There is undeniably still some pulling power left attached to the thought of William Friedkin’s misbegotten 1990 venture “The Guardian”, simply for the somehow inappropriate sight it now affords us of the very well respected British theatre and TV actress Jenny Seagrove seen playing an often naked, evil, druidical wood nymph who sacrifices yuppies’ babies to a living ancient tree that periodically ups its roots and decapitates would-be park rapists. This was supposed to be the thirty-three-year-old Seagrove’s big entry point into Hollywood and with the director of “The Exorcist” at the helm making his much trumpeted return to the horror genre after a seventeen-year absence it must have seemed that nothing could possibly go wrong. It’s fascinating, then, to watch the three extensive interviews that feature as extras on this special edition disc, the film’s DVD debut in the UK (courtesy of Second Sight), with director Friedkin, lead actress Seagrove and the initial writer on the project, welsh-born screenwriter Stephen Volk, during the course of which it becomes increasingly clear that the film turned into one of those development projects from hell in which the entire point of the original concept eventually got so mangled and mixed-up through conflicting input from different sources that it’s no wonder the finished work displays such a schizophrenic identity.
Three facts gleaned from each of the interviewees say everything about how this film, despite being slickly and skilfully made, goes so far astray: Friedkin only became involved with the project in the first place as a favour to his former agent Joe Wizan, who was producing it for Universal; Seagrove accepted the role of the tree-worshipping child-stealer on the basis of Volk’s proposed screenplay adaptation of Dan Greenburg’s original novel “The Nanny”, but found that he’d left the project soon before the film started shooting and that Friedkin was re-writing the whole thing himself with different coloured pages of reworked script appearing on set every day; Volk needed therapy to help him start writing again after feeling obliged to abandon the project when an initial seven day re-writing job in Los Angeles turned into a three month stay with conflicting, irreconcilable demands from Wizan and Friedkin eventually making the task impossible.
Today, Stephen Volk is a well-known name among British horror fans, especially for the TV series “Afterlife” and the cult phenomenon that is “Ghostwatch” – a 1992 television play that managed to perpetuate a pre-“Paranormal Activity”, Orson Welles-style Halloween hoax on BBC viewers who thought they were seeing a real haunting unfolding before their eyes. Back then he was a young writer who, despite having written the screenplay for Ken Russell’s “Gothic”, was overawed to be sitting at the typewriter in the same room as the director of “The Exorcist”. The screenplay started life as a spin on the Jewish mythological character of Lilith, who, in tenth century folklore was the first wife of Adam, created from the same clay as the mythical first man, as opposed to Eve who was made from one of Adam’s ribs. The project was developed in collaboration with Sam Raimi, who was to have directed it, and was pitched as an Omen-esque, tongue-in-cheek comedy horror.
When you realise this was written with the idea of it being a Sam Raimi project, a lot of the film’s more po-faced absurdities start to make a bit more sense. It does actually play a lot of the time like “Evil Dead II” shot inappropriately dead straight in the style of “The Exorcist”, which accounts for its schizophrenic style and explains why many of the set-pieces come across as unintentionally amusing … because there’s a good chance they were originally intended to be amusing! Nevertheless, when the deal with Raimi fell through and Wizan needed another big name director to satisfy Universal, he called in a favour from Friedkin (Wizan was responsible for kick-starting Friedkin’s career and the director felt under an obligation to commit to the project), a name which clearly excited Universal, who must have immediately started fantasising about getting another blockbuster-status horror classic of the quality of “The Exorcist” on their books. But Volk’s screenplay was evidently of no interest to the famously mercurial director at all, who demanded a complete conceptual overhaul of the material (in the interview he describes Volk’s original work as ‘lame’) and a series of re-writes ensued, mostly based on trying to shape an idea Friedkin felt inspired by. Eventually, a chance comment from Volk about the MR James’ ghost story “The Ash Tree” provided the image that sparked the film which eventually emerged from their efforts.
