john cribbs

william friedkin's THE GUARDIAN

This is an experiment I've been mulling over for some time. It's dedicated to great directors. Great directors...who've transgressed. Disappointed. Befuddled. But not to the point of being written off entirely. In the course of long careers these filmmakers have made the occasional slip, and the intent behind this ongoing column will be to try and figure out what their motivation might have been in choosing projects that proved questionable, wrongheaded or outright embarrassing. The purpose of this experiment is not to deride, but to understand.


The subject: William Friedkin

The movie: The Guardian

(dedicated to Eric Pfriender)


In 1989, William "Hurricane Billy" Friedkin was in his mid-fifties, a veteran of three marriages and six straight flops. The consensus was that it was time for the former enfant terrible of the New Hollywood directors to get back to his ROOTS. He had been PINEing for a hit and felt like a SAP; he needed to emBARK on a production that WOOD bring him back to his glory days of the early 70's and SPRUCE up his filmography. He would never win a PALM d'or at the rate he was going. He decided to try and make another successful horror film, one with more creepy atMOSSphere than even A Nightmare on ELM Street. It didn't work out for him, but I doubt he ARBORed any resentment.*

Friedkin reminds me that there's actually something worse than the curse of the one-hit wonder, and that's the curse of the two-hit wonder. From an outsider's point of view, it's harder to dismiss a filmmaker who's made two universally beloved smash hits whereas for the director himself it's harder to live up to the reputation of two very different kinds of movies. The immeasurable success of his two best known titles and the compulsory arrogance that came with it not only positioned the director for derision from critics and colleagues eagerly anticipating his inevitable fall from grace, it also set an unsurpassable high water mark for the man himself. The reputation of those movies has plagued Friedkin his entire career: whenever he's made a film even slightly related to law enforcement it's billed as "from the director of The French Connection," and when his name is attached to anything resembling a horror film the tag is "from the director of The Exorcist." The curse contributed to the failure of his Exorcist follow-up Sorcerer, which led to walk-outs and refunds for movie patrons who expected some kind of occult-themed horror movie** and newspaper ads that ran with the disclaimer "NOT A FILM ABOUT THE SUPERNATURAL." His 1990 film The Guardian took special advantage of the angle, its poster and video box boasting that this was the director's "first horror film since The Exorcist" and featuring a mysterious silhouette meant to evoke that of the Magritte-inspired image of a backlit Max Von Sydow.

Technically speaking, Friedkin had just made a horror movie. The serial murderer thriller/courtroom drama Rampage featured scenes of brutal violence against random innocent families and was layered with fantasy sequences of the killer basking in nude ecstasy while covered in the blood of his victims. As a trial weighing the sanity of the killer wages on, its subject makes ominous calls to the prosecutor's wife and manages to murder even more people at Satan's behest after a violent escape from custody. The movie had been filmed in 1987, but after a successful premiere at the Boston Film Festival was lost in the shuffle of De Laurentis Entertainment Group's bankruptcy (Friedkin obsessively lobbied for the film's theatrical release, resulting in its being put out by Miramax in October 1992; the Weinsteins actually made a rare positive contribution to the film by making the director change its original terrible ending.) Interestingly, the movie is loosely based on real-life serial killer Richard Chase, who counted a 22-month old baby among his victims, an incident not depicted in the film. Which supports theory #1 about Friedkin's decision to make The Guardian: he figured more toddler deaths meant bigger box office. 

It was around this time that Friedkin must have taken a good hard look at his years of making challenging and interesting films that simply had no popular appeal and made a conscious decision to compromise and meet the public halfway. His first attempt to do so was 1985's To Live and Die in LA, its poster featuring the tagline "The director of The French Connection is back on the street again." Like French Connection, it was a fictionalized reworking of a book based on non-fiction events (the writer was a former secret service agent himself), featured two law enforcement agents devoted to bringing down an elusive criminal, and centered around an epic car chase set piece to be inevitably compared to the former film. With those superficial comparisons in place, Friedkin went on to make To Live and Die as arty and surreal as French Connection was steeped in gritty realism. He added such subversive touches as flawed cops who break the law to further their investigation, the rough treatment of female characters, homoerotic imagery, garish photography by Robby MŁller and a New Wave soundtrack by Wang Chung. He even kills off the lead character before the final scene. To Live and Die in LA was by no means a rampaging success, but it at least managed to make its small budget back. With that minor victory in mind, and likely starting to feel a slight dread over the fact that he hadn't had a hit in 16 years, Friedkin may have wanted to find a way to make the curse of the 2-hit wonder work for him by returning to the horror genre. He wanted to do another Exorcist, although it turns out he didn't want to do another Exorcist, ultimately opting out of directing William Peter Blatty's second sequel The Exorcist III: Legion.***

