Straw Dogs - Unrated Version Blu-ray Review
David and Amy Sumner's fateful odyssey at Trencher’s farm arrives on region free Blu-ray with Peckinpah’s 1.85:1 aspect accompanied by an AVC encode. The print is in reasonably good shape, although there are still little signs of damage here and there – specks and pops, and the odd frame wobble. Grain can be quite heavy in some instances, and there are times when it can look fuzzy and noisy against the white clouds, say. But, for the most part, it never appears quite natural. Depth is good, certainly more established than I have seen it before, with not only the village streets and the country lanes benefiting, but also the interiors of the pub and the farmhouse.
The film looks murky, earthen and overcast. And well it should. This isn’t picture-postcard Cornwall at the height of summertime. The aesthetic for much of the time isn’t chilly, though, but the film still looks quite bleak and austere, visually capturing the heavy, doom-laden atmosphere that hangs over the village and the moors and the farmhouse. Colours are deep, but not bright, the palette appropriately grubby and lived-in. Clothing, for the most, is drab and shabby, so we don’t exactly get any boost here. The interior of the farmhouse doesn’t offer much vitality other than the red curtains, although the Wakely Arms does come across as reasonably warm and ruddy. Complexions seem to follow the same path, with a warm tone that actually looks appropriate for the denizens of a rural, weather-blasted enclave. We get to see some blood, and this looks quite vivid in a few splashy places, although, for once, Peckinpah seems to be cutting back on the claret.
I thought the black levels were fine, overall. They offer considerable shadow-play and generally good solid definition that doesn’t seem to mask any detail within. The shadows seem natural in the daylight and the effect at night, especially during the siege, is tight and evocative. When the lights go out in the cottage, the blacks are well-maintained and the pockets of information that are meant to see are perfectly revealed, with only age-related fades making them flicker. Contrast, then, is reliably good and only exhibits the highlights that were there in the source, and the image copes well with the mist that rolls in over the farmhouse from the moors. The greyscale here is not compromised by artefacts and looks consistent. Several images are swathed in fog, with the antics of the gang convincingly obscured. I saw no banding here. And no edge enhancement either.
We can clearly see the softened “fake” stone wall rippling as David and an attacker tumble against it. We can also see the chunks of meaty matter springing up from a shotgun-blasted foot. The image is hardly pin-sharp but, given the deliberately muddied and now-vintage looking photography, detail is more than just a notch above what you might have expected with revealing close-ups that favour eyes, stubble and crags. Susan George's hair also seems a lot more lustrous than it ever did before.
It is possible that newcomers to the film will not find much to celebrate in this hi-def transfer, but this is surely a highly worthwhile upgrade for those who know it well.
Straw Dogs has just the one audio track on this disc, a DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix.
You can certainly question the benefits of trying to stretch out the film’s original mono with a full surround makeover. But, in the scheme of things, this isn’t so bad, so long as you don’t go anticipating much wraparound activity. And at least it doesn't supply anything unwanted.
Dialogue is always clearly discernible, despite some of Hoffman’s patented mumbling, such as his quiet suggestion that Amy should just “Go on … go.” It is unmistakably showing its pedigree, though, and it does sound tinny and constrained as a consequence.
Fielding's disquieting score is allowed some space in which to breathe. Occasional support is afforded it from the surrounds. The eerie and forlorn strings and piano sound clean and clear. The sudden bagpipe barrage that David sets off on his record player is both shrill and thick, and it sounds nice and aggressive. He is, after all, playing it loud … and the mix does manage to differentiate when we are nearby or hearing it from outside with a decent level of distinction. What I like is that we can still clearly hear the stylus needle brushing against last groove of the disc after all the chaos has died down.
The track still features some bombast, although it is appreciably limited and slightly brusque-sounding. We get shotgun blasts, and although they are unlikely to shock the system too much, they boast some aged, yet solid impacts as they thud into the stout oaken door and then through the upturned table at the window. The blast that tears through a character’s foot is actually quite well doled-out, with a small but rewarding amount of reverb reaching around behind us. We also get a lot of breaking glass though, once again, these can sound quite subdued and the sound effect all very samey, despite some attempts being made at directionality. The groaning of the man-trap as David has the workers set it before it is mounted on the wall is clearly audible, and the subsequent snapping shut around an involuntary neck carries some metallic heft. The various bodily impacts – slaps to the face, clonks to the noggin and the tussle on the stairs that David has to go through twice – lack much in the way of proper weight, but this is down to the original sound design and the lossless mix the film now has doesn’t make the mistake of embellishing or boosting them unconvincingly.
Natural ambience, such as birdsong and the hubbub of the villagers, is delivered with subtlety and a fair degree of realism, and gains credence with support from the rears. The clown-like honking of the horn on the tricycle that Causey rides comes through loud and clear, all right, as does the squeaking of the rats that he throws through the windows at Amy.
This is a good reproduction of the old track. The added channels do not make a mockery of the vintage sound design – they add only slight extension and ambient breadths - and the audio comes across with a rough and dated, but still enjoyable vigour. Freemantle's UK disc, by the way, is set to carry a 2.0 stereo option.
Here is where it really hurts, folks.
All we get with this US 40th Anniversary edition is a theatrical trailer. That’s it. Criterion did the film justice, and the UK’s previous SD 2-discer was laden with supplements.
The forthcoming UK Blu release from Freemantle Media looks certain to be the one to go for, with its slew of featurettes and whatnot culled from that earlier DVD. I will be taking a look at that version in due course.
This, I’m afraid, is a pathetic show.
Straw Dogs carries with it a notoriety that belies its deep intellectual qualities but then, even now, its incendiary subject matter remains powerful and devastating and its sheer visceral punch is the galvanising factor in its ongoing popularity. Dustin Hoffman may have taken the job “for the money” but he delivers a tremendously nuanced and idiosyncratic performance that truly sticks in the mind. Susan George confounds, confuses and convinces as the victim of her sexuality – antagonised and tormented by all the men in her world. Peckinpah's Cornish Wild Bunch are a bravura bunch of top-class British actors. Monstrous, but not monsters, they are ferocious yet naturalistic, menacing yet immensely charismatic at the same time. They, too, convince. To a man. The collision course that they are all on is wonderfully constructed and monumentally sustained, the gulf between the antagonists perversely not as wide as you might think. The entire film is one vast moral grey area, and into this comes a twisted tale of fate and violence.
Peckinpah hit rural England with a vengeance. After The Wild Bunch, this is the best he had to offer.
But for a 40th Anniversary Edition, as the sticker on the packaging proudly proclaims, this is a complete sham. In fact, it’s worse than a sham – it’s an insult. All we get with the US release is a trailer, and that’s your lot. As I’ve already mentioned, the UK edition, from Freemantle, carries a slew of great extras that chart the film’s trials and tribulations with the censors and a couple of commentaries from those who Peckinpah better than most. My advice is to wait until I have looked at the UK edition … but, either way, Straw Dogs is a towering work of dark cinematic genius. Brutal, complex, disturbing.
And utterly brilliant.
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