*½/**** Image B Sound B+ Extras B
starring Jenny Seagrove, Dwier Brown, Carey Lowell, Brad Hall
screenplay by Stephen Volk and Dan Greenburg and William Friedkin, based on the novel The Nanny by Greenburg
directed by William Friedkin
by Bryant Frazer The Guardian, made in 1990 as an apparent attempt to cash in on director William Friedkin's reputation as the man behind The Exorcist, is one of those terrible movies by a powerful director working at the low ebb of his career. The wildest thing about The Exorcist--one of the greatest horror movies--is that despite its defining influence on his career, Friedkin has never shown much interest in horror. (That's one of the things that makes The Exorcist work so well: Despite the requisite special-effects outlay required to depict demonic possession, on one level The Exorcist is just the story of a problem and the professionals who are dispatched to address it; on another level, it's a family drama about a single parent dealing with adolescent rebellion.) So while it's understandable that either Friedkin or the studio bankrolling The Guardian would see commercial potential in a return to genre filmmaking, any attempt at out-and-out horror was probably ill-fated from the start. That the story being attempted (loosely adapted from a novel by Dan Greenburg) was so very woolly--the supernatural villain the title references is a sexy, polymorphous druid who takes jobs as a live-in nanny to steal babies from their parents--would have been an advantage in, say, a potboiler out of Charles Band's Empire Pictures. In the hands of a no-nonsense craftsman like Friedkin, alas, it was a blueprint for disaster.
The druid in question is Camilla (Jenny Seagrove), a slim sip of English tea hired by Phil (Dwier Brown, who previously appeared in Friedkin's To Live and Die in L.A.) and Kate (Carey Lowell), an Angeleno couple as bland as bottled water, to care for their newborn. After a sinister prologue that serves as flashback and foreshadowing, the first few reels play like an episode of "Everybody Loves Camilla"--happy baby, happy parents, cheery nanny. But there are signs that Camilla is excreting some potent pheromones. Phil's extramarital attraction is signalled in the usual ways; when he stumbles across Camilla in the bath, her response is, basically, "Come on in, pull up a chair and enjoy my casual nudity." Dreams of gentle lovemaking with Kate morph into more vigorous mating sessions with Camilla before Phil wakes up, gasping and dripping sweat like Robert Hays at the joystick in Airplane!. Later, neighbour Ned (Brad Hall) plays the stalker card after a dinner party, following Camilla into the woods, where he sees her having a different kind of intercourse with a huge tree. Tensions escalate, leading to an action climax where Phil hies out into the forest, chainsaw in tow, and rips into Camilla's massive old oak tree, which spews hilarious quantities of gore.
Although it goes conspicuously unmentioned in his memoirs, Friedkin apparently described The Guardian on an old DVD commentary as his most personal film, owing to what must have been some quite distressing life experiences with nannies. Ironically, then, Camilla is by a large margin the most interesting character on screen. In the picture's most conventional genre-movie sequence, she's menaced by a cartoonish gang of would-be rapists who pursue her into the forest and learn that her, ahem, bark is definitely worse than her bite. Later, she shows up in a full-body makeover torn from a page somewhere between Mystique and Swamp Thing in the superhero look-book. If Friedkin gave his ostensible leads any direction, though, it doesn't show, as both Brown and Lowell deliver white-bread performances. Friedkin's distance from these callow yuppies is palpable. He was close enough to Ellen Burstyn's own age that he must have easily identified with her character when he did The Exorcist, but both Brown and Lowell are young enough to be his kids, and he seems mostly uninterested in what their characters are thinking or feeling. When Phil finally confronts Camilla about his suspicions, with Kate looking on in disbelief, the scene stands out because it's at least modestly satisfying to see somebody actually asserting himself.
