Straw Dogs: The Representations of Rural Locations in the 1971 and the 2011 Remake
Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, was set and filmed in Cornwall, England. It is about a married couple, David Sumner, an American mathematician and his beautiful British wife Amy who return to her home village to escape the anti-Vietnam War protests. They are soon harassed by the locals and the finale consists of David finally standing up to them and defending his home, revealing the aggressive nature in himself that is a primal, masculine trait, suggesting that we are all animals and that society and its ideologies are a masquerade. Rod Lurie’s 2011 remake was shot in Mississippi, USA, a lush contrast to the original film. This time a script writer and actress, moving from L.A so that David can finish a script. The narrative unfolds the same way but the contrast in settings is clear.
Stereotypically rural places and 'Rural Horror' such as The Wicker Man (Hardy, 1973) are seen as a return to nature, a purer landscape compared to the urban environment. However, these portrayals in both films have received negative reception as the representations offended the locals who became concerned about the rural stereotypes. The ‘locals’ are portrayed as violent but devoutly religious, as seen in the remake in which the town attends church, reinforcing this stereotype. In the scene, David, an atheist, leaves the service, an act which enrages the locals.
Stereotyped rural inhabitants are of the lower class, un-educated, and misogynistic. In the film there are many occasions when women are treated as objects and belittled, such as the rape scenes. There are also suggestions of inbreeding which is explored in other rural films such as The Hills Have Eyes (1977). The seclusion of the areas create a heavy and brooding atmosphere for the characters, Cornwall’s rustic moor settings, with its tiny villages give the occupants an unhealthy closeness in their relationships. Therefore strangers aren’t accepted. They shun outsiders who threaten their ideals and values.
The dominant ideology surrounding the English farming country and the ‘backwoods’ of America denotes tranquillity and peace within these locations. However, there is a significant contrast between the locations in the 1971 and 2011 films. Peckinpahs is the typical rainy Britain. ‘The weather adds a spooky surreal element to the picture too; we see very little sunshine through perpetually-grey skies, and the fog that rolls in off the sea at night gives the siege at the end of the film, a look for horror.’ (Mercer, 2011) This is visually more claustrophobic and in many ways enhances the eerie setting.
In comparison, Lurie’s remake conveys the aesthetic quality of the modern technology that removes some of the grittiness from older ‘backwoods’ classics. Furthermore the climate is warmer and it’s sunnier, the feel to the film more spacious in the clear weather. However, the run-down town and the dusty appearance of the Deep South make the country unappealing and gritty. In surrounding forests, where they hunt, vast woodland goes on for miles; Lurie’s characters are trapped by this geographic location.
One Mississippi resident described the opening sequence to Straw Dogs (2011) offensive, ‘…quick images of trailer parks, confederate flags, rural decay, barking dogs, misogynistic bar patrons harassing waitresses…basically a representation of what people stereotypically fear about Mississippi and the south in general.’ (Cooper, 2011). Other films such as Deliverance (1972) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978) have sparked similar criticisms. These films embrace the settings as many audiences are drawn to the escapist qualities of ‘rural horror’. Fearing these isolated places has become part of the genre’s iconography.
However, Peckinpah’s opening is a slower sequence. Haunting and eerie, there is a peculiar score, unusual in its slow tempo and diegetic sound of children playing and singing. There seems to be something unnerving about the town as the children play happily in the grave-yard, oblivious to the resting place of the dead. This sequence reveals more about the location whilst setting the tone but not over using the stereotypes instantly, these follow later. Peckinpah utilises the natural light and surroundings of Cornwall’s moors to emphasise a sense of foreboding within the mise-en-scene.
Secluded landscapes in these films are the 'utopian fantasy' (Dryer, 1977) for the protagonists choosing to escape the chaos of urban living, the irony being that they now must confront their own misconceptions. In Deliverance, Straw Dogs and I Spit on Your Grave, the protagonists try to get inspiration from the isolation of the countryside. The original David subverts his passive beliefs and un-masculine ways in an ironic finale which is the siege of the farmhouse. After escaping the protests that had become physical wars between the youths in America, the Sumners were thrown into a new war, forced to fight against the locals. Peckinpahs’ statement and use of irony could suggest the message that conflict is human nature and that man will always unleash savage and ruthless instincts when protecting their property.
The invasion narrative has been spoofed in the media repeatedly over the years for example in the black comedy The Cottage (2008), TV series The League of Gentlemen and even An American Werewolf in London (1981) features suspicious locals who dislike the backpackers. Although this stereotype is considered absurd, it is repeatedly used in horror cinema.
There is also another convention that the locals follow, ‘We take care of our own here.’ There is a lack of authority in the townships, the police constable/sheriff of the towns are often a higher social class with a, seemingly, higher education. Not always present, their rule is repeatedly undermined by the workers. During the opening scenes of Straw Dogs ’71 and ‘11, the police arrive at the pub/bar and not once do the locals seem intimidated by the law enforcement but seem to mock it, subsequently brawls ensue.
The ‘barbarian’ locals reign over the locations and therefore take the law into their own hands. The final act of Straw Dogs clearly demonstrates this both films pan out in this way. When the town simpleton, Niles, is accused of abducting the town flirt, Janice, her father, Tom who is also the town drunk, the workers, including Amy’s rapists, are told of his whereabouts and attack the Sumners home. David and Amy accidentally hit Niles with their car on their way home and take him back with them where they plan to call for medical assistance. When the constable arrives, he confronts the men outside, only to be shot dead. Any hope of the characters being saved is gone as the local men do not fear the consequences of their actions. Therefore the protagonist takes the law into his own hands to prove his masculinity and defend his home and that he will defend it.
