From it's opening conversation with one of the locals, to the explosive concluding moments, 'Straw Dogs' is an edge-of-your-seat roller coaster of manic emotions, riddled with tension and fear. This is the sort of film that probably shouldn't be watched by anyone with a nervous condition as it definitely gets your heart racing. Rightfully noted as Sam Peckinpah's most accomplished motion picture, this suspense masterpiece is so effective at making one's blood run cold that its contentious subject matter has caused it to be banned in certain parts of the world. And still, it remains a rather controversial feat of storytelling.
To some extent, it may seem like I'm just building up expectations, especially ones which could likely fail to satisfy younger, contemporary viewers, by which I mean movie-going experience and knowledge, not physical age. But the admiration and continued enjoyment of 'Straw Dogs' is not only a question of whether audiences will find it a frightening watch. The film's true brilliance at generating terror resides in the story's structure and Peckinpah's masterful direction. The narrative intentionally unfolds at a leisurely pace so that we see events gradually and believably escalate out of control. It makes sense that American mathematician David Sumner (Dustin Hoffman), who has always avoided violence, will reach his breaking point slowly.
Very loosely based on the novel The Siege of Trencher's Farm by Gordon Williams, Peckinpah co-wrote the screenplay with fellow writer David Zelag Goodman ('Farewell, My Lovely,' 'Logan's Run'). In the first few minutes, they start off with an uncomfortably tense meet-and-greet of the local townspeople and key players of the plot. Charlie (Del Henney) is a creepy former childhood boyfriend of David's wife, Amy (Susan George). His friends, the subtly twisted Norman (Ken Hutchinson) and rat-catcher Chris (Jim Norton), are equally menacing and odd. The town drunk, Tom (Peter Vaughan), is a loud-mouth who makes perfectly clear his aggressive dislike of Henry Niles (David Warner), who we're meant to believe has a history as a pedophile.
In that short span of time, we quickly suspect a sense of threat and hostility about the seemingly quiet village of Wakely, Cornwall. And Peckinpah is not only able to maintain that feeling, but build upon it, as if drawing viewers into David's point of view and share in his mounting anxiety. Already coming from a background of revisionist westerns, specifically 'The Wild Bunch' and 'The Ballad of Cable Hogue,' Peckinpah clearly steals from the conventions of that genre and sets them within a fish-out-of-water thriller. As the men's blatant taunting and harassing at the couple's home grows increasingly out of hand, Peckinpah's dense climate of terrifying anticipation grows with it, until we end up in a volatile standoff ripped from the pages of a western dime novel. Only better.
Ultimately, 'Straw Dogs' is a brilliant and masterful piece of suspense cinema. Few films are able to generate such a visceral and uncomfortable reaction while at the same time touching on complex, insightful questions about modern society's attitude towards violence. David serves as our everyman, embodying the civilized individual, refraining from conflict as much as possible and preferring his intellectual pursuits. In essence, he's suppressed his animal tendencies the best he can, but when pushed too far by the town's bullies and forced to defend his home, his wild, unforgiving side finally emerges. It's a troubling theme which confounds the plot and asks what any one of us would do. Peckinpah's film remains a frightening thriller that continues to impress with its direction and structure.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
20th Century Fox and MGM Home Entertainment bring 'Straw Dogs' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD50 disc, housed in a blue eco-case. This is also the 118-minute unrated version of the film. The cover art is new and rather attractive. The disc goes straight to the movie without any trailers or a main menu.
'Straw Dogs' looks marvelous on Blu-ray. This 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (1.85:1) is a significant improvement over previous releases.
The transfer delivers phenomenal clarity and resolution in the fine textural details. Every stone and tiny imperfection in the house's architecture is plainly visible. Individual hairs and threading in sweaters are precise and distinct. Understandably, there are some sequences which have not aged well, but it does little to harm the rest of the transfer's outstanding quality. Colors are much more lively and bold, with a palette that displays beautifully saturated secondary hues. Facial complexions appear healthy and revealing, particularly in close-ups. Contrast intentionally falls on the lower end of the grayscale to better characterize the rural English countryside, but it's consistent and well-balanced. Black levels are accurate and true for the most part, and shadows details remain discernable throughout.
This is a brilliant video presentation for a classic thriller.
For the audio, MGM has also included an equally splendid DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that gives the original mono design a great deal of warmth and presence.
The lossless mix remains very much a front-heavy presentation with well-prioritized and intelligible dialogue reproduction. Most impressive is a surprisingly wide and expansive soundstage that also doesn't feel and sound cheap or artificial. Imaging is highly engaging and active, delivering superb, sharp clarity in the mid-range. Listeners can clearly make out the local wildlife in the distance and the few action sequences are very well-detailed. Low bass is appropriate to the film's age and recording, noticeable really only during gunshots. Rear activity is pretty much non-existent as would be expected.
This high-rez track puts on a first-rate show that fans should really enjoy.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary, 'Straw Dog's debuts on Blu-ray with a measly collection of supplements — the Original Theatrical Preview and three TV Spots in standard def.
'Straw Dogs' is rightfully considered Sam Peckinpah's most accomplished film, it's a masterpiece of suspense horror, a carefully structured thriller that builds upon a deliberately paced climate of tension and anticipation. The anxiety-ridden feature about a timid intellectual pushed to his breaking point features a memorable performance by Dustin Hoffman and remains an impressive work of filmmaking, one best remembered for its controversial scenes of violence. The classic movie debuts on Blu-ray with a beautiful video presentation and excellent audio, but supplements are sadly wanting. Nonetheless, this is a terrific purchase for fans and highly recommended for anyone looking for a good thriller.