In Defense of William Friedkin’s THE GUARDIAN

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In anticipation of its upcoming US Blu-ray debut, SHOCK goes to bat for one of iconic American filmmaker William Friedkin’s most interesting films, 1990’s THE GUARDIAN.

As every serious horror fan who both lived through it and has studied the period from the distance of time knows, as the 1980’s wound down and leaked into the 90’s, the pulse of the genre was faint. Producers were less interested in edgier supernatural fare than they were in conventional dramatic (and often, in the wake of FATAL ATTRACTION, erotic) thrillers, with most horror product tailored to suit a post-BATMAN need for bloated, FX-rich action. Even Coppola’s much-hyped 1992 horror blockbuster BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA feels like a mutated BATMAN with fangs…

But we digress.

The bottom line is that historically, you’d be hard pressed to find a real-deal, bold work of adult dark fantasy during this time-frame. Except for William Friedkin’s 1990 effort THE GUARDIAN, that is; a film that was anything but successful during its domestic theatrical run and was unfairly dismissed by critics who deemed its absurdities as beneath its storied director. But, as we now know, even Friedkin “slumming” often offers a superior cinematic experience than most filmmaker’s most notable works do and, in retrospect, THE GUARDIAN is no exception to this rule.

Out January 19th from Scream Factory on Blu-ray, THE GUARDIAN is a truly fascinating misfire that isn’t really a misfire at all. Rather it hits a target that’s not even on the range. It’s bizarre, beautiful, both lavish and cheap, controlled and reckless, erotic and ridiculous, character-driven and awash in tarty special FX.

Name another movie like it. Go ahead…we’re waiting.

There, see? You cannot. THE GUARDIAN is THE GUARDIAN.

Now, then. The plot…

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In the film’s dreamy, balletic opening we see a faceless nanny drift through a dimly-lit home as a little boy reads a very grim fairy tale from an elaborate pop-up book. As said nanny finishes the feeding of a baby, the children’s’ parents cheerfully prepare to go out for the evening. But a pair of forgotten glasses cause the couple to drive back home where they find their eldest son fast asleep, cozy and safe and their delicate infant…gone.

Their nanny? Nowhere to be found.

We then see that shadowy caregiver sprinting through an ersatz, moon-lit wood straight of the most glorious set-bound Mario Bava film where she holds the crying baby up to a monstrous, twisted tree. In a crude smash edit, the baby is gone, its visage now carved into the trunk of the tree, along with the faces of other children who have come before. And as the nanny finishes her phantasmagorical ritual, the shimmering stream beneath her reveals her shape-shifting into a snarling wolf.

And then the movie begins.

THE GUARDIAN doesn’t take time to play its hand when introducing the threat at its core. Like Friedkin’s signature genre classic THE EXORCIST, it makes sure we are firmly aware of the strange sandbox we are playing in so that, when we are immediately introduced to our true protagonists, we are instantly on edge, knowing that their perceived safety will soon be steamrolled by something horrific.

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Phil and Kate (Dwier Brown and Carey Lowell, both serviceable leads) are a pretty, healthy young couple of kindly yuppies just starting their life together; she’s just birthed a baby girl and the pair are ecstatic about sharing their monolithic home with their new daughter. Finding a nanny however, proves daunting that is until they meet willowy British caregiver Camilla (LOCAL HERO’s Jenny Seagrove); Camilla is intelligent, graceful and gentle and seemingly has an innate gift communicating with babies.

She’s also a kind of druid demon, an incarnation of the very same hellion we saw in the picture’s opening and it’s her intent to groom Phil and Kate’s bundle to be another sacrifice to her tree-god.

THE GUARDIAN is a deeply strange picture with a history as tortured as the perverted limbs of the fabricated tree itself. The film is based on the novel by Dan Greenburg called THE NANNY and, indeed, the initial version of the script bore that title. The director attached was none other than Sam Raimi, fresh off the cult success of his spastic indie hit EVIL DEAD 2. Producer Joe Wizan called on another rising star, British screenwriter Stephen Volk, himself coming off a pair of strange works in Ken Russell’s GOTHIC and the similarly female-monster driven Canadian thriller THE KISS, to re-write the script and, with Rami’s input, the pair fashioned what was to be a deliberately arch, body-count rich, blackly comic horror film.

But when Raimi opted to bail on the project and instead direct the, again, more BATMAN-esque DARKMAN, Wizan brought Friedkin on board (in what would be his first “legitimate” horror film since THE EXORCIST) roping Volk back into the project to collaborate with the iconic, loose-cannon filmmaker to make the movie that would become THE GUARDIAN.

Omitting the broadly-etched, splatter comedy Raimi was aiming for, Friedkin’s sensibilities are most assuredly the central visions of the final film. THE GUARDIAN takes its human drama seriously with any humor drawn naturally from the absurdity of the situation and it spends ample time building the characters and the world they live in.

Because we know the nature of the threat from the get-go, suspense doesn’t necessarily ratchet, rather the tension arises from the audience waiting for that magic moment when mom and dad clue-in to the true, insidious motives of the woman in whose trust they have placed their most precious cargo. Before that happens, Friedkin disorients by making Camilla a kind of vulnerable hero, most notably in a scene where she is almost assaulted by a pair of thugs in the woods; as she runs for her life, protecting the baby, we almost delude ourselves into thinking she may actually care about the child. She does, but of course her concern extends only as far as her own interests…

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The aforementioned scene of near-rape is punctuated by a thrashing of over-the-edge gore, wherein the tree itself attacks the aggressors, chomping off their limbs, eating one screeching tough and impaling the other battered bastard on its covert roots.

The central idea of the set-piece is a crude one in that it’s the would-be-rapists who are the ones who get violently penetrated and that in and of itself is a resoundly Friedkin-friendly, darkly sexual motif; but the gore FX aren’t filmed properly and feel out of place, almost as if Wizan insisted that they be more present in the final edit to please the new batch of easily bored kids and the FANGORIA crowd.

More successful are the numerous Gothic touches, like the incredibly intense, Hammer Horror-informed wolf-siege on the house, and the outrageous, chainsaw-vs.-bloody-tree-by-way-of-naked-druid-Queen- voodoo-decimation-climax, a wonderfully insane flurry of cuts both on-screen and in the editing room that oddly channel the gonzo spirit of Raimi, whether by intent or otherwise. and then, there’s the magnificent tree itself, an impossible tangle of limbs that, whether caressing the nude body of its lounging leader (a stunning sequence) or defending its turf, is a glorious, mythical creation. One wonders if Tim Burton liked it enough to borrow elements of its design for his 1999 version of SLEEPY HOLLOW…

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Ultimately, although he was brought in as a gun-for-hire, THE GUARDIAN is most assuredly a Friedkin joint, one in which you can repeatedly feel him grabbing the wheel away from the producers need for conventions and veering the film into that psychological, seedy and totally 1970’s fastlane that the filmmaker once blazed upon. This sense of Friedkin’s mischief, vision and total dedication to the project is validated by the wealth of quality supplemental interviews and features loaded into the back-end of the Blu-ray, some ported over from the UK Second Sight release, many made exclusively for this edition. In regards to Scream Factory’s transfer, the 1080p transfer is lovely, with most print damage evident only at the header of the film and the many nocturnal blues and greys are splendidly evident.

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THE GUARDIAN is most certainly flawed, but so is the best of Friedkin. Those flaws are what some more thoughtful critics might call evidence of his humanity, the mark of a flesh and blood auteur reaching through the slick veneer of a studio-produced entertainment and making a beautiful mess of things.

Great film. Great release. Recommended.