In comparison to the American backwoods films, Peckinpah takes a more chilling approach. ‘The heroes of Deliverance or The Hills Have Eyes are given no choice but to fight and kill, attacked suddenly by monstrous villains who seem hardly human.’ (Newman, 2002) Newman argues how normal the antagonists are in contrast to these other films, and the extreme lengths David goes to in the end to defend his wife and home. Their intelligence is perceived as lower than the average middle-class citizen, and Lurie’s ‘Red necks’ are just that. Furthermore their emotional capability is lessened; the original was kinder on its villains. They were spontaneous and yet, generally, they had motives for the final sequence. They were twisted and inhumane about their actions but they weren’t barbaric Neanderthals that the remake portrayed them to be. One reviewer described the directors’ attempt on portraying the Deep South as, ‘…hamfistedly depicting his characters as such shallow, purposeless clichés, he’s removed any sense of depth or complexity.’ (N/A)
An example of this is the opening in which Amy and David travel into town to eat at the bar. Housed here are dirty, plaid wearing, men who harass the barmaid. Typical of the genre, rural horror, they are loud mouthed, offensive and all know one another very well, excluding David from the town instantly. They emasculate him and are overly intimidating. They are more similar to the ‘Hillbillies’ in Deliverance than Peckinpahs complex characters. The psychological horror of the film is absent in the remake which was one of the originals’ greatest strengths. R. Hogg and K. Carrington describe films like this highlight the key concept of the genre in that ‘…the rural is represented as a dark, hostile, alien environment, peopled by dangerous, atavistic types (“murderous yokels”) who prey on naïve, urban innocents.’ (Hogg, Carrington, 2006)
The original’s pub sequence is interesting; it has the essence of the old westerns, a masculine genre; about fighting for place in society, for authority or lands. This echoes the western genre significantly as David steps into the building and is watched by all the regulars whilst buying a packet of cigarettes. The bleak interiors of the pub, the gruff men scattered about it, the typical flat caps worn by most of the men, the mise-en-scene doesn’t entirely fit with David’s western-like entrance. But it still conveys the main theme of seclusion.
The menacing locals observe the American, their clothes not in fashion with the urban lifestyle outside of their village. There is minimal editing compared to the remake which uses many technical horror clichés, missing out on the psychological torture that Amy and David go through the entire film due to the hostile local men. This scene highlights a hierarchy in the village, that it is the working class citizens who have control, who are the biggest threat to the American, emasculating him and driving him to the very edge. Once he reaches this point, he descends into primal fury.
Women are objects of the ‘Male Gaze’ (Mulvey, 1975), the promiscuous Janice, the barmaid in the remake and Amy, society to degrade them, which is probably one of the reasons why Mrs Sumner originally left. Most of the other women are stay at home wives which shows how far behind the towns are. These societies are not fully in touch with the outside world, living in the past with older morals and values. There is a strong religious ideology amongst these secluded, rural societies, not that many of them follow by it closely. There are church going citizens who clash with Sumners’ own atheism, in the remake he steps out of the church, disrespectfully, during a service to sit in his car until it ended.
In the original, religion is not one of the main issues for the couple, unlike Lurie’s. This emphasises the location, the Deep South of North America as having a history of strong religious beliefs leading to a conflict of ideologies. In the remake, this sequence is much more dramatic due to the strong faith within the state. Peckinpahs’ David is rude to the vicar and his wife when they visit their home but this does not lead to bitter feuds, they both seem more accepting of each other’s beliefs. The villages host a church social which everyone attends, even the Sumners. There is a mutual understanding within the community; it is a small town tradition that brings everyone closer together. However, this is after Amys’ double rape and David has fired the workers from repairing their garage. There is hostility in the air and the cheery atmosphere of the scene is over shadowed by the Amys’ fear and her husband’s discomfort with the other villagers.
In conclusion, both films portray regressive representations of rural Cornwall and the Deep South, the remake consists of common, exaggerated stereotypes that damage the locations reputation. Peckinpah relies on the English countryside and nature to inspire the unnerving atmosphere; meanwhile clichés are used in the remake to shock the audience. Both locations are key features to the stories; a close-knit society is needed to achieve the tone of the film that takes mankind back to its primitive state. The directors embraced the setting and exploited the beauty of its lost-in-time appearance, creating an unsettling territory where the law does not seem to apply.
B. Mercer. (2011) Straw Dogs compared: an in-depth look at the 1971 original and 2011 remake. http://www.cinemasoldier.com/articles/2011/10/4/straw-dogs-compared-an-in-depth-look-at-the-1971original-an.html
C. Cooper. (2011) Does Straw Dogs (2011) harm Mississippi’s reputation?, http://www.smalltowncritic.com/2011/12/23/does-straw-dogs-2011-harm-mississippis-reputation/
R. Dyer. (1977) Utopian Fantasy Theory
K. Newman. (2002). History of Straw Dogs and the Censors. Article distributed by Fremantle
R. Hogg, K. Carrington. (2006) Policing the Rural Crisis. Sydney. Federation Press.
L. Mulvey. (1975) Male Gaze Theory, Visual pleasure in Narrative Cinema
Straw Dogs. (1971) Film. Directed by Sam Peckinpah. [DVD]. UK: Freemantle.
Straw Dogs. (2011) Film. Directed by Rob Lurie. [DVD]. UK: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
(Originally Composed 20/03/2013 as a research project with regard to Horror tropes in Cinema)