William Friedkin's messy (in more ways than one) return to horror THE GUARDIAN, on Blu-ray courtesy of Scream Factory.
No sooner do Chicago transplants Phil (Dwier Brown, FIELD OF DREAMS) and Kate (Carey Lowell, LICENSE TO KILL) settle down in Los Angeles for his new advertising job than they discover that there is to be a new addition to the family. Nine months later, Kate gives birth to Jake and the couple realize that both of them will have to work to support the child and pay for their swanky Hollywood Hills home (the upkeep of which is graciously maintained by its quirky neighboring architect Ned [Brad Hall, TROLL]). When their first choice for a nanny (Pamela Brull, BAD BOYS) is killed in a mysterious accident, the couple go with "too attractive" English au pair Camilla Grandier (Jenny Seagrove, APPOINTMENT WITH DEATH) who not only gets on well with the baby, but also cooks, cleans, and subtly flirts with Phil (who is more unsettled than aroused). Through a series of nightmares about a malevolent tree, wolves, owls, frogs, and a hooded figure threatening his child, Phil comes to realize that something is off about the nanny. Those who see too much and try to warn him die horribly as Camilla attempts to allay the couple's suspicions in order to sacrifice the child to a flesh-eating druid tree god that has already consumed a number of her past charges.
Loosely based on the novel "The Nanny" (also the film's original shooting title) by Dan Greenburg (PRIVATE LESSONS), THE GUARDIAN's yearning to be akin to THE EXORCIST is felt right away with the opening credits fonts (Pablo Ferro-designed title card aside) and the string-heavy score by Wang Chung's Jack Hues (not to mention the slow zoom establishing shot of Los Angeles after the opening sequence). The script – with contributions at different points from Greenburg, Stephen Volk (GOTHIC), and Friedkin himself – is a mess structured, or contrived, around surreal nightmare sequences and OMEN-esque freak death set-pieces including an entirely extraneous one where three punks (WAXWORK's Jack David Walker, TRANCERS II's Willy Parsons, and DARKMAN's Frank Noon) threaten Camilla and the baby only to be torn apart by the killer tree. The protagonists meander in between these sequences until Phil gets a phone call from the mother (Natalija Nogulich, STAR TREK: THE NEXT GENERATION) of the baby sacrificed in the opening sequence. At that point the movie becomes the usual cacophony of chase scenes and much broken glass like a supernatural take on the audience-tested climax of FATAL ATTRACTION. While it is a nice (although not unprecedented) change to have the male half of the film's couple as the one susceptible to prescient nightmares and hallucinations, there seems to be very little justification in the script as to why Brown's father is any more so than Lowell's mother character (who has little to do for much of the film). Xander Berkeley (CANDYMAN) is relegated to a single scene as a detective but one gets the feeling that more scenes with Phil's co-workers played by Pamela Brull (THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT) and Miguel Ferrer (ROBOCOP) were left on the cutting room floor since Phil's job and the advertising campaign he is working on at first seemed to have some thematic significance. The film is surprisingly gory for a late eighties studio production when most other genre product was relatively bloodless. Heads are splattered, limbs are ripped and bitten off, and gallons raspberry jam-colored blood spurts beneath the blade of a chainsaw. Michele Soavi did much better with some similar visual motifs (the full moon, water, animals, and pagan accoutrement) in THE SECT one year later while THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE got more mileage out of the insidious presence of a sexy stranger rearing a couple's children as if they were her own.
Released theatrically and on VHS/laserdisc by Universal Pictures, THE GUARDIAN was one of the titles the company sublicensed to Anchor Bay for DVD at the dawn of the format with an anamorphic widescreen transfer (as well as a fullscreen alternative), Dolby Digital 5.1 remix, and an audio commentary by Friedkin. Unlike other genre titles Universal sublicensed to Goodtimes, Image Entertainment, and Anchor Bay, THE GUARDIAN was not reissued by Universal themselves. Scream's 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC 1.85:1 widescreen transfer may be another case of being sourced from an older HD master. Close-ups have fair to good detail and the wrinkles in a character's blue dress are evident despite the heavy (possibly boosted) saturation of the film's primary colors but the lesser detail in some night scenes may be an effect of the deep shadows and the wash of studio-simulated glowing moonlight. There are occasional specs during the credits and a green spot pops up momentarily during Camilla's assault by the punks. The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 encode of the Dolby Stereo mix is suitably boisterous in terms of music and sound effects, although the mix is standard eighties horror rather than the more manipulative sound design one would hope for from the maker of THE EXORCIST (the back cover erroneously states that the disc has a 5.1 track). Optional English SDH subtitles are included.
