Straw Dogs: folk horror and sleepless nights for the censor

Why Sam Peckinpah’s notorious thriller belongs in the 1970s folk horror tradition, as a potent parable about the darkness that lies deep in the British landscape.

Adam Scovell
Updated:

Straw Dogs (1971)

Straw Dogs (1971)

By the beginning of the 1970s the malevolence in the English landscape was once more on the loose. The countryside had become a place of unforgiving ghosts, as in Lawrence Gordon Clark’s A Warning to the Curious (1972), of devils, as in Piers Haggard’s Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971), and of pure, human violence, as in Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General (1968).

Though some English landscapes on screen fought to retain some sense of romantic detachment, in the likes of John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) and Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between (1971), the countryside’s tainted reality had finally clawed its way back through cinema. Presentations of modern-day lands in England were now potentially unnerving places of violence and trauma, the transition defined most disturbingly and effectively by Sam Peckinpah’s first non-western feature, Straw Dogs (1971). Along with Ken Russell’s The Devils and Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, it would be a film that gave the BBFC in particular a number of sleepless nights that year.

Straw Dogs (1971)

Straw Dogs (1971)

Straw Dogs is based on the Gordon M. Williams novel The Siege of Trencher’s Farm. It follows a newly married couple, David and Amy Sumner (Dustin Hoffman and Susan George), as they return to live in the latter’s small village in a remote part of Cornwall. They are faced with a cold welcome by the locals, who are unhappy and perhaps envious that Amy has married an outsider (an academic figure of enlightenment, no less).

Some of the local men, including an old flame of Amy’s, Charlie (Del Henney), are hired to fix and renovate the farm that the couple have moved into. But the pressure begins to mount as the men lure David away on an early morning hunt, only to then lose him deliberately. Charlie doubles back and forces himself upon Amy, with a second man then forcing him to collude in her second rape.

Susan George and Sam Peckinpah during production of Straw Dogs (1971)

Susan George and Sam Peckinpah during production of Straw Dogs (1971)

The tension rises further after Amy re-encounters her assailants at a local church social. She and her husband later help a man, Niles (David Warner), who they run over by accident. Unbeknown to them, he has earlier accidentally murdered the daughter of the local drunk, Tom Hedden (Peter Vaughan); another problematic area for the film, as the character’s learning difficulties are the supposed cause of manslaughter. The film concludes with an incredibly violent siege on the Sumner house led by Hedden, resulting in some of the most violent and brutal deaths in popular 70s cinema.

Peckinpah’s film garnered a variety of controversies, chiefly for the ambiguities surrounding the assault of Amy, in that the narrative implies that it was a natural outcome of her earlier teasing of the men, and then goes further in showing her appear to almost enjoy the first attack by her former lover. It is only when the second man attacks that she is shown to unambiguously attempt to fight back and struggle.

There’s little doubt that the film’s notoriety today derives from this deeply flawed and uncomfortable presentation of sexual assault, yet there is much else in the film that essentially aligns it with other, more esoteric films from this period, most notably the representation of landscape and the toxicity that remains deep in its isolated soil.

The majority of the film’s drama stems from the notion of outsiders and insiders; that people have more right to live in (and live with people from) an area when they are born there. It is telling that the residents of the village of St Buryan – where the film was shot – were incredibly angry at Peckinpah’s representation of their community, especially because many occupants had taken part as extras in the film, unaware of its content.

Straw Dogs (1971)

Straw Dogs (1971)

The concept of the “local shop for local people”, as expressed by the couple in The League of Gentlemen’s fictional village of Royston Vasey, has a doubly horrific effect during the hyper-patriarchal 1970s: that local people (ie men) have the automatic rights to local women’s bodies, with consent or not. To the men, nauseatingly, Amy’s body becomes just another object in the landscape. As with many such representations of landscape in this period, isolation is key to the social make-up and to the breakdown of morality. The skewed localism in the soil, without the aid of social or moral progress of the wider community, sours even further when left alone to stew.

Witchfinder General (1968)

Witchfinder General (1968)

In this sense, the film shares a great deal with Witchfinder General – another western-like story posing as an English social equivalent, in which isolated rural plains give rise to a continued violence against women and, more generally, between male rivals. Apart from both films being shot by John Coquillon, who imbues the landscapes with an inescapable vastness, both films also highlight the lapse in morality sometimes brushed aside more easily in spaghetti westerns.

Straw Dogs (1971)

Straw Dogs (1971)

Whereas the epic nature of American landscapes seems to dissipate the moral implications of such violence, the action sits more disturbingly amid English’s green and pleasant land. In many ways, the British countryside heightens the effect of the violence through both contrast and irony. There is no escape from the brutal reality of it.

The terrain feels almost sentient in Straw Dogs, and if the topography does not hide the conscious nastiness of such localised violence, it can also offer only mute acquiescence as the horror plays out.

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