There are grace notes. The camerawork by New Hollywood DP John A. Alonzo (Chinatown), who shot documentaries with Friedkin when they both worked for David Wolper in the mid-1960s, is a sterling example of late-'80s cinematography (for better and worse), featuring lots of blue and an aggressive use of shadows to add expressionist texture to interiors, along with appropriately bizarre lighting effects in the wooded scenery outdoors. The film's attempted reimagining of Los Angeles as a modern kingdom on the edge of an enchanted wood is nearly charming and qualifies The Guardian as an early attempt at urban fantasy, while the signature image of a wailing baby's face molded into tree bark is creepy and would be absolutely shiver-inducing in a more sure-footed film. And when a trapped Ned dials 911, wolves massing at his French doors, to whine that he's being stalked by "coyotes," you feel Friedkin's fractious personality pointing through, passing judgment on the nebbish. Still, the flaws are insurmountable, and Phil's climactic "You take your hands off my baby!" never became the pop-culture catchphrase it could've been if the movie were bad in a better way. Though The Guardian isn't unwatchable, it's a weak effort--not scary, sexy, or wicked enough to leave a mark.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Scream Factory's new Blu-ray shows up at the pity party with a raft of HD interviews that, in aggregate, run longer than The Guardian itself. It's an interesting case study in what can go wrong as a director struggles too hard to find a way into a work for hire, but this film surely doesn't deserve that level of scrutiny. The really interesting bits are ported over from a 2011 Severin Films DVD release that featured interviews with Friedkin (17 mins.), Seagrove (13 mins.), and co-screenwriter Stephen Volk (21 mins.). Even all those years after the production, Friedkin's attitude towards the project is smugly dismissive. "I never read the novel," he brags, then follows up with, "I thought the script was lame, frankly." He posits his presence on the project as a favour to producer Joe Wizan, an old business associate, after Sam Raimi pulled out to make Darkman. Volk remembers getting the call from Wizan--a hell of a moment, evidently--telling him Raimi was out and Friedkin was in. According to Volk, he and Raimi had written a horror-comedy (which sounds awesome); Friedkin says he was angling for a darker, Brothers Grimm-style take on the material. The rewrite was a long and apparently painful process. Volk eventually fled the project (Seagrove says he had a nervous breakdown, and Volk himself admits that he required therapy before he could write again), and Seagrove remembers rewrites taking place during the shoot as Friedkin tried to wrangle the story on the fly. Everyone was apparently stymied in part by the studio's insistence on the script's supernatural elements--a sticking point that seemed foolish just a couple of years later with the release of director Curtis Hanson's career-making bad-nanny thriller The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.
Those key reminiscences are complemented by Scream Factory's new interviews with lead actor Dwier Brown (22 mins.), supporting players Gary Swanson (10 mins.) and Natalija Nogulich (12 mins.), composer Jack Hues, formerly of Wang Chung (7 mins.), and make-up effects artist Matthew Mungle (13 mins.). There are some nuggets of info here and there--Brown helps explain the inconsistent quality of dialogue recording on the picture by noting his own heavy ADR load, sighing, "Friedkin just loves looping"--but it's mostly standard-issue shoptalk. Swanson remembers working with Lee Strasberg, Nogulich describes Friedkin as a "thoroughbred," Hues compares his experience on The Guardian with his happier Friedkin collaboration on To Live and Die in L.A., and Mungle describes the special-effects logistics on the shoot.
Presentation-wise, the disc is a little disappointing. The 1.85:1, 1080p image is clean enough, yet garish. Primary colours can look overly saturated, with an especially strong blue push, and blacks are sometimes crushed in an apparent quest for contrast. (There is no word on whether Friedkin had any input on the HD master.) Grain is variable, boasting a velvety quality in some shots and a mushiness in others that suggests noise correction and dust-busting. Meanwhile, the 2.0 DTS-HD MA surround audio presentation (not 5.1 as noted on the box) is fine and well-balanced. There is consistent use of the rear channel for music and ambient sound effects, but the source elements aren't always top-notch. Some of the dialogue recording, for instance, has a hollow and tinny quality, probably the result the dodgy ADR work noted above. Finally, a scanty behind-the-scenes photo gallery, heavy on Mungle-provided shots of Seagrove in her final-reel tree-woman make-up, and a windowboxed theatrical trailer (upscaled from SD) are on offer. Nothing extraordinary here, though fans should be pleased.