The Object of Frustration:
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 right before The Guardian 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 based on a book steeped in non-fiction (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 Müller 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... sorry, that was a little forced).
Blatty has consistently stated that Exorcist was based on factual case he read about as a young man; the concern that a seemingly good-natured female would cause harm to her infant charges is also drawn from real-life headlines of multiple murderous matrons. There was Amelia Dyer, who ran a sham adoption agency whose tiny clients ended up getting chucked into the Thames in paper bags... East Finchley baby farmers Amelia Sach and Annie Walters... Williamina Dean, who buried babies in her flower garden... Margaret Waters, who earned extra money pawning the clothes of the children she allowed to starve to death. These women, as far as I know, didn't turn into wolves and were impartial to trees, but it turns out their inhuman cruelty may have been enough to sell them as monsters to film audiences. Years after the production, Jenny Seagrove said of the film, "It was about this druid nanny who became a tree. I begged Universal to make it about a real nanny who kidnaps babies. 'No, no, we can't do that,' they said, 'The thirtysomethings in America won't come and see the film.' I said, 'I think you're completely wrong; this film is total fantasy, and it's just awful.' Two years later The Hand That Rocks the Cradle was released, so I rang up my friend at Universal and he said, 'Don't. Don't even talk about it, you were right.'" Curtis Hanson's film does have pretty much the same basic story, with the same sort of bland pretty boy actor playing the husband and an evil nanny whose character is far more interesting than either parent. In fact Rebecca De Mornay's villain secretly breastfeeding the baby and seducing the husband was borrowed from Greenburg's book, while her ultimate demise by being pushed out the upstairs window of the house she had infiltrated is same as the movie's Camilla (retarded handyman Ernie Hudson is unique to Hanson's film). Hand That Rocks the Cradle opened at #1 and went on to do $88 million in box office, so Seagrove's contention that the public wasn't ready for a druid-tree nanny may have had some validity.
But is a druid nanny-free killer nanny movie really as fun? The Guardian's actual final confrontation involves parallel scenes of Kate fending off a moss-covered, wood-skinned Camilla while Phil, following another one of his wildly accurate assumptions, arms himself with a chainsaw and goes off to battle a tree. Kate's fight with Camilla, who with her slicked-back hair and weird makeup suddenly looks a lot like Mystique in the X-Men movies, results in a very disturbing shot of Kate tripping and the baby's head hitting the floor hard, triggering flashes of Ellen Burstyn relating how Friedkin ordering the prop guy to yank on her harness as hard as he could on the set of The Exorcist. If it's a fake baby in that shot it definitely fooled me is all I'm saying. The manhandling of the infant is probably only slightly more offensive to environmentalists than the treatment of the giant oak, which has its limbs sawed off by a vengeful Phil, himself barely dazed by a wallop from the same branch that knocked a 300 pound guy's head clean off in an earler sequence. He butchers the tree with complete abandon and apparent disregard for the mother of the kidnapped baby who had confided in him that she felt deep down her child might still be alive.
"I'm glad you used my information to save your son. Did you bring my baby back?"
"Ohhhhhhhhhhh, right. Right. Sorry, no. I, uh... took the tree apart with a chainsaw rather than make any attempt to figure out if rescuing the babies left petrified inside the wood was an option. Yeah, wow... my face: red."
At any rate, his annihilation of the oak saves the day, causing Camilla to peel apart and weaken long enough for Kate to shove her out the window, seeminly to her death. The family gathers together back home in triumph as an ambiguous owl looks on.
The Guardian had every possibility to expound on the building dread of The Exorcist: the threat to an American family that builds from within their own house from supernatural sources which seek to destroy the innocent child, set largely in one location which becomes increasingly dangerous as the film goes on? It would seem to be an easy task for its director to provide this movie a consistent sense of corrupting evil, but instead he chose to make the horror more blatant and unabashedly gory. The Exorcist was released the year before moviegoers were treated to the visceral horror of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, which inspired the genre to become more gritty and informally birthed a bloodier kind of scary movie. That sort of film, especially when done absolutely straight, braves the thin line between being genuinely disturbing and crudely ridiculous and Friedkin is obviously uncomfortable with the formula, here lacking the restraint of the less-is-more graphic murder scenes in Rampage. He may have enjoyed a successful collaboration with Dick Smith and pea soup in the early 70's, but lining The Guardian wall to wall with guts sends the movie overboard fairly quickly, past the point of taste and effectiveness. The decimation of the three would-be rapists at the hands of a tree is the exact opposite of the unsettling ambiguity of the unexplained, off-screen death of Burke the movie director outside the MacNeil residence in The Exorcist.
