In Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 thriller Straw Dogs, American academic David (Dustin Hoffman) and his English wife Amy (Susan George) move to her tiny Cornish village with barely enough room to swing a cat.
Released the same week as A Clockwork Orange, Straw Dogs sees the locals torment the couple with escalating acts of intimidation that drive the mild-mannered mathematician to breaking point – now a familiar formula but this was before The Last House on the Left, I Spit on Your Grave and Deliverance, probably the closest comparison in terms of being both psychological and visceral. Russ Meyer was making rape-revenge flicks in the 1960s but compared to the stylised violence of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Peckinpah brings the genre screaming into the real world.
The idea that Straw Dogs is Peckinpah‘s first non-Western is basically a misnomer brought on by its Cornish location: it’s a South Western. The pub is a saloon, the magistrate the sheriff and the entire denouement lifted from Of Mice and Men. It is a film about a man protecting his homestead, its violent climax aping the Western tradition of vigilantism and retribution. Less clear is Peckinpah’s moral perspective, and this ambiguity makes the movie deliberately troubling; the rape scene in particular proved controversial for showing Amy succumbing to her attacker.
Wes Craven subverted the worst of these features in The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes, stripping violence of catharsis and rape of eroticism. But Peckinpah does not glorify violence any more than he knows what Cornwall is. He is careful to present David with a genuine moral dilemma and make his character duplicitous: on the one hand a man trying to do the right thing, on the other a villain complicit in the torment of his young wife. He infantilises Amy and tells her to not dress so provocatively rather than actually defend her, which he never does.
What’s interesting is that when David makes like a bear trap and snaps, it isn’t because Amy was raped as he never actually finds out (he is woefully unobservant for someone meant to be studying stellar structures). When he says he’s defending his home, we know he means his masculinity. He’s emasculated by his wife accusing him of never standing up for himself, so he kills all the men in her hometown to spite her. If anything it’s a warning against marriage. And Cornwall. Where they apparently have never seen a woman before. Or a Jewish man.
Both actors are incredible, the editing harrowing (thanks to a young Roger Spottiswoode) and the score ominous, if ultimately overshadowed at the Oscars by Isaac Hayes’ Shaft. The brutal, breakneck ending matches Hoffman’s performance in terms of twitchy terror, a clear influence on the jittery, angular distortion of The Evil Dead. A complicated, murky mindfuck and unflinchingly provocative picture of people trapped and wounded like animals, Straw Dogs‘ horror is undiminished 50 years on. If it wasn’t for pasties Cornwall might never have had tourists again.