If you’ve read my musings on Rampage (1987), Bug (2006) and Killer Joe (2012) then you’ve probably guessed that I’m a big William Friedkin fan. One of the things that I’ve always admired about Friedkin is despite being one of the most well known and established names in film, the last thing you could describe him as is being “in the system”. If you’ve ever read, listened to or watched an interview with the man you know that he’s always quick to call out the studios on their bullshit as well as openly voice his displeasure with the reliance of lame trends in current American cinema. He doesn’t make films with the thought of box office receipts or being commercially appealing in mind. To call The Guardian one of his least popular films would possibly be one of the biggest understatements of this young year. When this film was released in 1990, it was Friedkin’s return to pure horror after 17 years. That alone meant the film was already working at a disadvantage. Think about it, no matter what type of film he could have decided to make within the genre, be it a slasher, a ghost story or what have you, ultimately it was going to end up being unfairly compared to The Exorcist (1973). Of course leave it to Friedkin to come out with something so out of left field such as The Guardian. I’ve seen this film get more than a fair amount of shit flung it’s way over the years and surprise surprise, I’m going to come to it’s defense.
Young couple Phil (Dwier Brown) and Kate (former Bond girl Carey Lowell) have just celebrated the birth of their son Jake. After interviewing several potential nannies, the two finally settle on the charming Camilla (Jenny Seagrove). On the surface, Camilla seems to be the perfect caregiver, taking care of not only baby Jake but the cooking and housework as well. Unbeknownst to Phil and Kate however, Camilla isn’t exactly human, as she’s a druid, supernaturally liked to a tree with an evil spirit housed inside of it, who’s life-force is fueled by the pure blood of infants, and Camilla has plans for baby Jake that include much more than diaper changing and naptime.
Not to sound condescending although I’m sure it’ll come off as such no matter how I word it, but my response to those who dismiss The Guardian simply based on the, as they put it, “ridiculous plot” is suspension of disbelief anyone? I will grant you that yes, the idea of sacrificing a baby to an evil tree is a bit loopy, but there are films out there, and I’m not just talking about horror/fantasy films, that require you to set logic aside a lot more than this one. The Guardian could best be described as a nightmarish, surreal fairytale, and it’s one of those situations where if you just go with it the experience will probably be a lot more rewarding. I’m not going to lie, along with this being a Freidkin film it was the film’s outright weirdness that attracted me to it. Love it or hate it you have to at least admire the films sheer bizarreness, it’s defiantly one of the more out there genre films you’ll ever see. Setting aside all the films eccentricities for a moment, the characters of Phil and Kate are established right off the bat as likable people, and Friedkin employees the device of having the audience know more than the characters making them even more sympathetic. Then of course, there’s Camilla. Really a one of a kind horror villain, Jenny Seagrove nails it in the role. The woman is alluring beyond belief, possessing an undeniable magnetism that draws you to her character immediately, not to mention her enticing accent and menacing coyote minions that appear out of nowhere!
The Guardian certainly gave Friedkin license to flex his stylistic muscle, putting off ominous vibes from the very first frame. The film is thickly coated in atmosphere, atmosphere aided immensely by the cinematography. There’s a ton of blue in the film which works winders during all of the nighttime shots. If there’s a scene taking place in the woods at night, rest assured it’s going to look fantastic, such as the shot of Camilla “becoming one”, I suppose is how you would describe it, with the tree being surrounded by her coyotes. The tree itself and all it’s surroundings are all quite sinister looking which only pile onto the dark fantasy-esque mood of the film, made even more striking by the sight of infant faces which appear to be frozen in mid scream/cry carved into the wood. Friedkin even threw in a nice hallucinatory dream sequence, which despite it being completely obvious that it was just that, a dream sequence, totally fit the aura of the film. There was obviously a good sized budget behind the film, aside from a few instances I don’t really think any of the effects look particularly dated at all. The actual tree effects are well done and whenever the tree attacks it’s simply a blast to watch (ever see someone decapitated by the tree branch?). Friedkin doesn’t skimp out on the gore either, whether it be during the first time we see the tree in action or a vicious coyote attack. Then there’s of course the films blood drenched, “bleeding tree” finale. Quite the sight to behold if you ask me.
The Guardian was released on DVD in 1999 courtesy of Anchor Bay but it’s since gone long out of print and commands a pretty astronomically (read that as unnecessarily) high price these days. Said DVD contains a commentary from Friedkin which would really be interesting to listen to seeing as you hardly hear him ever mention the film. Jenny Seagrove’s memories of the film unfortunately not so fond, stating in a 2007 interview with, how appropriate, the Guardian: "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”. She also claimed that “the screenplay was appalling” and that it was “written on the hoof”. That’s a shame as she really is fantastic in the film. Perhaps she’s changed her mind since then. Oh well. I realize that I’ll probably forever be in the minority when it comes to thinking The Guardian is awesome, but I’m in the minority when it comes to most things regarding film anyways. So be it. It might not have had viewers fainting in their seats or exiting the theatre en mass in hysterics, but it’s a unique film that has a lot to offer visually and has more original ideas and creativity behind it than the last 5 genre films I’ve seen TV spots for. Haters gonna hate as the saying goes.