William Friedkin’s other horror movie…
William Friedkin is undeniably one of the great American directors. His work in the 70s was ground-breaking and with the exception of the 90s, he’s made at least one great film per decade since. However, he also retains the odd status of being one of the great horror directors despite the fact that he hasn’t really made many horror movies. Granted, he made The Exorcist, which might be the greatest horror film of them all. Yet beyond that, there’s only been the brilliant Bug (which barely qualifies as horror) and the 1990 wacko oddity The Guardian. Originally conceived as a project for Sam Raimi (with all of the cartoonish excess that suggests), The Guardian is a weird n’ wild movie that Friedkin made as a hack for hire. It doesn’t quite work, but it is a hell of a lot of fun to sit back with while counting the ‘wtf’ moments. I suppose that’s why Shout Factory decided to resurrect The Guardian with a big ol’ special edition Blu-ray. Lord knows no one else would. Even if it’s not exactly a lost classic, it’s certainly nice that Shout/Scream factory gave William Friedkin’s other horror movie the special treatment, if only for their vast array of special features that explore exactly how this thing happened and what went wrong.
So…plot. This is tricky because it doesn’t make much sense. Nevertheless, things kick off with two parents bidding their children farewell for the evening and leaving them in the hands of an unseen nanny. Wouldn’t ya know it? The nanny is actually a druid who worships an ancient tree on the family property that she sacrifices the infant to. You know, that old story. Makes sense? Doesn’t matter, we’re moving forward. Next we’re introduced to a new married couple (Dwier Brown and Carey Lowell, both giving fairly competent performances under the circumstances) who quickly buy the same house, have a baby, and decide they need a nanny. They end up with a woman named Camilla (Jenny Seagrove). who seems perfect for the job and does well at first, despite all sorts of creepy naked late night activities messing with Brown’s head. A few other side characters are introduced for future death scenes before a gang of rapists trap Camilla by a tree in the backyard. It turns out to be the tree from the beginning, which brutally kills off and eats all the rapists. Why? Because Camilla is a demon with magical powers including flight. To stop her, there’s going to be chainsaw fight.
Did that make any sense? I doubt it. The movie doesn’t make much sense, so if my plot description did, I messed up. Dipping into the Blu-ray’s special features explains why. The film was based on a novel that was developed by Stephen Volk (Ghostwatch) and Sam Raimi (Evil Dead 2) into a supernatural splat-stick comedy. Then William Friendkin took over and attempted to remove all of the supernatural elements before he was forced to put them back in, so he hinged it all on an evil tree for reasons that no one can explain (least of all Friedkin). It was a troubled shoot to say the least, one that was radically re-written on the fly throughout production. The final movie sure feels like it too. Scenes awkwardly clash into each other without much sense of flow. Logic is out the window and it’s often even hard to follow the plot from one scene to the next. In short, the film is a mess.
Here’s the thing though: it’s an incredibly fun mess. While the overall film feels awkward, individual sequences that Friedkin mounts are pretty spectacular. The opening prologue has a nice grim fairy tale feeling . The early scenes with Jenn Seagrove are delightfully creepy with a sense of foreboding. The gore and effects sequences involving the tree are genuinely nasty with an unnervingly surreal edge. And the grand finale is so ridiculously hysterical, bloody, and cartoonish that Sam Raimi may as well have directed (even though the humor is unintentional). On a scene-by-scene basis, the movie is pretty wild and frequently fun. None of it really hangs together, but damn is it ever amusing to watch the mess unfold on a massive scale with top flight director going for broke in a variety of good ways and bad.
You can’t really call The Guardian a good movie. It certainly doesn’t work in the ways that movies should, especially those made by major filmmakers like Friedkin. However, you also can’t call it boring, nor could you claim that there’s any other movie remotely like it. Somewhere amidst all the bad ideas, abandoned scripts, panicked production meetings, and directorial ravings emerged a wild cinematic concoction filled with potent imagery. It ain’t great and it certainly ain’t art, but it’s absolutely worth watching for anyone who enjoys wild n’ cheesy horror romps. This is one of those movies that you need to see to believe. You may not want to watch it again, but you will never forget it. God bless Shout Factory for giving The Guardian the care and attention that absolutely no one else would even consider.
The film looks far better than anyone could have expected. Obviously it’s an older film and also one deliberately shot in cool and earthy colors. So, it doesn’t exactly pop off the screen in HD. However, details are strong (especially in the gore and effects sequences) and the image retains a very natural and vibrant appearance. It might not look as strong as contemporary HD productions, but compared to the cheap n’ ugly home video releases that The Guardian has received in the past, Shout’s restoration is a revelation. The audio mix and crisp and clear, but sadly despite what the box says, it’s only available in a lossless 2.0 mix. No 5.1 here. Don’t even try to find it.
The special feature section is vast, if hit and miss. Compiled from an old special edition DVD and some new featurettes from Shout, there are no less than eight 10-20 minute interviews available with a variety of cast and crew members . All of them have their charms and reveal the slapdash nature of the production, but to be honest a few are disposable. The best by far are the older interviews with Friedkin and writer Stephen Volk as well as the new ones with Dwier Brown and Matthew Mungle. The Friedkin and Volk interviews provide an amazing he said/she said guide to the horrible mess of writing the film. Friedkin is a man who would never admit that he did anything wrong, so he boasts about saving a horrible script by applying his personal experience with an insanely irresponsible nanny to the material (it’s a doozy of a tale), while Volk tells horror stories of constant revisions made on whims without concern for cohesion that eventually led him to a mental breakdown.
Dwier Brown pipes up with more entertaining Friedkin tales like firing several sound crews and shooting guns off next to actresses’ heads for reactions. He knows how to spin a yarn and holds few secrets (it almost makes up for his ‘acting’ in the movie). Finally Matthew Mungle shares his memories about working on the effects, which are fun if only due to all of the experimentation and improvisation required. Overall, it’s a nice set of interviews (I haven’t even mentioned half of them, mostly because the others were a little dull), but it’s a shame Shout didn’t make an entire documentary about The Guardian given the beauties they’ve made about troubled productions in the past. Still, this is a far better Blu-ray for The Guardian than anyone could have predicted would ever be produced. Some might argue that the movie doesn’t deserve this sort of treatment. Those people have a point, but they also probably aren’t much fun. Thank god Shout Factory cared enough to release this bizarre movie on a stacked Blu-ray. This disc should help grow the small cult of Guardian enthusiasts and probably even land it on a few bad movie podcasts. I fully endorse that.
Does This Deserve a Spot On Your Dork Shelf?
Scream Factory caters towards to a specific kind of genre collector, and if that’s then this is probably already in your Amazon cart. Most of their releases fit into two categories, movies that work because they’re well done and movies that are amusing for failing at their bold and wild attempts at something different, this is definitely the former.