In retrospect, a rod had been made for Friedkin’s back from the start when he agreed to make this film, since” The Exorcist” was always going to cast its long shadow heavy over it. If it has been pitched more as a fantasy horror work to begin with, of the sort that, these days, is a completely accepted and respectable subgenre to be working in thanks to directors such as Tim Burton and Guillermeo del Toro, then perhaps it would have had some sort of a chance. But from the opening titles onwards there seem to be all sorts of conflicting pressures at work, and a consistent tone is never really established; the large font titles that fill the screen while accompanied by portentous music, are clearly intentionally evoking the memory of “The Exorcist” and understandably lead the viewer to expect a similar experience. What he/she ends up getting by the end of ninety minutes of uneven material is an elemental-like Jenny Seagrove who can control wolves, flying thorough blue-lit woods that are doused in dry ice, in service of a gnarled tree with moving arm-like branches sustained by the spirits of sacrificed babies!
Although Friedkin apparently wanted to shoot a modern-day Grimm fairy tale, the tone varies between the semi-documentary style familiar from “The Exorcist”, with realistic birth footage and an initial quiet scene-setting build-up documenting the central couple’s new parenthood; over-the-top gore set-pieces in which tree roots and lethal branches spring to life to eviscerate, decapitate and rip apart a bunch of rapist ‘hoods’ who look as though they’ve wandered in from “The Last House on the Left” after they menace Seagrove and her infant charge while she’s relaxing in the park; to, finally, an adult fairy tale ripe with fantasy imagery such as Seagrove levitating through the woods during a storm or reclining naked in a crook of the ancient tree she worships while its branches caress and nurse her injuries. It is as though Friedkin started out directing the film in the same style as “The Exorcist” out of habit, knowing that that style had seemed to work the last time he made a horror film, but that then, as he re-wrote and became more interested in the Brothers Grimm aspect and the concept of contemporising the form of their classic tales, the film mutates into something that doesn’t quite feel at home being treated with quite the same seriousness “The Exorcist” had clearly demanded.
In fact “The Guardian” initially plays like another of the yuppie anxiety fables which began to emerge in various forms during the late-eighties and on into the early nineties. Here, an upwardly mobile couple, Phil (Dwier Brown) and his pretty wife Kate (Carey Lowell), move from their cramped two-room apartment in Chicago to a plush new Los Angeles home, with its own David Hockney-style swimming pool and courtesy calls from the house’s nerdy architect (Brad Hall) who lives just up the road. Phil has landed a well-paid job with a large advertising firm and now works all hours of the day for his boss Miguel Ferrer (Albert from “Twin Peaks”). Kate falls pregnant and in order to maintain this newfound high flying lifestyle, a nanny will have to be sought out to look after their son, Jake. Finding a suitable candidate proves difficult, as we see from the ensuing montage of interviewees: they fall into the usual stereotypical pattern consisting of matronly dragons and spinster eccentrics. Eventually the field is narrowed down to two choices from the Guardian Angel Agency: either a sensible, down-to-earth young college girl, or the saintly, floral dress-wearing ‘earth mother’ type Camilla (Seagrove) – a fragrant Mary Poppins-cum-Princess Diana English Rose with impeccable references, who used to work at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. Interestingly, the couple plump for the down-to-earth college girl: Camilla seems a bit too good to be true, and she’s far too Princess-Diana-pretty for Kate’s liking!
Cue Omen-style, spell-induced fatal bicycling ‘accident’ for the poor college girl, leaving the way open for Camilla (whom we’ve already seen feeding her previous clients’ baby to her supernaturally motivated tree in the prologue) to move in.
Exactly who or what Camilla is, and the precise reasons for her devotion to ancient baby-imbibing trees, are never adequately set forth with the happenstance logic propelling the screenplay from one set-piece to another, apart from some vague guff at the beginning about druids and evil spirits. She needs to sacrifice new-born babies within four weeks of their birth (which is when their cells are renewed and they become useless to her apparently), but in the meantime she issues all sorts of anti-formula milk directives, encourages natural breast feeding with a religious conviction, and deals in various other guilt-inducing touchy-feely nostrums with a New Age vibe -- thus confirming her as totally evil and untrustworthy – all seemingly designed to make yuppie couples feel unworthy but directed ultimately towards making sure baby Jake is suitable for the forthcoming tree sacrifice.