The Anchor Bay commentary has not been carried over but Scream Factory has ported over three interviews from the recent UK DVD from Second Sight and produced a handful of new extras. In "Return to the Genre" (17:23), Friedkin recalls taking the film because producer Joe Wizan (DARK NIGHT OF THE SCARECROW) had been his agent when he first came to the West Coast. Although Universal insisted that the film be supernatural, he reveals that the film was informed by his own horrific experience entrusting his newborn son to a British au pair while he and his wife went away for two days only to discover that the sheltered girl and her friend went out to a bar with the baby, picked up two guys who they brought back to the couple's house and who ripped the girls off of their money and passports. He spends more time talking about THE EXORCIST, although that has as much to do with his coming to terms with it being labeled a horror film and THE GUARDIAN as his return to the genre. In "The Nanny" (13:21), Seagrove recalls liking the film based on the original script and then being baffled over the continued rewrites. She recalls suggesting that they take a more realist approach but Friedkin told her Universal thought it would be too scary for the target audience of young couples who might have their own newborn children (she then notes the success of the later THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE). She also remarks on the director's preference for long lenses and manipulating reactions out of actors rather than directing them.
More frank (and entertaining) is "Don’t Go Into the Woods" (20:58) in which Volk recalls being brought onto the project on the strength of Ken Russell's GOTHIC and Pen Densham's THE KISS by Wizan when the film was originally slated to be directed by Sam Raimi (THE EVIL DEAD). Greenburg received a screenplay credit on the basis of his first draft which Volk never read since Wizan found it unsatisfactory. Finding the novel difficult to adapt, Volk and Raimi agreed on taking a comic horror approach to the film before Raimi ultimately bowed out to direct DARKMAN instead for Universal. On the night before Volk's wedding, he learned that Friedkin was on board as the director and he would have to return to Los Angeles for rewrites after his honeymoon in Italy. Intending to stay in Los Angeles for a week, he ended up staying there for twelve as he and Friedkin rewrote and puzzled over the nature of the nanny's character. Volk wanted to chuck the supernatural element but Friedkin told him that Universal wanted a purely supernatural film. At a certain point, he realized that Friedkin had to write the film himself and returned to London to work on the project SUPERSTITION (which would end up being shelved and not produced until 2001). After some therapy and paranoid fantasies about Friedkin, Volk bounced back into the horror genre with the cult TV film GHOSTWATCH. He has also had success with the genre TV series AFTERLIFE and MIDWINTER OF THE SPIRIT, a number of genre short stories, plays, and the novels VARDØGER, WHITSTABLE, and LEYTONSTONE, but stateside viewers can catch up with him with Nick Murphy's 2011 ghost film THE AWAKENING (released over here on DVD and Blu-ray by Universal).
The newly-produced extras start with "A Happy Coincidence" (21:56) in which Brown recalls meeting Friedkin who expressed his desire to work with him and was caught off guard when Brown reminded him that they had worked together in TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. He describes the experience of working with Friedkin as being in the presence of a "precocious five year old" who was both energetic but also difficult. He speaks more affectionately about his co-stars while noting how Friedkin had resorted to some of his old tricks to get reactions out of his performers (including firing a gun loaded with blanks to terrify Lowell during a suspense sequence which he feels was unconscionable). In "From Strasberg to THE GUARDIAN" (10:10), actor Gary Swanson (VICE SQUAD) has little to say about the film because he was only in the opening sequence, as does actress Nogulich in "A Mother’s Journey" (11:33) who recalls how Friedkin noticed her in a play, but she does speak more warmly of the experience on the set than some of the others. In "Scoring THE GUARDIAN" (6:40), Hues recalls the assignment as a welcome change from composing pop music and that Friedkin's guidelines were Bernard Herrmann's string-dominated scores for VERTIGO and PSYCHO. "Tree Woman: The Effects of The Guardian" (13:07) features effects artist Matthew Mungle (THE DORM THAT DRIPPED BLOOD) recalling his tumultuous working experience with "Hurricane Billy", working out the "tree woman" make-ups (with stills of earlier designs), the tree monster, as well as the highs when Friedkin was visibly excited by an effect occurring on the set and the lows when he sent him back to the drawing board after approving an effect. The disc also includes a still gallery (1:19) and the film's theatrical trailer (1:34) in fullframe and giving little of the film's flavor. (Eric Cotenas)
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