In a recent interview, Stephen Volk talked about how Sam Raimi was the director originally attached to the project, which he claims is the reason he signed on to adapt the novel - to work with Raimi on something "Omen-esque," "tongue-in-cheek," "scary but fun." Raimi eventually left the project to do Darkman (Frank Noon, one of the three would-be rapists, ended up appearing in both movies.) That's funny, because the movie Guardian ends up reminding me of most are the first two Evil Deads, and not just because there's a weird out-of-place shot of Ned running into the (fruit?) cellar that starts upside down, flips over and comes into an extreme close-up of his face, a set-up that could only be labeled "Raimi-esque." The Guardian's grabby killer tree, which gets it on with a young lady (the tryst here being more consensual than in Evil Dead 1), also comes alive to have a final showdown with the chainsaw-wielding hero a'la the climax of Evil Dead 2. Dwier Brown is wearing a tattered, dark blue shirt and soon after the struggle begins is covered head-to-foot in blood... he even has a Bruce Campbell chin! This scene alone makes me wonder if the film had a chance of being "scary but fun" under Raimi's hand, but one thing's for sure: Friedkin attempting the Raimi approach stalls in the mud.
Not that his motivations were less than pure: like Greenburg, he himself "had a horrible experience with an English nanny. My wife (at the time, Lesley-Anne Down) and I went away for two days and we came back to this girl and her girlfriend who'd picked up three guys in a bar and brought them back to our house. Here's this girl, sweet and demure, well-educated, great family background — and she winds up getting rolled by Hell's Angels in my bed with my son there. I don't go away since. I just don't go away." Interesting that this experience got turned into the assault on Guardian's nanny by three Hell's Angels-esque thugs. But family and its unpredictable, distorted structure must have also been an attractive theme to the thrice-divorced director. The birth of Jake in the movie is a memorably weird sequence, sort of like the nightmare from Cronenberg's The Fly. The delivery room is pitch black so that only the parents can be seen. Friedkin was given consent to film an actual live birth, a process he makes look completely alien and unreal by the way the disembodied voice of the doctor announces "It's a boy!" before the genitals are even visible. The babies used in the film - the first one to be kidnapped and the main couple's child - look like strange naked mutants and scope out their surroundings in a recurring fish-eye POV. Friedkin definitely wanted to examine how a new parent sees their kid. Nat Segaloff, author of Hurricane Billy: The Stormy Life and Films of William Fredkin (published just before The Guardian's release) offers that the movie "embodies a hopeful note despite its dark core. In Friedkin's entire body of work it is his only film that portrays a whole family, torn from without, but held together by love. It is as if, at age 55, the Boy Wonder has finally come to terms with the energies and conflicts that he has been trying to resolve through his films. Whether this new direction signals a renewed success at the box office remains to the seen." (So much for that.)
Sadly the parents are just not convincing characters at all. New York intellectuals in the book, Friedkin changes them to a yuppie El-Lay couple. Although Ellen Burstyn's character in The Exorcist was a movie actress who threw parties for astronauts, she was still a down-to-earth single mother living in a modest Georgetown home and therefore sympathetic to most audiences. These people rent a giant post-modernistic dead-tech bullshit house designed by a fancy pants architect who shortly afterwards becomes their pal. They claim to not be rich yet have no problems hiring a full-time inhouse nanny. Unlike in the book, where the prospect of a nanny is a foreign concept to the characters and motivated by the mother's post-partum stress, here it's just because it seems like what yuppies would do. The actors don't help. Dwier Brown, memorably stiff as Kevin Costner's ghost dad at the end of Field of Dreams (he had a small part in To Live and Die in LA) is abysmal, although I consider one of his campy lines to Camilla a classic: "Sure he had a lovely time, babies always have a lovely time, they have a lovely time lying on the rug!!!" The choice to make the father the central character rather than the mom is a mistake in and of itself, even though it's one of the elements the movie borrowed from the book. Clearly Rosemary's Baby was an inspiration on both the novel and the movie, and they should have realized an infant-in-danger scenario would have been more compelling through maternal eyes.
