by Steve Habrat
The spaghetti western genre can be a truly grim affair, from the shifty characters to the unflinching violence right to the decrepit towns. Enzo G. Castellari’s 1976 Keoma is no different. Keoma goes a step further and early on establishes an apocalyptic atmosphere with barely any hope in sight. Despite the doom and gloom, Keoma is one of the most scenic spaghetti westerns I have seen, one that has obviously been treated with care since its release and embraces any opportunity to show off the mountainous landscape. Keoma is a must-see spaghetti western for two other unique approaches. The film is narrated almost like a Greek tragedy, the story guided along by a male and female singer that provides us with our hero Keoma’s inner thoughts and several nifty slow-motion shootouts, slowed down so we can see the victims doing a dance of death right before they hit the ground. They are vaguely evocative of the shootouts in The Wild Bunch and Thriller: A Cruel Picture in their splendor and horror.
Keoma follows a half-breed gunslinger named Keoma (Played by Franco Nero) who returns to his plague-ridden hometown after service in the Civil War. After saving a sick woman named Lisa (Played by Olga Karlatos) from a group of brutal gunslingers who are rounding up plague victims, Keoma learns that his hometown is in control of a brutal landlord named Caldwell (Played by Donald O’Brien). Making things worse, Keoma’s three brothers are looking to join forces with Caldwell and they wish to do away with Keoma. Teaming up with his father, William Shannon (Played by William Berger), and their ex-slave and servant George (Played by Woody Strode), Keoma begins trying to help the plague victims of the town, bringing in medicine, food, and a Marshall to bring law and order to the community. In the meantime, Keoma has to stand up to Caldwell and finds himself hopelessly outgunned.
Unlike other spaghetti westerns, where the characters sit around and stare at each other and mumble little snippets of dialogue (don’t take that as negative criticism, I absolutely love westerns like that), Keoma is a chattier experience and one that is much more action packed than other entries. In fact, I was truly taken aback by the extended gunfight at the climax of the film, one that lasts about twenty minutes. This is a film that is galloping along right from the windy opening scene. In such films like Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence, Django or even the films of Sergio Leone, the violence was sudden and short, startling the viewer with how quickly it started and how fast it ended. Keoma draws these sequences out and then proceeds to slow the violence down, exploiting it just like a good sleaze picture should. The end shoot out is at times redolent of Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 The Wild Bunch crossed with Bo Arne Vibenius’s Thriller: A Cruel Picture, the camera glued to the waving ribbons of gore spilling out of the bullet holes of the dead. I was also impressed with the way the film has held up all these years, a clear picture, timeless acting, and expert dubbing (I point this out because these films are usually poor in the dubbing department).
Keoma packs a steely-eyed performance from the gruff Franco Nero as Keoma. Imagine if Johnny Depp had time traveled back to the 1970s, grew a thick beard, and dawned a cowboy hat. If you can make a mental image of that (I doubt that is very difficult), you have Nero’s Keoma. Keoma isn’t a man interested in money or wealth. He only sets his sights on bringing law and order to a town without any and in the process, protecting those who can’t protect themselves. He’s a far throw from Eastwood’s The Man with No Name when it comes to his morals but he is still a man who doesn’t have infinite amounts to say. Sure he speaks more than The Man with No Name, but he hates scum that has too much to say. Those who do end up meeting the blast of his double barrel shotgun. Another standout in Keoma is Woody Strode as George; a pitiful ex-slave with petrified eyes and who is consistently enduring malicious racial slurs spit at him by Caldwell’s men. He is a man who was once honorable, a man who Keoma looked up to when he was just a boy. When we meet him, he is a slouchy drinker who doesn’t stand up for himself. Your heart will break when one of Caldwell’s men walks up to him and urinates on his boots, making a fool of George even though he was just trying to do the right thing. When George finally picks up a gun (and crossbow) and joins Keoma to defend the town, you will want to stand up and cheer.
Director Castellari makes Keoma a standout with some inventive camera angles that makes the film an artful journey into the west. The opening scene has the camera sitting stationary inside an abandoned structure, mostly in the dark except for the light streaming in from a slamming screen door where we can faintly see Keoma ridding through a ghost town. The door is to the right if the screen, the camera almost trying to remain elusive and reluctant to enter the ailing world. Another scene finds the camera placed behind a piece of wood that Keoma and his father are using as target practice, the picture slowly being revealed from the holes shot into the wood. Castellari compliments that unique camerawork with a shrieking score that is the furthest thing from the jangly Ennio Morricone scores that were so popular in these films. The score is used to allow us to hear the thoughts of the characters and sometimes acts as our own inner advice to the characters. It suggests that Keoma should run away with Lisa and start a new life, fleeing the danger that is slowly closing in around them. It also narrates the tension between Keoma and his three nasty brothers, their fractured relationship told in both the score and in flashbacks that play out right before the eyes of the adult Keoma.
