I was around 15, not particularly sober and late night channel surfing with a friend when we stumbled across a film seemingly about a bunch of inbred West Country folk with a bloody vendetta against a nerdy American. With only three other channels on offer this seemed like a winner, and we were increasingly transfixed and rather shocked as the violence escalated. This grisly scrap wasn’t the kind of violence we were used to in films; no Schwarzenegger or Willis delivering slick one-liners after each evil robot or terrorist had been eliminated. I later found out that the film was Straw Dogs (1971).
It was with a greater contextual knowledge that I revisited Straw Dogs at the Barbican this week. A conversation between lead actress Susan George, Sam Peckinpah’s assistant Katy Haber and scholars Julian Petley and Stevie Simkin, who’s just written an insightful book about the controversy surrounding Straw Dogs, followed the screening. Alongside anecdotes about the cruel techniques Peckinpah used to wrench distraught performances from Susan (such as telling her that her dad may die before filming completes), interesting discussion was provided on the film’s struggle against the censors, causing ripples that have effected how the BBFC rates films for decades. The recent remake hasn’t even caused a splash.
So, 40 years on, does the film retain its power to shock in the era of human centipedes and Lars von Trier? I found this week’s screening an incredibly intense and uncomfortable experience. Central to this is Peckinpah’s mastery of cinematic technique and the chilling, complex performances on offer. During the notorious rape scene Susan’s character, Amy, momentarily becomes disturbingly complicit in her first attacker’s assault, reaching up to kiss him whilst tears trickle down her face, the camera focusing predominantly on her expressions rather than showing the attack in graphic detail. The intensity builds agonisingly in the proceeding scenes, reaching its pinnacle as Amy goes to a church social event attended by her attackers in which children’s cries and friendly greetings form a suffocating cacophony, intercut with brief glimpses of the rape. Peckinpah never allows us respite, each scene coming loaded with the horrors of those that came before.
Straw Dogs isn’t a horror film, but has proved highly influential to the genre. Key ‘video nasties’ The Last House on the Left (1972) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978) added horror motifs to Straw Dogs’ elements of rape-revenge and home invasion. Simkin provides some discussion into this in his book, but seems keener to slag off both films than offer analysis into the evolution of Straw Dogs’ influence (for the record I Spit on Your Grave is an incredibly nasty, crass film, but The Last House on the Left has more complexity). One intriguing device that certain horror films, particularly Wes Craven’s early features, somewhat bizarrely adopted from Straw Dogs is the protagonist’s use of booby traps forged from ordinary (and some very unusual) household items to fight their attackers.
Straw Dogs sees David (Dustin Hoffman) boil up pots of oil to throw over the locals, and snare one of them in a man trap he conveniently has to hand. Films like The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) took this to new extremes, with Nancy (Heather Langenkamp) in the latter having to swot up on her booby traps before she can take on Freddy Krueger.
Even those unfamiliar with Craven’s films will likely have witnessed an incredibly sadistic use of this device in what is considered a family comedy and cheery Christmas film; Home Alone (1990). Tasked to protect his home against two burglars Kevin (Macaulay Culkin) constructs a range of elaborate traps to cut, burn and launch heavy objects at them before torturing them with spiders. These vicious attacks that could kill, or at least maim, an ordinary man have little to no lasting effect on the burglars, who repeatedly return for more punishment, apparently teaching children that inflicting such pain on others will have no serious effects. And where were the censors? Probably scoffing mince pies and having a good old chuckle.
Meanwhile, Straw Dogs shows both the grisly physical effects of violence and the psychological trauma Amy and David are put through, then gets banned on home video in the UK until 2002. With its influence on show everywhere from the grindhouse to the family favourite it was never far away though. I haven’t seen the remake so can’t pass judgement (I’ll just quietly assume it’s shit) but, with Straw Dogs’ ripples still visible, is it really necessary?