On the other hand, Carey Lowell (former Mrs. Griffin Dunne and current Mrs. Richard Gere, the non-Talisa Soto half of License to Kill) is so invisible in the movie she probably wouldn't have made a very interesting or sympathetic lead either. Brad Hall, a former SNL writer who looks kind of like Steven Soderbergh whose biggest claim to fame is almost being cast as George Costanza on "Seinfeld," at least tries to bring some emotion to the proceedings as Ned but isn't given much to do besides leer at Camilla and sweat profusely when stalked by her wolf pack. The only actor who works is Seagrove, kind of perfectly cast as Camilla (she's known for her role as the web-toed seafaring scientist in the 'Smoke's favorite overrated underrated film Local Hero and one of the many former conquests of Michael Winner, at the time a 50-something veteran filmmaker himself - he recently related how she once told him he was getting bloated and unattractive, stating "Even your wrists are fat!" which is funny considering Seagrove's well-publicized bout with anorexia during the 80s). She's good-looking enough to be sensual, but the right age (mid-30's) to be believably "ancient" in her personality.
Even worse as a character is Los Angeles, especially considering the movie was shot by John Alonzo, who captured the city on film better than anyone in Chinatown, and directed by the man who made it look so memorable in To Live and Die in LA. One of the main points brought up in the movie's largely negative reviews is the fact that El-Lay isn't exactly known for its forests. I'm fine with buying that as part of the fantasy of the film, although if the implication is that the nanny somehow brings the tree close to her wherever she goes, it would've been cool to see the woods sprouting gradually around the house of whatever couple she's chosen. The design of the tree is cool, the frozen baby faces as eerie as Han Solo's pained carbonite-frozen expression (the first attempt to build a blood-sprouting killer tree was shitcanned after 7 months of work, proving at least that Friedkin wasn't slacking in the effects department) but the environment is totally wrong. Friedkin's best non-scraggly cop protagonists are hopeless losers at the lowest point in their life whose surroundings reflect their pathetic state: the hollowed-out Venezulean village on the edge of nowhere where Roy Scheider and company find themselves trapped in Sorcerer, Ashley Judd's dingy motel room in Bug. The people in Guardian live in swank show-off houses, have dinner parties and work in giant offices with amazing views. Who cares what happens to them?
Before the film was released, Friedkin was his regular pretentious self, his eyes too big for his mouth in interviews with EW and the L.A. Times, in which he compared the upcoming movie to everything from Miles Davis to Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But things didn't come together as expected. According to Volk, "The darkness came as I gradually realized that working with him meant writing until he had the ideas, and then writing his ideas... I had a kind of breakdown because I didn’t know what he wanted from one day to the next." Later, Seagrove attested, "Everybody was terribly excited. I was out in Los Angeles and the phone wouldn't stop ringing. People wanted to manage me, they wanted a bit of me, and it was actually hateful. We finished the film and there was a screening at Universal in a huge movie theatre. Everybody went, there was great excitement, the film started, and within 10 minutes you could feel the temperature in the room dropping. They all knew that it wasn't going to work. It has become a cult film, but the screenplay was appalling. It was being written on the hoof."
Critics weren't any more kind, when they actually cared enough to get their facts straight (Salt Lake City's Deseret News review incorrectly stated that Friedkin had made Dead Bang - that was John Frankenheimer.) The best reaction the movie got was possibily the wittiest observation ever made by Roger Ebert in his one-star review: "The only original touch in the movie is that, for the first time in horror film history, a chain saw is used against its intended target: a tree." (I guess he didn't make the same Evil Dead 2 connection that I did.) The movie sank and hasn't been brought up much since, its title unceremoniously appropriated by Andrew Davis' 2006 Kevin Costner-Ashton Kutcher Coast Guard drama.
