by Steve Habrat
If one is to break down the subgenres of the horror genre, it can be separated into three separate groups—the horror of personality, demonic horror, and the horror of Armageddon. The first subgenre, horror of personality, can often be the most terrifying of the three subgenres because the monster is ultimately our fellow man. While Targets and Psycho are the two films that are often praised for starting this subgenre, neither chilled me like Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 film Straw Dogs. Masquerading as a drama and a thriller, Peckinpah’s growling film sits firmly as one of the most horrifying motion pictures I’ve ever sat through. It fits securely into the horror of personality subgenre and it leaves the viewer shaken for days after seeing it. Perhaps it’s the fact that a young Dustin Hoffman, an actor you would never picture in a film of this sort, gives this film its disconcerting spirit. The audience would never equate him with a role that requires him to shed his skittish nice guy roles and descend into a quivering, bug-eyed monster when his back is pushed against the wall. I’ve caught some flack for allowing this to occupy a spot on my scariest movies ever made, but I maintain that Straw Dogs is indeed a horror film. It will scare you and it will send you away locking your doors at night. And perhaps investing in a mantrap.
Director Peckinpah (Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia) follows wimpy American mathematician David Sumner (Hoffman) and his stunning wife Amy (Played by Susan George) as they move to rural England so David can peacefully work on research. Their quiet life is soon interrupted by a group of bullying locals working construction at their new home. The locals consistently poke fun at David and lust after his gorgeous wife. When David finds their beloved cat dead and hanging in their closet one evening, Amy demands that David confront the men as she suspects that they are responsible for this gruesome act (Still convinced it’s not a horror movie?). Simultaneously, the film keeps a watchful eye on Henry (Played by David Warner), a pedophile who currently walks the small town streets. The townsfolk are aware of his troubled past and consistently complain about his interaction with children. A young girl Janice seduces Henry one evening and when her brother comes calling for her, Henry accidentally kills the girl. Her father, Tom Hedden (Played by Peter Vaughan) begins a manhunt for Henry and rounds up the men who are also terrorizing David to find Henry. The two plots meet and the film ends in a sweaty, bloody, and unsettling siege on David’s home.
If you have ever seen a film from Sam Peckinpah, you understand his ability to heighten tension before an explosion of action and or violence. As an example, watch the opening moments of his famed western The Wild Bunch. Here, Peckinpah does the same thing within the first few minutes of this particular film. David goes to a local pub to purchase cigarettes and while in the pub, we meet some of the leering, ticking time bomb locals. They appear vaguely animalistic and predatory as they take giant swigs of ale (a deliberate appearance that I’m sure Peckinpah was aiming for) and we can tell they lust after violence as well as David’s wife. They are looking for a good fight. Two of them even go as far to ask David about violence in the United States. They never convey disgust or concern about the violence over seas, but hints of amusement at what David has to say. The stress on the viewer, which stems from the constant threat of a confrontation, is what builds the terror to staggering heights.
While Straw Dogs is a film about the animal within, lurking even in the most sophisticated of human beings, the film is also a commentary on territory and property (“I will not allow violence against this house!”). David is just a pup to the big dogs that prowl the town’s streets. Tom is the symbolic pact leader of the locals. One of them even goes as far to tell David “We always protect our own!” It’s a bit heavy handed at times, but it does add a chill or two near the end. Especially when David snaps from the runt into a seething predator that will not stop his defense until the last antagonist is dead and bleeding. The film also offers up a disturbing rape sequence in which Amy is rapped by two of the attackers. During the first rape, she shows glimmers of pleasure and then shrieks in terror when a second attacker mounts her. The scene suggests that the attackers are under the impression that they can claim anything and this situation rears its ugly head again during the final siege. David and one of the attackers Charlie have a savage, doglike fight for Amy. It’s bloody and ends with a death that will have you covering your eyes.
Straw Dogs will linger with you for days after you have seen it. The film packs a number of savage death sequences in which Peckinpah slows the action down and gives you a pristine view of the carnage. It’s also Hoffman’s silent slip from a rational man into a beast that will haunt your dreams. He so expertly blurs the line between sane and insane that when he attacks one of the men at the end, there is an aura of unpredictability. How we will he strike next? Trust me, wait for the scene with boiling cooking oil. It makes me cringe just replaying it. Straw Dogs is a film that forces the viewer to analyze outwardly, but the scariest trick up this film’s sleeve is the analysis that points inward. Sure, we can debate all day about the horrors lurking in the people around us, but this film will also make us stop and think about ourselves. Am I capable of something like this? Would I savagely kill or choose death at the hands of someone else? Not necessarily the easiest question in the world, is it? That is what makes Straw Dogs one of the scariest movies I have ever seen. The self-reflection it will no doubt evoke from the view. It will send you away petrified of something you can’t escape from—yourself. Grade: A
Straw Dogs is now available on Blu-ray.