He chose instead to make a movie about a killer tree. Nothing too outrageous about that. There was one in Poltergeist. The forgotten 50's B-movie From Hell It Came was about a wrongly accused murderer reincarnated as Tobonga, a scowling tree stump that somehow runs amok and goes on a killing spree. Of course recently we had The Happening, in which ambitious trees united to wipe out humanity for turning them into the paper that M Night Shaymalan used to write his atrocious script. And long before that was the H.P. Lovecraft story "The Tree" from his "macabre" phase, itself derived from Arthur Machen's "The Great God Pan," which Stephen King recently named "one of the best horror stories ever written, maybe the best in the English language." So, while not as popular as the vampire or werewolf subgenres, the killer tree horror story was not unheard of. What those homicidal shrubs lacked was a non-perennial accomplice to bring them the delicious infant flesh that any good dendrologist can tell you is the key nutrient in a growing tree's diet. Hence the title sentinel of Friedkin's film, a transmogrifying sprite who adapts the guise of a sexy young British nanny in order to infiltrate the home of an unsuspecting couple, kidnap their baby and feed it to her beloved oak.

It's all laid out in the opening text: 

"For thousands of years a religious order known as the druids worshipped trees, sometimes even sacrificing human beings to them. To these worshippers, every tree has a guardian spirit. Most are aligned with goodness and life but some embody powers of evil and darkness."

Disclaimer: not all druids are evil. I like how the text is politically correct, like in True Lies where Grant Heslov plays the one Arab-looking government agent, aligned with goodness to justify James Cameron's pre-9/11 demonizing of Middle Eastern terrorists. It's good to get that out of the way so any members of the druid community don't get offended and seek legal action like Mercedes McCambridge when Friedkin left her off the Exorcist credits, but the rest of the exordium is confusing. It says druids worshipped trees for thousands of years, like they don't exist anymore, then immediately switches to the present tense as if druids are living among us, so which is it? And who embodies the powers of evil and darkness, the trees or the worshippers? [I guess it could be both, since the term druid derives from Duirwydd, the Celtic word for oak. --professor knowledge]

The tree-hugging druid in question is a shapely dirty blonde in her early 30's, played by Jenny Seagrove. She's English and magical like Mary Poppins so she nails the job interview for a governess position with Phil and Kate (Dwier Brown and Carey Lowell), who have recently moved into a slick Los Angeles home with their newborn son Jake. The viewer is already hip to her true intentions from a prologue in which another couple's infant gets spirited away from its home by the trusted nanny and sacrificed to a magnificent oak tree in the middle of the woods, the baby's chubby face becoming eerily engraved in its side. The process seems to be beginning again as the nanny becomes close with Jake and embeds herself within the family structure, supplanting Kate as the mother figure and subtly seducing Phil by cavorting nude around the nursery. The parents remain ignorant, unaware that after 30 days Jake's "baby cells" will apparently be replaced by "grown up cells," and somewhere between his blood will be "pure" enough to satisfy the hunger of the nanny's budding buddy in the forest (biding her time is just a suspense-building tactic: it's a baby, how much purer is its blood gonna get?) Other ominous events occur, including a fatal bike accident in a seemingly unrelated scene that ends with a woman (played by - no shit - Theresa Randle) being skewered to death by cactus needles.

Right off the bat, the movie reeks of ersatz-Exorcist, with titles over black in the same font as the 1973 movie. Like the previous film, this was adapted from a novel ("best-selling novel," according to some ads although I never heard of it until now) called The Nanny by Dan Greenburg. Like Blatty's book, The Nanny gives a supernatural bend to some of the more weighty parental concerns: instead of being an extreme version of a mother's reaction to her daughter going through puberty, Greenburg's novel deals with a modern urbanite's adapting to being a new father and a mother's insecurity over another woman usurping her role in the household. Greenburg, author of humorously observational self help books (the cover of The Nanny reads "from the man who brought you How to Be a Jewish Mother") and former Mr. Nora Ephron, had his own unpleasant experience with an Australian nanny who "dominated the household" and left him "tremendously vulnerable" and the book reflects a New York City intellectual's discomfort with what he considers a servant living with his family: first she cooks and cleans and makes rules for the house, so isn't it natural to assume that this "dominating" would eventually extend to sexual propositions for both mom and dad and, eventually, threats to the entire family structure? The mortal danger coming from the nanny in the novel is left abstract until the final chapters, so it's interesting that Friedkin opens with all the cards on the table by showing the initial kidnapping and sacrifice. Not surprising considering his penchant for Fuller-esque sensational openings (the series of heists and assassinations in Sorcerer, the floating arm in Cruising, the terrorist suicide bomber in To Live and Die in LA, the butchering of the family in Rampage), but a big change from the slowly-revealed mystery of the book (which ultimately doesn't get solved.)

Also, the nanny does not turn out to be a tree-worshipping druid who wants to sacrifice the couple's baby to her favorite tree in the book (SPOILER). At least it's not mentioned - she could be I suppose. She gets burned alive before we find out what her ultimate goal is. She does get uncharacteristically offended and slaps the husband when, in reference to her promiscuity, he tells her "I think you'd share intimacy with a hall tree!" (I'm not really sure what hall tree is...I mean, I assume it's a tree that's in a hall. Isn't that called a plant?) My guess is that Stephen Volk, the British screenwriter of Ken Russell's Gothic, was responsible for introducing the "tree-worshipping druid" angle to the script, as the idea sounds very late 80's/early 90's Ken Russell. Then again I have no idea: Friedkin could have read a Newsweek article about ancient druids and told Volk to put it in there. The nanny's power to mutate into other forms, especially a wolf, was most likely inspired by Jacques Tourneur/Val Lewton's Cat People, a film Friedkin is a bigger fan of than Cat People remake (and Exorcist prequel) director Paul Schrader. Friedkin also changes the character's name from the rather unexotic Luci Redman to "Camilla," possibly a reference to Carmilla, Sheridan Le Fanu's lesbian vampire whose tale inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula and, more significantly in Friedkin's mind, served as a source for Carl Dreyer's Vampyr (the film's title during production was in fact "Carmilla.")

Any ambiguity as to Camilla's devotion to druidism in the film is dispelled when a trio of beer-guzzling daytime rapists interrupt a picnic she's having with Jake, chase the governess into the woods and get eaten alive by the protective tree. Although this is an entirely defensive strike against a group of rather absurdly nasty perpetrators, Camilla quickly develops into a classic movie monster. Phil and Kate's neighbor Ned (Brad Hall) becomes smitten with the nanny and makes the mistake of stalking her one night when she runs off for some "me time" (I mean "tree time"). He unwittingly witnesses her shedding her clothes and being fondled by the limbs of the tree when her minion wolves spot him and chase him back to his house. The police hang up on him because they don't believe his story of "coyotes" circling the premises...he doesn't even get to the part about the naked tree druid making out with the topiary! (I double checked to make sure I hadn't misunderstood the narrative, that maybe it just wasn't clear that the phone line was cut from outside, but he makes a second call warning Phil about his nude coyote-cavorting nanny so yes he really calls 911 and they hang up on him. God the LAPD suck.) Ned ends up as wolf chow, and we learn that druids have the magical ability to make blood disappear.

"Hello, police? I just found out the girl I'm into likes making out with trees. Hello?"

