Blu-ray Review: STRAW DOGS Ultimate 40th Anniversary Edition
With the remake about to hit cinema screens across the country, Sam Peckinpah's controversial 1971 thriller gets a newly restored release on Blu-ray.
The Film As is now custom on the heels of a remake, its time for a remastered Blu-ray release of a classic movie - in this case Straw Dogs, which has been remade to a poor critical reception by director Rod Lurie. The 1971 thriller - which deals with challenging themes of violence and repression - remains a difficult film from controversial director Sam Peckinpah.Dustin Hoffman stars as David Sumner, a nebbish and aloof American teacher, who moves to rural England to live with his British wife Amy (Susan George). Despite longing to leave behind the violence and chaos of life in the states, it soon becomes clear that conflict exists even in a quiet corner of jolly old England, as the pair become targeted by a local group of roguish roustabouts - whom leer over Amy and play tricks on David for being an outsider. As things become progressively worse, the couple find their already dysfunctional marriage beginning to unravel as well as being forced to take desperate - and uncharacteristic - measures to protect themselves and their home as it comes under attack by the increasingly violent mob.
What could quite easily be a generic thriller is anything but in the hands of Peckinpah, who melds together many themes of the Western - a genre to which he was most familiar - along with psychological thriller and even shades of the horror film. While the exciting ending evokes similar siege moments in films like Assault On Precinct 13, what makes Straw Dogs so compelling is the themes that it deals with - most notably mans inherent violence. In preparing to review this new Blu-ray release of the film, part of me though itd be interesting to try and talk about the film without mentioning its controversial rape scene - seeing as its been discussed to death by far more intelligent and analytical reviewers than myself. Lets face it though, seeing as its pretty much the sole reason why Sam Peckinpahs film remains so controversial - both then and still now - its almost impossible to not talk about the film without bringing up the moment in question. As David is out in the countryside trying a spot of bird hunting, Amy is raped by an ex-lover named Charlie (Del Henney) and then again by one of his goons Norman (Ken Hutchingson).
Its a distressing sequence to begin with, filmed with agonizing realism and lingering detail. Its perhaps worth noting that while shocking, Peckinpah keeps the camera - for the most part - on Amys face throughout the ordeal, rather than favoring nudity. Yet its this decision which caused the most outrage, as during particular moments of the sequence, it can be construed that Amy is in fact, beginning to enjoy the rape. This mere hint of suggestion led to the film being subject to notable cuts and eventually an imposed ban by the BBFC, preventing the film from being released on VHS for almost 20 years. It was finally granted an uncut release for the first time in 2002 - the version which is presented on this Blu-ray release. Its also fascinating that besides the unpleasant rape sequence, its a film which features a number of dubious points of contention which are still liable to cause offense. Its a violent film - perhaps not to the level of some modern thrillers or even the remake - but theres a grubby nastiness to its home invasion finale that sticks in the mind for long afterwards.
Peckinpah is still to this day accused of promoting views of misogyny throughout his work, and perhaps most notably here in Straw Dogs. Amy is depicted - at least in Davids eyes - as an unruly child, whom should do as shes told. When getting in his way at the films climax, she is hit across the face as a punishment for disobeying him. Likewise, David is shown frequently to resent her for her feminist traits - such as refusing to wear a bra. Equally though, what can be perceived as misogyny could also be argued to simply be a sign of David's decline into his repressed aggression. Its impossible to truly decipher exactly if any of the accusations thrown at Straw Dogs are indeed intended by Peckinpah, but the director himself argued that its simply a film which explores - but not necessarily condones - a number of issues surrounding the nature of violence. In re-watching Straw Dogs I was also blown away by Dustin Hoffman - who Ive been ever so slightly dismissive of late, after a number of dull performances. His portrayal of David Sumner is a masterclass in quiet intensity, with Hoffman seamlessly able to convince that his restrained academic could eventually snap and turn to violence.
Controversy aside, Straw Dogs simply works as a well-made and effective thriller which takes its time to build tension with its taut and tense first half, only to become spectacularly unhinged during its exciting house invasion climax. Peckinpahs usual flair for bloody action and unconventional editing, is marvelously exploited in a unique mix of rural English drama and brutal western. Peckinpah's distinctive style, the astonishing performances by Hoffman and George and a line-up of familiar faces from 70s British cinema make Straw Dogs a fascinating - if questionable - piece of work from a pioneer of controversial film-making. If that doesnt sound appealing, than perhaps youll enjoy the bizarre scene in which Dustin Hoffman throws a variety of different fruits at a cat - which possibly makes Straw Dogs worth watching in and of itself.
TransferStraw Dogs has always looked rough and grim - arguably increasing the effectiveness of the film - so I wasnt expecting to be blown away by this transfer. However, this newly restored print is a decent enough upgrade to previous releases, without compromising the naturally grainy look of the film, as well as taking into account its obvious lack of pristine clarity after 40 years. Theres been some minor controversy over this transfer compared to its U.S counterpart - most notably regarding the warmer contrast. Yet it seems this is more of an issue of preference, with the U.K transfer arguably offering a higher clarity of detail. Either way, this transfer has been apparently sourced from a rarely used theatrical print, making it hard to believe that the presentation is untruthful to the original look of the film.
ExtrasExtras are carried over from previous releases with the only new feature being a side by side comparison of the film before and after its restoration. Thankfully the set of extras - despite being recycled - still make this the definitive release of the film. Two commentaries accompany the film itself - the first with Peckinpahs assistant Katy Haber and the second with Peckinpah experts and biographers Garner Simmons, David Weddle & Paul Seydor. Both tracks offer fans two distinctive experiences, with one being a personal account of working with the director himself, whereas the second is a more critical and analytical look at the film and its many intricacies. A fascinating on-set documentary from 1971 includes candid interviews with Peckinpah, Hoffman and George, conducted by an hilariously stiff-upper-lip British host. This enjoyable piece is also accompanied by various more recent interviews with Susan George, producer Dan Melnick and Peckinpah expert Garner Simmons - all of which were conducted for previous releases of the film. The package is rounded out with trailers, TV and radio spots and image galleries as well as a text gallery featuring a selection of reviews, articles and letters - most of which dealing with the BBFC furore surrounding the film.
3.5/5Overall Straw Dogs remains one of Peckinpahs most challenging films, and is still liable to cause as much debate after 40 years. Fans of the film should enjoy this new anniversary edition, which features a remastered transfer and a solid - if rehashed - selection of extras.
rating: 3.5Straw Dogs is released on Blu-ray today from Fremantle Media