by Steve Habrat
Since Hollywood is insistent on remaking every classic horror film under the sun, is it too much to ask that they DO NOT do a shot for shot remake of the film they are redoing? Honestly, if the viewer has already seen the original film and the filmmakers have done absolutely nothing to tell an innovative or different story from the original, why should the viewer even bother? The Psycho remake was laughable and grossly miscast (Seriously, Vince Vaughn?!). It seems that Gus Van Sant and Universal thought that people would take it better if they deemed it an experiment. My question is what exactly is the experiment? They added color and a few morons out there scream brilliant. It’s not. Look at 2006’s The Omen, another shot for shot remake of a tour de force demonic horror film that appeared senseless. They knew there was a built in audience for it so it was easy green for the studio. The remakes that have done something different have gotten some respect, mostly 2004’s Dawn of the Dead, which just amped up everything (gore, action, pace, etc.). It was a good remake and I enjoyed it, but I still prefer the 1978 Romero original. I also thought the re-envisioning of The Hills Have Eyes is pretty bracing. It was a nasty film that refused to cater to the uptight Hollywood rating system. It pushes its hard R rating to the very edge, especially when it puts an infant child at the dangerous end of a revolver. It’s scary as hell, but was largely waved off as torture porn. And yet some intellectuals applaud Gus Van Sant’s sluggish Psycho. Hmmm.
Now we have the remake of Sam Peckinpah’s little seen 1971 classic horror film Straw Dogs, which takes the route of Psycho and The Omen, but to better effect. There is, thankfully, a brain in this one and resists being a petty money grab. I can’t say the same about Psycho and The Omen. My worst fears were confirmed early on and I’ll admit it was a tough pill to swallow. The only difference you will find in this Straw Dogs is the setting of the film and the actors that inhabit the screen. And possibly a few camera angles. This version is completely overstated and acts as nothing but a highlighter to the point Peckinpah made so unsettling in his terrifying original. It just adds a dark underline. I did start to enjoy myself after the first twenty minutes and stopped grousing about the similarities to my gung-ho chums sitting next to me. The major rough patch is the casting of James Mardsen as David Sumner, the mild mannered liberal intellectual who “will not allow violence against this house”. He can’t match the gusto of Dustin Hoffman, who’s tacit slip from timid to deranged is so distressing in the original, his wild eyed glare will appear in your nightmares.
This Straw Dogs moves from the English countryside to the swampy Blackwater, Mississippi, where everyone looks like they stepped out of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Many of the sets look like leftovers from said film too. When the hometown darling Amy (Played by miscast and talentless Kate Bosworth) and her skittish writer husband David (Mardsen) move into her old home, they return to the old hometown heroes who never left the beloved settlement. David is currently working on a Hollywood script about the battle of Stalingrad, which is supposed to act as a heavy-handed comparison to the bloody climax. The locals still hang on to their glory days and all meet up at a local bar to hit on the chicks and listen to their beloved Coach (Played by the welcome James Woods, in one hell of a sadistic turn) Tom Heddon tell the same old stories. The merry gang of beady-eyed rednecks find a leader in Charlie (Played by True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgard), who is constantly shirtless and oiled up with a layer of sweat. He’s seems harmless enough, especially when compared to the blatant intensity of Charlie in the original film. This time around, it’s David who seems to be the judgmental one when it was the other way around in 1971. David has hired Charlie to restore the roof on their barn, and soon, the beer chugging rednecks begin to pick at David and Amy. They hound Amy with their dagger stares as she goes for a jog without a bra. They invite themselves in and swipe David’s beer from the fridge. As tensions mount, an inevitable confrontation brews, especially when Amy is raped by two of the hicks. Also, we once again have the side story of Jeremy Niles (Played awkwardly by Dominic Purcell), a supposed local pedophile who wanders the hot streets with his dog. After an accidental murder of Tom’s daughter, the rednecks set out to kill the loathed local creep. The paths of Jeremy and David cross and it all adds up to a siege on David and Amy’s home that ends in a fury of slaughter and turmoil.
This revved up Straw Dogs is consistently playing with the idea of conservatism versus liberal thinking. It places us on the sideline as the two opposing forces collide and challenge. It’s intriguing to watch the bible thumping, violence-craving southerners challenge the beliefs of the liberal pacifist and atheist twerp David. They are supposedly God fearing people, yet the will rape and murder without a second thought. We are also left asking why David refuses to do a thing about the abuse aimed at Amy and him. The film suggests that we should inhabit the middle ground, and stray from the far left or far right. We fair better in the middle. It’s also the only new idea the film brings to the table. The original hinted at it, but never really elaborated upon it. The film haphazardly abandons this idea at the end and then tries to cover the territorial battle that Peckinpah staged to much better effect in the preferred original. It never takes on an original identity, which will turn some fans off.
The film’s appearance is spiffed up and loaded with pretty actors and actresses of the moment. I can’t say I enjoyed Mardsen’s performance, but I suppose it could have been worse. I have never really cared for Bosworth and here she does nothing with her character. She can barely convey emotion at the appropriate time. She retreats to simply trying to look sexy for the camera. Skarsgard’s Charlie is surprisingly likable and we do pity him in a peculiar way. It seems that he had potential early in life and ended up stuck in the blistering heat of his podunk town. James Woods takes control of the project and seems like he is on cloud nine playing a loose cannon drunk itching for a fight. The film’s acting is not the true issue though. The disappointing aspect of the film is it ends up being indistinguishable from other hillbilly horror flicks. Yes, we know the south can be a scary place, but did we need to be reminded again? Yes, we know people are scared by isolated Middle America, but must it be used again? What happened to filling us with fear of the characters? No one seems daunting because, well, they all look like movie stars.
The new Straw Dogs does pack a few scenes that will make your pulse race and may even give you a goose bump or two. But the film never holds a candle to Peckinpah’s, a problem that leaves the viewer asking why a remake was necessary. It’s sharply made and does have some showy cinematography, but the film is often all jazz and little else. The film’s climax is a little too bloodthirsty and there is plenty of the red stuff splashed about. There are a few nasty deaths including the returning death by mantrap. I don’t want to write this film off all together because it’s smarter than most films that Hollywood dumps on us, but I wouldn’t consider it genius. I did groan when the film offered up a definition of a straw dog. I wish the film wasn’t so eager to explain everything and make it so literal. A little sophistication never hurt anyone and audiences today should be introduced to some. Straw Dogs 2011 is still worthy of your time. Grade: B-