Straw Dogs on Blu-ray & DVD

Monday, 24 October 2011 05:38

1971 was a big year for controversial, censor-baiting movie releases in that both “A Clockwork Orange” and “Straw Dogs” were unleashed on an unsuspecting public. Now, 40 years after its release, Sam Peckinpah’s shocking fable about the thin line between civilisation and bloody chaos returns to our screens courtesy of this anniversary edition. The re-release coincides with a star-studded remake that will be hitting our cinema screens in a fortnight.

Set in beautiful, rural Cornwall, the original stars Dustin Hoffman and Susan George as passionately married couple David and Amy Sumner. David is a bookish scientific author who has abandoned his violent homeland to concentrate on a new book. Amy is an attention-seeking free spirit who is returning to her roots, a sturdy farmhouse in a village with some familiar faces including ex-lover Charlie (Del Henney – “Brannigan”).

Straw Dog - 40th Anniversary Blu-ray & DVD releaseThings start well as the Sumners embrace the tranquillity of the countryside and their lovely home, but it is not long before tensions bubbling under the surface between the couple threaten to drive a wedge between them. This downward spiral is simultaneous to and connected with a power struggle in the local village, and the unseemly, lecherous attention of an unruly gang of labourers who are building a new roof on the couple’s rundown garage. Throw in a mentally handicapped adult (a very understated performance from David Warner), suspected of paedophilic leanings, and a teenage girl experiencing a sexual awakening, and the powder keg atmosphere is set to explode.

Director Peckinpah (“The Wild Bunch”, “The Getaway”) quickly and efficiently establishes an interesting clash between the picturesque landscape and more genteel members of the village (including David) on the one hand, and on the other the rough, bullying and Neanderthal-like element. The latter includes Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan – “Brazil”, Porridge), father of the teenager and who likes to see himself as the unofficial patriarch of the village, Charlie, Norman (Ken Hutchison), Riddaway (Donald Webster) and a decidedly creepy, giggling rat-catcher called Chris (Jim Norton).

Whilst David does his best to ignore the ruffians’ lewd and insulting behaviour, Amy insists on flaunting her body and teasing the builders, much to the annoyance of her husband. Little does she realise that she is playing with fire, to disastrous effect. George’s character is consequently somewhere in between the two sides; she adores her husband and evidently had a privileged upbringing, but at the same time she shares a past with and feels an affinity with some of the rougher members of the village.

As an essay in how law and order can quickly break down when given the right environment, “Straw Dogs” is fascinating. Before the violence erupts, the status quo is largely an illusion, barely held together by the likes of Major Scott (T P McKenna – Doctor Who, Blake’s 7) and the local priest, establishment figures who tolerate Tom and company’s behaviour rather than stand up to it. They organise polite village evenings whilst the others only turn up to guzzle the beer and scowl menacingly.

The other fascinating aspect of the film is how David’s character progresses from a scholarly wimp to a sharp and calculating soldier when forced into action. Hoffman is on superb form, easily shifting gears and personas, and maintaining the belief that this apparently weedy man is capable of defending his wife and his home with stunning effectiveness when backing down is no longer an option.

The movie is still quite troubling even by today’s standards, and that shock factor is largely thanks to how believable the characters and course of events is. The infamous gang rape scene is certainly controversial but should certainly not scare would-be viewers off what is a powerful, frightening and thought-provoking film.

In case you were wondering, the term ‘straw dog’ apparently comes from 3rd Century BC China. They were venerated ceremonial objects that were then disposed of and used for kindling. To my mind the term could also refer to Tom’s gang, in that they are from the country (straw) and like dogs they ‘hunt’ in a pack, picking off weaker prey.

Special Features include:

  • Audio commentary by Katy Haber (Dialogue Director and Peckinpah's associate, close friend and PA)
  • Audio commentary by Peckinpah biographers Garner Simmons, David Weddle and Paul Seydor
  • Isolated Oscar-nominated score by Jerry Fielding
  • 2.0 Stereo audio
  • Optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired
  • Interviews with actress Susan George, producer Dan Melnick and Garner Simmons (author of “Peckinpah: A Portrait In Montage”)
  • Stills galleries
  • Original US theatrical trailer
  • TV and radio spots
  • 1971 ‘on location’ documentary
  • Before and After restoration comparisons
  • Text articles including: Straw Dogs and the Censors, The Peckinpah-Pinter Letters, Sam and Dan correspondence, Why Call The Film Straw Dogs?, The Dan Melnick-BBFC Letters, The Times review and critic outrage, New York Times articles, 1972 BBFC defence against local authority banning, 1999 BBFC Home Video Statement, 2002 BBFC Home Video Statement, 2001 Uncut magazine feature, Consider This A Bad Review, The deleted Pub Scene, Film facts and trivia.

This looks like an impressive list of extras - if you wade through the often humorous text content then it is quite substantial; the video features are relatively short, though, and the interviews with the exception of George’s are very dry. The most interesting bonus is the 1971 location piece which is a delightful if shoddily-edited, black and white glimpse of life on a film set in the early 70s, and it is surprisingly candid to boot. It seems that Peckinpah was not an easy man to get along with!

The Blu-ray edition reviewed is initially a little disappointing when compared with some other restored movies from the period, primarily because it lacks sharp visual detail, but when you see what the original picture quality was like in the ‘Before and After’ featurette, you start to appreciate how much better it looks now!

“Straw Dogs" (1971) is out now on Blu-ray and DVD, courtesy of FremantleMedia Enterprises. The main feature has a running time of 113 minutes approx, carries an ‘18’ certificate and retails for £15.99 on DVD (2 discs), £17.99 on Blu-ray (1 disc), or less from www.culttvstore.com

Last modified on Thursday, 10 May 2012 16:37

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