Review: The Guardian (1990)

guardian 1990 bluray cover

Tonight, while the world is asleep… an ancient evil is about to awaken.

THE GUARDIAN (1990)
Rated R / Color / 92 minutes
Directed by William Friedkin
Also Known As: Das Kindermädchen
Purchase it: Amazon.com (Blu-ray)

WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.

To date, I’ve only seen a handful of the films that William Friedkin has directed. To date I’ve seen THE EXORCIST, TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A., BUG, BLUE CHIPS, THE HUNTED, and SORCERER which was gifted to me by a close friend. (And I’m glad he did because holy hell, there are some intense moments in that movie! That bridge scene!) And now I’ve added one more to my list: Friedkin’s 1990 flop, THE GUARDIAN.

Loosely based upon Dan Greenburg’s novel The Nanny, this film takes the notion of a child-stealing caretaker and gives it a supernatural spin. In the opening moments of the movie, we see an infant carted off into the night by a mysterious woman, who sacrifices the wailing baby to an ancient tree. Supposedly this woman is a druid and no one knows who she was, or what she was doing.

After the bizarre intro, we meet the film’s main characters, Phil and Kate Sterling (Dwier Brown and Carey Lowell). They’ve just moved to Los Angeles because of Phil’s new job at an advertising agency, but complications arise when their son Jake is born. Since Phil and Kate want to both continue working, they decide to contact a company called Guardian Angel to find a live-in nanny. They whittle their choices down to two candidates: A young girl named Arleen, and a British woman named Camilla Grandier (Jenny Seagrove).

Arleen never shows up, because she dies in a sudden bicycle “accident,” so Camilla gets the job and all is well… at first. But it’s soon revealed that she is the baby-snatcher we saw earlier in the film, and Jake is her next victim! After doing some detective work, Phil discovers that their “perfect” nursemaid is not who she says she is, and fires her on the spot. But Camilla doesn’t give up so easily, and uses her otherworldy powers to relentlessly pursue baby Jake.

Camilla demands payment and she'll accept nothing "less than Jake."

Camilla demands payment and she’ll accept nothing “less than Jake.”

In the final act of the film, the ferocity of two desperate parents, clashes with a primeval power that thrives on the blood of the innocent. Will Phil and Kim save their son from becoming another notch on an Camilla’s murder-tree? Be sure to watch THE GUARDIAN’s action-packed (and blood-drenched) climax to find out!

Friedkin’s THE GUARDIAN didn’t click with audiences back in 1990, but has since built a faithful cult following over the past few decades. I myself was on the fence about it during my first viewing, because the film’s first half moves so slowly. My interest was rapidly beginning to fade, until a trio of attempted rapists are brutally devoured and/or impaled by a tree! After that, I was officially on board, and decided that the movie could only get better from that point on. And it does! It actually becomes far more interesting (and fun) than I could have anticipated!

But it’s THE GUARDIAN’s journey from script to screen is probably the most fascinating aspect of the film. It was initially going to be a more faithful adaptation of the original source material, with Sam Raimi in the director’s chair. However, Raimi ended up leaving the production in order to shoot DARKMAN, so William Friedkin was hired to helm the production.

This led to a whole myriad of headaches for screenwriter Stephen Volk, because the tongue-in-cheek thriller he had written now had to have a supernatural theme. I’m guessing that’s because the studio wanted to slap “From the director of THE EXORCIST” on all the promotional materials.

The script changes made Volk want to make like a tree and eat some guy. Wait...

THE GUARDIAN: A tree-venge thriller from the director of THE EXORCIST.

In an attempt to please both the director and the studio, Volk handed in rewrite after rewrite until he suffered a nervous breakdown. The poor guy was caught between this film and another screenwriting gig, and it proved to be too much for him. Shooting had already begun, so Friedkin had to take the reigns and complete the remainder of the script himself, further altering the tale to include a bit of Druid mythology.

And that’s a major part of why I liked THE GUARDIAN – It offers up something totally unique! It’s like a Lifetime Network movie that’s blended with Greek mythology (Camilla is clearly some sort of dryad) and Celtic history. This bizarre mash-up really shouldn’t work, but somehow Friedkin manages to pull it off.

The cast of THE GUARDIAN proves to be quite capable, with both Dwier Brown and Carey Lowell putting in strong performances as two parents caught up in a completely insane scenario. But Jenny Seagrove’s Camilla is the central focus of the story, and she handles herself well. Whether she’s doting on an infant, siccing a pack of teleporting wolves on a nosy neighbor, or morphing into “were-wood,” she does a great job with her role.

The effects in THE GUARDIAN, created by Matt Mungle, are sparse but well-executed for the most part. The makeup on Jenny Seagrove when she shows her true form is quite impressive, and I absolutely love the moments where the baby-absorbing timber comes into play. Seriously, how can you not enjoy Dwier Brown’s bloody chainsaw battle with a carnivorous tree? It’s so over-the-top, and totally evocative of EVIL DEAD II!

A blood-soaked, chainsaw-wielding hero in a blue shirt that's battling a killer tree? Where have I seen this before?

A blood-soaked, chainsaw-wielding hero in a blue shirt that’s battling an ancient evil? Where have I seen this before?!

I was pleasantly surprised by William Friedkin’s attempt at a contemporary Grimm fairy tale. While it suffers a bit from its numerous script rewrites and lethargic first half, once THE GUARDIAN finally hits its stride, it is guaranteed to entertain. Though it’s one of Friedkin’s weakest efforts, there’s enough done right here to warrant a rating of:

BLU-RAY REVIEW

The Packaging: THE GUARDIAN comes in a standard Blu-ray case with the original 1990 poster art. Unlike many of their other discs, Scream Factory did not include a reversible sleeve with alternate artwork for this title.

Audio & Video: The film is showcased in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, and though a bit grainy, the high-def presentation of THE GUARDIAN is very good. The only audio option here is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, and it sounds great! Dialogue, tree-woman roars, the snarling of wolves, and Jack Hues’ odd score all sound clear and crisp!

The Extras: Along with a theatrical trailer, and a very brief behind-the-scenes still gallery (that clocks in at a minute and twenty seconds) there are seven interviews on this disc! Three of them, featuring Director William Friedkin, screenwriter Stephen Volk, and actress Jenny Seagrove, are ported over from a previous DVD release, while the rest are all brand new! The bulk of the interviews are great, and really paint a vivid picture of this troubled production.

If there’s anything I took away from this disc’s series of interviews (which have a combined running time of nearly ninety minutes!), it’s that everybody loved and respected William Friedkin, though not all approved of his directorial practices. (Apparently he fired a gun on the set in order to scare actress Carey Lowell to get the desired reaction on film.)

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To get this reaction he told her that she had just won The Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes!

You also get the feeling that everyone involved gave it their best, even though they all apparently had reservations about the path the film was on. This of course stemmed from the studio interfering and insisting that the movie needed to have supernatural elements. But regardless of how they felt about the constantly changing script, everyone on the production agreed on one thing: Friedkin was the singular reason they all eagerly worked on this film.

While there are a few throwaway interviews (particularly the ones with Gary Swanson and Natalija Nogulich), the majority of them are quite informative, and all are worth watching!

Final Verdict: I definitely recommend Scream Factory’s Blu-ray of THE GUARDIAN. The film looks and sounds great, and the multitude of cast and crew interviews provides a wealth of information about the making of the film. Chalk up another win for Scream Factory, because this release has earned a rating of: