'Straw Dogs' Marketing: Is It Ever Okay to Sex Up Rapists and Villains?

'Straw Dogs' Marketing: Is It Ever Okay to Sex Up Rapists and Villains?

Aug 22, 2011

Straw Dogs

Here's the thing: I kinda love True Blood. It's a guilty pleasure but not one that would surprise anyone who knows me in real life. And if I met, say, Alexander Skarsgard, I would probably look like this or like the woman here doing the most intense photobomb ever. Skarsgard's also starring in the upcoming remake of Straw Dogs as the main antagonist. Not to put too fine a point on it, but his character is a rapist. This gives me all sorts of complicated feelings, and not just because he plays my favorite vampire to ever kick back in a pair of track pants. He's a talented actor, and damn, damn good in Melancholia. I have heard that he's quite good in Straw Dogs as well, and I'll definitely see it and hope, as I usually do, that it's worth seeing. What gives me pause is the way we as viewers are invited to see him as sexually attractive, a similarity I've noticed in other characters of recent remakes of the same era, and how that subverts the subtext of the film itself.

The original Straw Dogs is a violent, disturbing movie that left me with a lot of things to chew on. When Amy Sumner (Susan George) and her intellectual, bespectacled husband David (Dustin Hoffman) return to the small English village she was raised in, a culture clash ensues and escalates to shocking heights. The men of the village, specifically Amy's ex Charlie (Del Henney), resent Amy's new, sophisticated city life and her husband who seems to look down upon them. It's a story rooted in what Carol Clover refers to as "urbanoia" in her book "Men, Women and Chain Saws," which can be found in other films from the '70s like I Spit On Your Grave, Deliverance, and The Hills Have Eyes. (pp. 124 -125) As Clover points out, even Ingmar Bergman's The Virgin Spring, which influenced The Last House on the Left, features the same stereotypical backwoods rapists. (In the original Last House, the antagonists are prison escapees, so even though the city/country split isn't present, there's still a marked class difference in effect here.)

Specifically, what should we take away from the specific scene between Charlie and Amy? I hesitate to even use a descriptor of the scene. Is it a rape scene? Is it rough sex? Clover refers to Straw Dogs as one of "the last of the 'old style' rape films… in which the viewer is invited by the usual narrative and cinematic conventions to adopt the rapist's point of view… The rape in Straw Dogs is a classic in the 'asking for it' tradition." (p. 139) Is this plain old misogyny on the part of director and co-writer Sam Peckinpah?

The remake of Straw Dogs features Skarsgard as Charlie, Kate Bosworth as Amy Sumner, and James Marsden as David, and it's been relocated to the South. It's indicated by the trailer that Amy and Charlie have a history. The sexual threat to Amy is palpable, as is the way David's masculinity is questioned by both Amy and the locals. However, while Del Henney's Charlie is definitely a more handsome bloke than his friends, Alexander Skarsgard is, well, Alexander Skarsgard.

Straw Dogs

I doubt that director/writer Rod Lurie's version would dare to skew as ambiguous as Peckinpah's, and from what I've read and heard, the scene is portrayed as a clear rape. It's not just that my favorite Viking vampire is playing a rapist, or that rapists are all ugly trolls easily avoided, or that Skarsgard was hired for his looks and not his talent.  However, focusing on Charlie's sex appeal, even if it's just in the marketing materials, is a dangerous game.

What called this to my attention is the official Sony Twitter account. On August 15, whoever runs the Sony account Tweeted, "Love True Blood's Eric Northman? We've got an EXCLUSIVE Alexander Skarsgard pic from #StrawDogs. RT if you love Alex." (The photo attached is the photo at the top of the page.) A few days later, someone at Sony Tweeted, "How much longer will Eric Northman stay so sweet on True Blood? Check out Skarsgard's not-so-sweet side in #StrawDogs, out 9/16!" According to some viewers and critics, if you follow the logic of True Blood and relate blood drinking to sex, then when Eric tricks Sookie into drinking his blood, it is a form of rape as well. Of course, that's much easier to swallow in the guise of a soap opera than Charlie's menace in a dramatic film.

Strangely enough, Charlie Venner isn't the only character of this stripe who's gotten hotter in the remaking process. In the remake of The Last House on the Left, the extreme creep Fred "Weasel" Podowski is played by Aaron Paul, who is so good-looking that Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan almost didn't cast him in the series. Meanwhile, handsome soap star Jeff Branson plays the lead antagonist in the remake of I Spit On Your Grave.

This type of casting shouldn't be surprising; Hollywood and advertising run on sexiness and bank on smoldering stars, no matter what the role. At the same time, it is surprising and somewhat disgusting -- not that such characters exist but that we're somehow supposed to find them sexually attractive. It also takes away the subtexts that made the originals interesting. Although painting the blue collar antagonists with a very broad brush and making them toothless, backwards, and otherwise challenged is very problematic in itself, taking away or lessening the subtext of the class tension makes the movies even more of a titillating and perhaps pointless voyage into sadism -- the very kind that the originals were accused of.

Categories: Horror, Features
Tags: Straw Dogs
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