The James Clayton Column: let Straw Dogs lie?

With the remake of Straw Dogs out today, James ponders the wisdom of returning to classic movies, particularly in light of the disastrous Wicker Man…

Straw Dogs, the Sam Peckinpah film of 1971, is a classic psychological horror movie and should be commended as a significant work and excellent picture for many reasons. For a start, most importantly, it’s about a maths teacher getting tortured.

For all those horrendous years in high school struggling through trigonometry and endless algebra homework, I’ll take this sweet cinematic vengeance, thank you very much. I don’t care if the mathematician is played by lovable Dustin Hoffman. In my utopian dream world drawn from frustrated childhood fantasies, each fresh day begins with the sacrifice of an arithmetic academic to the sun.

Because he played David Sumner in Straw Dogs, Hoffman is unfortunately heading to the Wicker Man, along with the cruel teacher who threw an eraser at me when I was in year seven, while I stand gleefully watching, taunting, “Don’t keep the Wicker Man waiting!”

Aside from that sadistic wish fulfilment, the film is striking as a piece of prime Peckinpah, offering an exploration of how shocking, sudden violence erupts from the quiet and mundane. As expected, this is captured in sublime style through the director’s trademark slow-motion sequences and, atypically for the auteur, gives the viewer an intense and challenging movie experience.

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It’s hard to watch – the oppressive presence of the ‘backward’ locals, the descent of Hoffman’s tormented intellectual to brutality and, most unnerving, the rape of his wife Amy Sumner (played by Susan George) all come together into a punishing film that impresses yet leaves a nasty, lasting aftertaste. The idea that Amy actually enjoys being molested by the creeps of the community is jarring and, once again, atypically for Peckinpah, a sense of misogyny pervades the whole affair.

In spite of its unseemly aspects, Straw Dogs remains a strong and compelling film that provokes the audience, and emerges from a bygone age as a masterpiece of bleak brutalism. It’s a story well worth revisiting, but is a remake – the approach taken by director Rod Lurie – really a good idea?

Remakes needn’t be pointless exercises in conservative moviemaking motivated by fiscal concerns and wishes to avoid the risks of developing original concepts. Classic films like The Thing and Scarface, to name two examples of creative respins that take an existing movie as a foundation, and spawn an epic, fresh monster for a new generation, undermine a blanket “remakes are wrong!” outlook.

If the cast and crew cranking out the fresh take have enough good reasons to justify the project, sincerely believe in the endeavour and want to craft something of substance and meaning, then there probably won’t be a problem.

However, if they don’t respect the audience, don’t respect the source material and simply seek to reel off empty product bereft of innovation and ideas, then I can’t blame people for crying “Blasphemy!” As much as I prefer non-violence and don’t rate revenge as a sensible real life response (except in the case of maths teachers), I’m not going to oppose the offended when they attack the crass culprits and put them on a bonfire (or in a Wicker Man alongside a bee-covered Nicolas Cage) for their crimes against pop culture.

I can’t judge Rod Lurie’s Straw Dogs until I’ve seen it, but I’m willing to optimistically bet that it’s a reasonable feature that doesn’t detract from Peckinpah’s original and besmirch its legacy. Actually, when you look at it on paper, the thing that worries me the most is that James Marsden (as David Sumner) is once again in an onscreen marriage to Kate Bosworth, who was Lois Lane in Superman Returns. Bosworth strung him along, didn’t really love him as much as Superman, and their child was actually the son of an alien. She’s a scandalous hussy, Marsden, and you deserve better.

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Come the credits, his marriage to Bosworth will have only served to undermine him, cripple his self-esteem and push him to breaking point after her old boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgård) and his buddies have subjected him to extreme bullying.

What’s more, they’re going to kill his cat. I always thought that, as Cyclops, Marsden spent too much time sulking in the X-Men series, but looking at the disturbing distress laid out for him in Straw Dogs, I think he’d be justified in feeling slightly aggrieved. Once again, to avenge both himself and his murdered moggy, I’d support him if he decided to burn his antagonists alive in a Wicker Man. (I’m seeing a disturbing pro-arson pattern here)

The strangled cat (after the rape, the other most upsetting aspect of the original) is indeed back, then, but this time around the Sumners are a screenwriter and TV actress from Los Angeles, moving out to Mississippi where there’s space for David to write scripts. I’m assuming that these are original scripts and not more Alvin And The Chipmunks sequels (squeakquels). If they are, then he and his cat do indeed deserve to die, even more so than Hoffman the mathematician.

With the remake relocating from rural England to the American South, there’s a clear conceptual twist, and at this interesting divergence I, unfortunately, start to feel uncomfortable heat rising. It’s Neil LaBute’s damned Wicker Man again – a colossal, incendiary reminder of just how very wrong and disastrous American retakes of world cinema films firmly rooted in a foreign culture can be. Nicolas Cage is covered in bees, baffled audiences are laughing out loud, and devoted fans of Anthony Shaffer’s 1973 folk horror masterpiece are simply disgusted.

It may have been directed by an American famed for his westerns, but Straw Dogs feels like a very British film, with its bleak rural setting and its weird local folk. You can find these things in many American flicks, such as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Deliverance, which I suppose are the sort of stories that the new Straw Dogs is riffing on. I hope that’s the case, and that under it all there isn’t a movement to raid the archives and rip the early 70s golden epoch of British horror for ropey Hollywoodified remakes.

I’d personally find it very sad if, following The Wicker Man and Straw Dogs, new versions of frightening folky classics like Witchfinder General and Blood On Satan’s Claw got greenlit. At that point, I would light up a torch and start shouting “Blasphemy!”

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The philistine who touches Blood On Satan’s Claw will join bee-stung Nic Cage, the maths teachers, Dustin Hoffman and the psychotic cat killer in a flammable cage. Don’t keep the Wicker Man waiting!

James’ previous column can be found here.

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