For fans of the spaghetti western, Keoma is a must-see for its hasty pace, drawn out action, and doomed love story all told on an apocalyptic stage. At times, the score can get a bit distracting, a nice and inimitable idea but not always as harmonizing as it should be. Another small gripe I had with the film is that the villain Caldwell is slightly brushed over and left underdeveloped. Overall, I had fun with the tragedy that is Keoma and I loved the way the film embraced rollicking action sequences. Next to Leone’s work, Keoma has aged remarkably and is easily accessible to those who are usually put off by older films like this. If you love your westerns with an unconventional touch, seek out Keoma immediately. You will not be disappointed.
Keoma is available on DVD.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
by Steve Habrat
With the western genre beginning to loose steam in America during the 1960s, new interest in the genre was sparked with the emergence of Sergio Leone’s dusty A Fistful of Dollars, a rock-n-roll reinvention of the fatigued western genre. A Fistful of Dollars was the first spaghetti western to land in America and introduce audiences to the rising star Clint Eastwood and his iconic Man with No Name, arguably the best western character ever created. The spaghetti westerns that were coming from Italy were rougher and tougher than the ones America was churning out, westerns where the line between right and wrong were blurred and the violence was cranked up to the max. A Fistful of Dollars is one of my favorite westerns and perhaps one of the most influential, boldly breaking new ground and embracing a dark edge inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. This is the first film that introduced many to the genius of Ennio Morricone and his whistling scores.
A Fistful of Dollars follows the Man with No Name (Played by Eastwood) as he arrives in a small town on the Mexican border. Once he arrives, the local innkeeper Silvanito (Played by José Calvo) informs him that the small town is caught in a deadly feud between two families—the Rojo brothers and the Baxters. The Man with No Name sees this feud as an opportunity to begin playing the two families against each other and make some large sums of cash in the process. The Man with No Name uses a group of Mexican soldiers mosey into town with a large shipment of gold as a chance to spark up a conflict. As the feud grows deadlier and deadlier, The Man with No Name pushes the malicious and clever Ramón (Played by Gian Maria Volonté), one of the leaders of the Rojo gang, a bit too far and puts his life in danger.
What is instantaneously atypical about A Fistful of Dollars is the fact that the film refuses to allow us to root for the sheriff of the small town, the ones who stand for law and order. It breaks the mold laid by the American westerns where you root for the honest, ethical, and steadfast. Here we root for a man who operates in a gray zone, someone only looking to benefit himself and no one else. He is better than the Rojo gang but the Man with No Name still operates outside the law. He is interested in personal gain and wealth, seeing the dispute as a game of chess, his squinty eyes carefully plotting his next move. He is shrouded in mystery, hidden in a poncho and always chewing on a cigar. What is his story? We find ourselves drawn to those we do not know and we actually like someone we know nothing about more than when we learn about their past, present, and future. This is precisely why the Man with No Name possesses a magnetism that in my eyes can’t be matched.
Leone’s portrayal of the west is another standout of A Fistful of Dollars, giving us a vision that is the furthest thing from romanticized. Much like the morals at their heart, the American western was concerned with presenting a glossed over version of the Wild West, a place where love stories flourished along with the good old boy heroes. Leone’s west wasn’t a place where the good guys wore white and flashed a badge and the mean old outlaw was dressed in rebellious black. Just like the fine line our hero walks, this west is shifty, deadly, and often repulsive. Here cowboys and outlaws chug whiskey, womanize, kill for entertainment, and pick gunfights out of boredom. For such a depraved place, Leone mirrors it in the run down builds that dot the town. Everything just seems like it is rotting away into the blowing sand right down to the sweaty close-ups that Leone loves to shove our faces in. Faces are weather worn, wrinkled, crack, toothless, and broken. It is a place where even the viewer keeps an eye on the gunslinger at the bar in the background, a place where apprehension rules every move we make. Leone, it appears, wouldn’t have it any other way.