We get the usual scenes included to suggest the potential threat posed by the intruder to Phil and Kate’s marriage. In one, Phil awakes in the middle of the night from troubled dreams that foretell events from the climax of the film (Phil’s nascent clairvoyance is just one of many dropped plot threads never adequately picked up again and developed more fully) and walks in on a nude Camilla intimately bathing Jake in the bath. The twin themes of Phil’s obvious attraction to the young woman (who combines in one seductive package being the perfect mother with having never suffered the ravages of childbirth herself) and the suggestion that the couple’s’ work-driven, upwardly mobile lifestyle creates a rift between them and their own offspring, disrupting a natural bond between parent and child which is being usurped by the surrogate nurturing practices of this evil intruder, form the main thrust of the narrative subtext.
Certainly Kate as the mother is a curiously underwritten character who suspects nothing about her nanny’s unhealthy intentions and almost entirely fades from the narrative by the halfway mark, until required to do battle with the tree nymph form of Camilla (a naked Jenny Seagrove covered in green body paint and fake bark) in defence of her son at the climax. It’s left to the architect neighbour Ned Runcie (Hall) to make the big discovery as to Camilla’s true nature (once again it is male physical attraction which provides the key to unlocking her sham mother act) when, hoping for a date after first meeting her at a dinner party, he follows her into the woods during a storm, only to find her joyfully bathing naked in a stream and cavorting with wolves while the ancient tree comes to life in order to sooth a stab wound sustained earlier in the park when she was set upon by those leather-jacketed hoodlums .
Eventually, Friedkin’s re-tooled narrative turns essentially into a re-run of “The Omen”, with a former client of Camilla’s contacting Phil with the information that this perfect English nanny might not be whom she says she is, while Ned’s final phone message before being savaged by wolves that gain access to his plush home through supernatural means (in a scene that recalls the cut-price, throat-tearing grand guignol of Fulci’s “The Beyond” -- complete with puppet wolf punching through a bedroom door!) is an exhortation not to let Camilla near the child again.
It’s rather ironic, given who was originally supposed to direct the film, that Friedkin’s wish to do a contemporary version of The Brothers Grimm fairy tales eventually leads him into staging the kind of fantasy sequences that actually do recall the living tree root scenes from Sam Raimi’s “Evil Dead” films (only without the tree rape nastiness!). The special effects are on a much bigger scale than anything Raimi had access to but feel curiously less effective and underwhelming. These days, similar tree-based fantasy sequences featured in Tim Burton’s “Sleepy Hollow” knock “The Guardian” out of the water in terms of creating a dreamlike horror fantasy atmosphere. The film could really have done with a large dose of today’s CGI effects, which were of course unavailable in 1990.
The film is caught in something of a bind, ultimately: the early ‘straight’ build-up scenes feel too real world for what is in fact a ‘silly’ fantasy picture, but the adult, gory fantasy sequences themselves feel to sanitised and are unimpressive when set beside today’s technological wizardry. The DVD release by Second Sight is welcome though and the three interviews that come with it offer extremely frank and worthwhile background.
In “Return to the Genre”, Friedkin relates a real-life horror story of his own involving an English nanny he and his wife once employed. He’s frank about the production difficulties he experienced and also talks about his own favourite horror films, expressing a liking for “The Blair Witch Project” and “Paranormal Activity” (a Friedkin-directed film in that found footage genre would surely blow everybody else’s efforts out of the sky). Jenny Seagrove is even franker about the film’s failings and how the film she ended up making was nothing like the one she signed up to make in the first place because Friedkin re-wrote the whole thing completely after Stephen Volk left the project. Volk himself provides perhaps the most fascinating (and the longest) interview here in “Don’t go in the Woods”, working through the entire torturous development process and his three months working alongside Friedkin trying to knock the screenplay into some sort of shape that satisfied both director and producer. Interestingly, all three participants express the view that what the story really needed was to have all the supernatural stuff excised completely and to be made as just a straight story about a baby-killing nanny. But Universal were adamant that they wanted a supernatural horror film from the director of “The Exorcist” so that was never going to happen. “The Guardian” was a massive flop at the time, but a few years later the similarly themed “The Hand that Rocks the Cradle” was released and was a huge hit!
The transfer used here certainly isn’t as vibrant and colourful as it could be, but it isn’t distractingly bad either. The print is a little dark in places and there are a few speckles and dirt marks near the beginning but things soon settle down to a decent level. “The Guardian” is an interesting failure that is nevertheless still worth a look so long as one doesn’t come to it with exaggerated expectations. It’s pure hokum, albeit a much more expensive form of hokum than we usually expect from someone of Friedkin’s stature.