For me, the movie's premise is really out there... in a good way. I think it's awesome that a movie about a tree-worshipping baby-killing shapeshifting druid nanny exists. Friedkin approaches the concept - at least initially - with the same clinical fascination he demonstrated following Alex McArthur's soulless serial killer in Rampage. The score, by Jack Hues of Wang Chung, who had provided To Live and Die in LA with such a great soundtrack, includes a memorable intro. But even if the story was at all accessible, or the acting any good, or the dialogue non-cringe worthy, there are just too many unanswered questions. Is Camilla a Druid, a coyote, a tree herself? Why the long coalescence at people's homes when she could just raid a local nursery or newborn wing at a hospital? If she's a shapeshifter, why not make herself look entirely different from one employer to another? Why does the previous victim describe her as "blonde" when she clearly has a brunette wig/dye job in the opening scene? Are there no more druids in the world to help out in her conspiracy and offer convincing background references? And the most vexing of questions, why did Friedkin think this would be a worthy horror film that would equal the impact of The Exorcist?
Unfortunately the 1999 dvd with feature-length Friedkin commentary is out-of-print and goes for mucho dollars online, so that answer will have to remain elusive for now. He seems at least proud enough of it to keep his name on the final cut (an edited version which ran on tv was credited to "Alan Von Smithee") but in an interview after the release of Bug for nerve.com, when asked which of his films didn't work, he singled out The Guardian without elaborating as to what missteps he felt he'd made. Does he know that he did the exact opposite thing that had worked for him in To Live and Die in LA: took a crazy, unconventional story and filmed it in as disappointingly conventional as possible? That the secret to The Exorcist's success was that it was at the time an honestly strange movie from an already out-there premise?
If he was honest, he could at least admit that his former collaborator William Peter Blatty made a superior film by returning to the world of The Exorcist with his movie Legion. Like Guardian, that film was originally meant to be helmed by a seasoned horror director (John Carpenter) but those duties ended up falling to Blatty, who did a bang-up job (to the point that I kind of wish Blatty was the one directing the adaptation of his latest novel, Dimiter, rather than a rumored Friedkin). Although nowhere near the smash hit of the original, it managed to rake in more than double its $11 million budget. Afterwards, Friedkin must have realized that he should have moved back closer to home than he was willing to at the time, and he finally managed to score another winner for the first time since The Exorcist with... The Exorcist. In the form of a restored director's cut supervised by Friedkin himself, the new version, which cost $1 million to work on, was released theatrically in 2000 to the tune of $40 million, thus becoming the filmmaker's first substantial hit since the film's original debut almost 30 years earlier.
A sell-out move? You decide. All I can say is, in 1989 the director still had integrity enough to stay true to himself. During auditions for The Guardian, Friedkin reportedly told an actress she was too fat for the role, causing her to run from the room sobbing. His producer probably shook his head and thought to himself quietly, "He's still got it!" And that Friedkin persona has kept him in the game, helping him to churn out new titles even when he hasn't had a critically-acclaimed new hit since 1973. As he firmly stated in his nanny-orgy anecdote, "I just don't go away."
The director: William Friedkin
The movie: The Guardian (1990)
Why is it so out of place in director's filmography?: Instead of a standard idea with a weird approach, The Guardian is a weird idea with a standard approach. It's gory instead of atmospheric, has few redeeming aesthetic values and was ultimately seen as a failed attempt to mimic his most successful film.
Why the director strayed: Desperation for a successful movie, leading the director to create another hit using the winning formula of The Exorcist, i.e. William Freidkin + supernatural horror film = hit.
Scale of embarrassment for the director: 8/10. He had done worse movies before (Deal of the Century) and has made worse movies since (Rules of Engagement), but the motivation behind directing The Guardian is just too embarrassing for the director be allowed off the hook unscathed.
His triumphant return to form:From a commercial standpoint, 2000's The Exorcist: The Version You've Never Seen, with which he literally reminded everyone that he was the man who made The Exorcist. But from a non-sellout standpoint, it was the brilliant and underrated Bug (2006), like Sorcerer mismarketed as a flat-out horror movie ("killer bugs!" the preview seemed to suggest) to capitalize on Friedkin's name. Bug is every bit as risky a story and an approach as The Guardian turned out to be safe and mediocre. If Friedkin has a center, a sacred place inside of himself that hasn't been spoiled as Michael Shannon's character suggests we all have, then Bug came out of that place. The Guardian came out of... someplace else.
~ OCTOBER, 2014 ~