Leone also finds beauty in silence and glances, a touch that would become increasingly popular in his work. In A Fistful of Dollars, the Man with No Name talks more than he does in For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Yet when dialogue is spoken, it is cynical and pessimistic, no one ever truly offering a word of hope that things will get better. Leone ties silence with tension, allowing faces and eyes to do all the talking and squinting to signal it was time to draw your pistol. These silences usually build up to explosive gun fights that last five seconds at their longest. This approach would go on to inspire Quentin Tarantino, who is very vocal about his love of Leone’s work. It is this approach that separates the loyal fans of Leone from the one’s who prefer films that are talkative. And yet the anti-social personality of his work mirrors the anti-social behavior of the characters he photographs.
In film school, one of my professors praised Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 epic The Wild Bunch as the film that captured the dramatic shifts in American society in the 1960s. He claimed that the film acknowledged the death of the conservative values and the beginning of a new era. I’ve always wondered where that left Sergio Leone’s work, especially his Dollars trilogy. Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was one of the first to truly acknowledge the violent shift in American during the 1960s. Leone presented a west that would run John Wayne out of the town the film took place in and gave us a hero with distorted morals. The film was made in 1964 but was released in America in 1967, right smack dab in the middle of an angry America that was facing an unpopular war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, riots, protests, assassinations, the rising counterculture, and more. While I agree that Peckinpah’s film has a lot on its mind, I don’t believe that he was the first one to use the western to mirror the times and make a statement about the evolution of America. For a film genre that was American made, one where the good guys always prevail and the bad guys always loose, Leone was among the first to rip those black and white ethics to shreds, magnify our underlying violence, and in the process, created a classic film that is just as nasty today as it was back then.
A Fistful of Dollars is now available on Blu-ray.
The 25 Horror Films That Have Scared Steve… Pt. 4
by Steve Habrat
Here we are, boys and ghouls! We have made it to my top 10 scariest movies of all time. I hope I have introduced you to a few horror movies you haven’t seen or heard of and tackled a few of your favorites as well. So without further ado, these are my top 10 favorite horror films that have curdled my blood, given me goose bumps, made me a little uneasy to turn out my bedside lamp at night, and made me consider shutting the films off.
10.) The Evil Dead (1981)
The ultimate sleepover horror flick! With a budget barely over $375,000 and a handful of no name actors, first time director Sam Raimi tore onto the directorial scene with The Evil Dead, a gruesome little supernatural horror film that follows a group of teens as the travel to a cabin in the woods for a weekend of drinking a few beers and hooking up. Once secluded in the cabin, they stumble upon a book called, naturally, The Book of the Dead, and they, of course, read from it. The book just so happens to release an ancient force that possess all who stand in its way, turning the teens into bloodthirsty, demonic zombies. Stopping to consider the budget, the special effects here are a true marvel, even if they are dated and the sound effects will give your goose bumps more goose bumps. While Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn and Army of Darkness descended into campville one of the most amazing parts of The Evil Dead is the fact that it refuses to offer any comedic relief. The most grueling aspect of the film is that by the end, our hero Ash has to face the terror all by his lonesome. Absolutely unyielding once it gets moving and savagely in-your-face, The Evil Dead will without question fry your nerves.
9.) Suspira (1977)
Italian director Dario Argento created perhaps one of the most visually striking horror films to date. Suspira is scary decked out in bright neon colors. Following a young American woman who is accepted to a prestigious ballet school in Europe where it may or may not be under the control of witches is the real deal. The film begins with easily one of the most intense murder sequences ever filmed and it should almost be criminal with how well Argento builds tension and suspense within it. While mostly scaring you through supernatural occurrences and basically becoming a mystery film, Suspira leaves its mark with images that sear in well-lit rooms. Nothing ever happens in the dark in this film, and usually its what we do not see that is the scariest. And to deny the fact that this film is a breath of fresh air to the horror genre would be utterly absurd. The best advice I can give is just wait until the end of the film. You will be left pinned to your seat.
8.) Psycho (1960)
When it comes to unforgettable movie monsters, give me Norman Bates over Freddy or Jason any day. Everyone is familiar with what is perhaps the most famous and scariest of all of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, this film literally could be the closest to perfect that any motion picture will get. The score is unforgettable. It breaks the rules by killing off its main star in the first forty minutes. It keeps you guessing until the very end. It WILL terrify you by its sudden outbursts of brutal violence. And seriously, who is not familiar with the shower sequence? Still not convinced? See it simply for Anthony Perkin’s performance as mama’s boy Norman Bates. I guarantee he will find his way into your nightmares. Remarkably, the film lacks all the crows’ feet of aging as it still manages to be one of the scariest horror of personality films to date. While it was needlessly remade in 1998 to disappoint results, the original is a true classic in literally every way. Psycho breaks all the rules of horror, and leaves the viewer disoriented and wowed all at once.
