowboy films". Perhaps we decided that Straw Dogs should be classed as horror because it's uncomfortably close to home? After all, it's one thing to see Indio in Leone's For A Few Dollars More rape and murder at will, but that was happening in Mexico. Italy. Well, a desert somewhere. But there's something exceptionally chilling, for us people in Blighty (where such things never happen, of course), about the idea that those big men we drink next to in the pub are just one step away from taking our wives and invading our homes - just because they can.

From it's opening scenes right through to the shattering climax, Straw Dogs never pretends to be anything other than a Western, either - it doesn't matter how many scenes of tranquil village life Peckinpah decides to show us (and the very first scene is exactly that - church bells, children playing, Susan George's chest bouncing around in a tight-fitting jumper…)

And Dustin Hoffman, despite being the only American, is the one who's hideously out of place in the Western-style pub Peckinpah decides to shove him into on the lookout for cigarettes. In tried and tested fashion, he's greeted with silence and much side-to-side shifty eye action. Hoffman's effeminate David has already shown himself to be embarrassed about his chosen career (mathematician) in front of George's ex boyfriend Charlie, and he's the only one who scurries into a corner when Peter Vaughan's terrifying village patriarch Tom kicks off when told it's closing time. The sense of David being an outsider is palpable - nervous and tiny compared to the huge and relaxed village men, he's about as inadequate a character as you'll see in any film.

The plot is explained very quickly - David Sumner and his wife Amy (George) have returned to Amy's home village to start a new life together. She has a history with one of the village men, Charlie ("We can take care of our own here, Amy - and usually do. Remember when I took care of you, Amy?" / "But you didn't, I remember." / "There was once a time, Mrs Sumner, where you were prepared to beg me for it…"), and there's a sub plot involving the village paedophile, Henry Niles (the wonderfully seedy David Warner).

Initially, despite his experiences in the village, David seems quite happy with both Amy and their new home - a dilapidated farm on the outskirts of the village. But the pair have a strange relationship from the off, a bizarre little exchange between the pair of them giving an unfortunate echo of problems to come, when David tells his wife: "You act like you're 14."

"I am," Amy replies. "Wanna try for 12?"

"How about eight? I freak out for eight year olds!"

It's a good job the village men weren't around to hear that, otherwise the film would have been an awful lot shorter…

After a night of passion, David insists that Amy leave him along with his work, something she's not overjoyed about. Meanwhile, outside a group of village men (including Charlie) are doing some "real" work - re-roofing an outbuilding's roof (something which David admits he would be incapable of achieving).

When Amy complains that the men are staring at her, David, not wanting to cause friction, congratulates them on their taste. Infuriated by what she sees as her husband's cowardice ("I know why you're here… could it be that there is no place else left to hide?") she goes upstairs and strips to the waist at the window, in full view of them all (and a very nice view it is, too).

Hoffman continues his exercise in half-mannishness by showing David skipping effeminately and proving unable to drive a (more manly, obviously) stick-shift car (much to the hilarity of his builders). Unable to deal with the brutish village men, he takes his frustrations out on the more genteel members of village society when paid a visit by the local Colonel (TP Mckenna), the vicar (Colin Welland) and his wife. David acts like complete prick - playing a record of bagpipe music REALLY LOUD and then alienating the few people who he might actually get along with by going into an anti-religious rant.

On retiring to bed, David finds Amy's dead cat hanging in the wardrobe - but rather than dealing with it himself, he sits down and lets his wife find it. The distraught Amy tells him it's a message from the village men: "To prove to you they can get into your bedroom!"

But he still refuses to confront them: "I'm not going to go out there and just blatantly accuse them!"

"Perhaps you'd like to write them a note on your blackboard," Amy replies, dismissively.

It's then that the village men play their trump card. Seemingly deciding to take the nervous American under their wing, they ask him to come out shooting with them - a chance for a spot of male bonding which David jumps at, despite Amy's obvious trepidation (does she know what they've got planned?).

As David is left alone in a field waiting for the birds to be beaten into view, Charlie goes back to the farm and is invited in by Amy. "Would you like me to go?" He asks her, "I will, you know."

"No," she replies. "Stay and have a drink."

She then kisses him, but changes her mind. "Please leave me. Get OUT!" The pair trade punches (his just a bit firmer than hers) and despite several "nos" from the upset girl, they have sex on the sofa, the climax coming as David finally manages to bag a bird (a deed he's none too happy about).

Of course, just as we're all thinking "what was all the fuss about?", the real horror kicks in. A contented Charlie opens his eyes to find himself staring down the barrel of a gun held by his "friend". Amy is grabbed by the unhappy Charlie and… well, you know the rest.

For such a notorious scene, it's over very quickly. But the speed doesn't lessen its impact (although why it stopped the film being released so long is a mystery). David returns to find his wife quieter than usual, and their conversations are saturated with irony.

"I'm firing Venner and Scutt tomorrow." / "Good for you, tiger." / "Because they stuck it to me on the moors today."

And Amy comments: "They also serve who stay at home and wait."

But perhaps most telling, from Amy's point of view, is this exchange…

"When are you ever going to learn about growing up?" / "I'm trying to!"

Unable to tell her husband what has happened, Amy tries to bury the memory. But she starts having flashbacks at the village dance and David takes her away. Unfortunately, Niles has been approached by the village strumpet (Sally Thomsett) and accidentally kills her in a scene loaded with tragic inevitability. The Sumners' car hits him as he makes his escape from the drunken village men, and despite Amy's misgivings, David takes the injured perv home with them.

As the farmhouse becomes besieged, David finally finds the gumption needed to stand up to the men, but at what cost?

Straw Dogs is a brilliant film, there's no denying that. Hoffman's performance is sensational, and totally believable - and the village men are perfectly cast (although dressed slightly anachronistically for the time). And the battle which makes up the end of the film, as David defends himself in a brilliantly academic way, is one of the great "guilty pleasures" of British horror cinema, with David explaining his actions with a simple "This is my house" yet still seeing the other men's side: "I know how they feel, I'd feel the same way if my kid was missing," yet refusing to budge an inch. And at the end, he looks just a little bit too pleased with himself.

"Jesus… I got 'em all…"

Director: Sam Peckinpah Writer(s): (in credits order) Gordon Williams (novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm) (as Gordon M. Williams), David Zelag Goodman and Sam Peckinpah

Cast: Dustin Hoffman - David Sumner, Susan George - Amy Sumner, Peter Vaughan - Tom Hedden, T.P. McKenna - Major Scott, Del Henney - Charlie Venner, Jim Norton - Chris Cawsey, Donald Webster - Riddaway, Ken Hutchison - Norman Scutt, Len Jones - Bobby Hedden, Sally Thomsett - Janice Hedden, Robert Keegan - Harry Ware, Peter Arne - John Niles, Cherina Schaer - Louise Hood, Colin Welland - Reverend Hood, June Brown - Mrs. Hedden, Chloe Franks - Emma Hedden, Michael Mundell - Bertie Hedden, David Warner - Henry Niles


Last updated: February 27, 2010

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