The nanny's noose begins to tighten when the mother who lost her baby at the beginning of the movie contacts Phil to warn him about Camilla. This is a strange move on her part: she knows where the woman who disappeared with her baby is and instead of calling the police she cryptically warns the guy she's working for? (Then again I guess the cops let poor Ned get eaten by wolves, she probably correctly figured they were useless.) Even stranger is Camilla diverting Phil's attention away from two phone messages that threaten to exposure her - one from the mother, one from the hard-breathing Ned just prior to his death insisting Camilla "isn't what she seems!" - yet fails to erase said messages, so he just hears them later. The nail appears to be in Camilla's coffin when Phil checks up on her references and finds them to be bogus (the phone operator actually offers the information that one of the numbers NEVER EXISTED). He demands she provide the name of a person who could vouch for her, and she gives the name "Arlene Russell." Who? Oh, a quick flash reveals that it's Theresa Randle's random bike accident victim from earlier, whom Alan must have known - the quick flash was apparently his memory and somehow her being dead proves that she couldn't have known anything about Camilla. The nanny's backstory dissolves as quickly as the narrative at this point and she's dismissed.

Seriously tho...wouldn't it make more sense if the bike accident victim was the nanny Phil and Kate had wanted to hire and druid powers caused the fatal accident so they would hire Camilla instead? That kind of thing happened in the Omen movies at least two or three times. It's just completely confounding here. (Ok sorry I need to recant all the stuff about the bike accident victim. Upon second viewing, Theresa Randall's character WAS an applicant for nanny, one of three the couple interview prior to seeing Camilla. She has two lines, then a scene where the parents are about to reveal their choice of nanny is weirdly cut short before they say "Arlene Russell." Later at a dinner party they mention Camilla wasn't their first choice but don't mention Arlene's name or her death to the guests. What I'm saying is, this was all structured so badly I literally missed her importance to the narrative on first viewing. This is indicative of the movie's many continuity problems, several of them shoddily covered by poor ADR work like in a later scene where Kate and Phil are being chased and separate for no apparent reason, and an off-screen Kate shouts "Meet me at the entrance of the woods!" The editing is horrendous****, but the main problem is with the storytelling.

At this point in the narrative it's worth mentioning that the couple knows something is wrong with Camilla but they don't suspect her true motivations or involvement with tree worshipping or baby sacrificing at all. Yet when she slightly protests Phil's abruptly manic insistence that she leave, he grabs the baby from Camilla and backhands her in the same motion (did he just correctly assume that she was a super-powered sorceress with designs on their son as a sacrificial lamb to a monster tree?) After a pit stop at the hospital, the family is pursued by Camilla in full demonic magic druid mode (at this point it's safe to assume she's the kind who embodies the powers of evil and darkness) which leads to a chase in the woods. Phil, who still has no clue as to his ex-nanny's druid background, appears nonplussed to see her flying after him from fifty feet in the air and satisfied when Kate runs her over in their car, seemingly killing her. You would think Friedkin would also be satisfied, but after a visit with skeptical cop Xander Berkley it becomes apparent that this climax was the movie equivolent of an artificial tree (phony, I mean to say...sorry, that was a little forced).



* Pretty painful huh? At least I resisted including this one: "How come you don't call me?" Friedkin asked the studio execs who used to love him, indirectly quoting the future hit song by Justin TIMBERlake.

** Friedkin justifying title of Sorcerer: "The Sorcerer is an evil wizard and in this case the evil wizard is fate. The fact that somebody can walk out of their front door and a hurricane can take them away, an earthquake or something falling through the roof. And the idea that we donít really have control over our own fates, neither our births nor our deaths, itís something that has haunted me since I was intelligent enough to contemplate something like it."

*** The details of Friedkin's involvement in that film's pre-production are apparently laid out in Bob McCabe's book The Exorist: Out of the Shadows. Once I track down a copy I'll update this section. Or I'll just wait for the eventual publication of Erik Myers' The Evolution Of William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist III: From Concept To Novel To Screen.

**** The editor is Seth Flaum, whose only previous credit was the Dan Aykroyd-John Candy romp The Great Outdoors. It was the last horror movie he worked on, unless you count Juwanna Mann as a horror movie. 

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