7.) Straw Dogs (1971)
Never heard of Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 home invasion film Straw Dogs? Well, you have now and you have no excuse not to see it. As an added bonus, it stars Dustin Hoffman! I noticed that on many of your favorite horror films that you have sent me, you listed the 2008 film The Strangers. While The Strangers is creepy, Straw Dogs is flat out gritty, unrepentant viciousness. A nerdy math professor and his wife move out to the British countryside where they are looking to enjoy a simple life of peace and quite. Their pursuit of happiness falls short when the couple becomes the victims to bullying by the locals. The bullying soon boils up to a vicious rape and an attack on the couple’s home that leads to one hell of a nail-bitting standoff. Many consider it a thriller, but this is flat out horror in my book. The film becomes an exploration of the violence in all of us. Yes, even the ones we least expect. We never see the violence coming from the mild mannered math teacher. Even worse, it leaves us with the unshakeable notion that this horrendous violence lurks in all of us. Another great quality of the film is the fact that it will spark conversations after viewing it. What would you do in that situation? Would you allow yourself to be the victim or would you stand up and fight for what is yours? Sound simple? Straw Dogs is far from simple. It will etch itself into your mind.
6.) Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)
Nosferatu is on here twice?!?! Sort of. Nosferatu indeed deserves its place among the greats but Werner Herzog’s Nosferatu the Vampyre is without question the greatest vampire movie of all time. It drives a silver dagger right through the heart of all the vampire flicks out there (Take that Twilight!). Part remake, part valentine to F.W. Murnau, part Dracula; this is an undeniably sweeping horror film. Who would have believed that a slow motion image of a bat could make the hair on your arms stand up? Elegant and astonishing beautiful, one could recommend the film on the cinemamatogrphy alone. This interpretation of Nosferatu abandons the name Count Orlok and instead is Count Dracula. The appearance of Count Dracula is almost identical to Count Orlok but the rest plays out like Dracula. The film features what could be one of the most mesmerizing performances ever caught on film with Klaus Kinski’s interpretation of Count Dracula. He is at once heart breaking and threatening. The film’s apocalyptic images are spellbinding. The score is the stuff that nightmares are made of. The acting is top notch. The scares are slight and real. This is the scariest vampire movie ever and one of the most underrated horror movies ever made.
5.) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974)
The glaring problem with the 2003 remake of this disturbing 1974 classic is that the 2003 remake was more concerned with being a sleek experience rather than a gritty and realistic slasher flick. The original Texas Chainsaw Massacre does a fantastic job making you feel the Texas heat, as this movie is an absolute scorcher. On top of that, the film uses surprisingly little gore and still manages to gross you out to the point of you seriously considering becoming a vegan. What makes the film so traumatic is the fact that it does not only contain one monster, it has several. There is basically no escape from the dreaded, chainsaw wielding Leatherface and his merry band of cannibals. The film also throws another monkey wrench into the equation: one of the main characters is in a wheelchair. Yikes! The final chase of the film seems like it was ripped right out of an old newsreel and it has such a realistic tone that the atmosphere actually overrides the horrific murders. I recently read a quote from Stephen King about his favorite horror films and I have to admit that I heavily agree with him. He says “One thing that seems clear to me, looking back at the ten or a dozen films that truly scared me, is that most really good horror films are low-budget affairs with special effects cooked up in someone’s basement or garage.” If this quote applies to any horror film, it would be Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Amen, Mr. King!
4.) The Shining (1980)
As far as supernatural horror movies are concerned, Stanley Kubrick’s version of the Stephen King book The Shining is the first and last word in haunted house movies. Combining hallucinatory images, a mind-bending story, and a horror of personality all into one Frankenstein’s monster of a film. Kubrick tops it all of with a big bloody bow. Jack Nicholson is at his bat-shit crazy best as Jack Torrence, a seemingly normal writer who, along with his family, are employed as the winter caretakers at the secluded Overlook Hotel. With the hotel cutoff from customers, the ghosts start coming out to play. They posses Jack’s young son Danny (REDRUM!). They torment Jack to the point where he grabs an axe and goes on a killing spree. If you have not seen this, see it just on the grounds of Jack Nicholson’s outstanding portrayal of a man slipping into homicidal madness. It is probably one of the most epic horror movies I’ve ever seen, and one of the most visually jarring. I really do not think there is anything creepier than twin girls standing in the center of a long hallway and inviting Danny to “come play with” them. The Shining leaves the viewer to figure it all out at the end. But damn does it end with some blood soaked fireworks.
3.) Dawn of the Dead (1978)
George Romero’s follow up to his 1968 zombie freak out wears the king’s crown in the land of zombie movies. This one has it all, folks. It’s dismal, gory beyond anything you could ever imagine, intelligent, shocking, and freaky as all hell. Picking up right where Night of the Living Dead left off, we are thrust into a world of chaos. I will warn you that the first half hour or so of the film is so overwhelming; you may need to take an intermission after it just to gather yourself. Romero is launching an all out assault on the viewer, testing them to see how much they are able to take. But he hasn’t even gotten going yet. Hell, the opening is actually tame compared to the gut-wrenching climax. Romero does lighten the mood a little in places because the film would be unbearable if he never did. The plot centers on four survivors who flee from war-torn Pittsburgh to an indoor shopping mall to escape the panic that has seized hold of America. This panic, of course, comes in the wake of the dead returning to life and eating the flesh of the living. They live like kings and queens in the land of consumerism, which also leads to their ultimate downfall. Greed takes hold and soon the army of zombies gathering outside is the least of their concerns. Featuring some of the most heart stopping violence to ever be thought up and some truly tense moments, Dawn of the Dead may actually cause you to have a heart attack or, at the very least, a panic attack.
2.) Hellraiser (1987)
If demonic horror scares you, then you are going to want to stay far, far away from Clive Baker’s Hellraiser. What sights the soul ripping Cenobites have to show you. What ghastly sights indeed. Bursting at the seams with some of the most unsettling images that any horror film has to offer, Hellraiser simply has it all. It has monsters for the monster crowd. It shows glimmers of the slasher genre. It satisfies the gore hounds thirst for blood. It offers up a wickedly original storyline. Following a man who ends up possessing a box that can expose you to the greatest pleasures imaginable is a pretty unnerving experience. There’s a dead guy in the attic that an unfaithful wife has to provide with male bodies so he can regenerate. There are four time traveling demons that rip apart their victims with chains. A daughter is desperately trying to unravel her father’s death. Did I mention it has lots and lots of monsters? The best part of seeing the first film in the Hellraiser series is that you get to see the Cenobites, who could very well be some of the creepiest antagonists that have ever haunted a horror film. They slink through the shadows and send icy chills up your spine. When Pinhead, or “Lead Cenobite” proclaims that they are “Angels to some and demons to others”, he is not kidding. Are they the four horsemen of the apocalypse, given the films left-field apocalyptic ending? Could be. Undeniably vicious and oddly hypnotic, the film will scare the living daylights out of you and replace those daylights with the darkness of Hell.
1.) Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986)
During the class that I took on the horror genre in college, we discussed that the scariest movies of all are the ones that posse an unwavering realism. I seriously think that Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is the embodiment of this argument. Raw, powerful, disturbing, and a searing knock out, this is without question the most terrifying film I have ever seen. You will be locking your doors and possibly adding another lock for extra good measure. The plot of the film centers on Henry who is soft-spoken exterminator who also happens to be a serial killer. Henry happens to be staying with his friend Otis, who is currently on probation and works at a gas station and also sells pot on the side. Otis has also allowed his sister Becky, who is a stripper looking for a new start in Chicago, to shack up with the two bachleors. Soon, Otis learns of Henry’s grotesque hobby and quickly decides he wants in. Henry takes him under his devil wings and the two descend into the night to prey on innocent victims. The uncanny, fly-on-the-wall vérité approach elevates the film to the territory of the unbearable. Every explosive murder is chillingly real. Every line of sadistic dialogue is muttered in a disconnected tone. The film also chills you to the bone because there is never a character to truly root for, a character to take comfort in. The closest we get to a hero is Becky, but mostly because we fear for her safety. We know she is incapable of stopping the maniacs. While the violence will shock you, and trust me it is some absolutely grisly stuff, the fear of the violence and unpredictability of it all will wear away and you will be left with the fear that this could actually happen. There are actually people out there who could be capable of doing this, and I could be next if I just so happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer is a masterpiece of the horror genre and it will leave you thinking about it for weeks.
I hope all of our readers out there have enjoyed our 31 days of Halloween special- Anti-Film School’s Halloween Horror Movie Spooktacular- and will come back next year for more horror, thrills, and chills. I have personally had a blast doing this as Halloween is my favorite holiday and has been since I was in a diaper. Enjoy the next few days of horror movie posts and the review our readers chose. Have a terrifying Halloween, boys and ghouls! I know I will.
Straw Dogs (2011)
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-
Straw Dogs (1971)
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.