William Friedkin often said that he didn’t think of THE EXORCIST as a horror movie. It was a drama “based on a real case.” If that claim grew out of any kind of anti-genre snobbery it must’ve melted away by 1990 when the director gave us THE GUARDIAN. It also has magic and monsters, but it’s definitely not based on a real case. It’s just a straight up horror movie in the ‘90s mold – a story about grown ups trying to be grown ups but running into some gore, some weirdness, some wild trashiness.
Friedkin’s way of talking it up was calling it “a contemporary Grimm’s fairy tale,” and that’s pretty accurate. It’s the ‘90s but there’s a druid wood nymph that carries babies off into the forest. And there’s wolves and shit.
Her latest targets are Phil (Dwier Brown, MOM AND DAD SAVE THE WORLD) and Kate Sterling (Carey Lowell, DANGEROUSLY CLOSE, LICENCE TO KILL), a couple who move from Chicago to L.A. for a good advertising job. They find a cool house they love and then Kate tells Phil she’s pregnant. Time passes quick, she has the baby, everything is great. She wants to get back to work right away so they look for a nanny to watch the baby – it’s very explicit in the plot that this is only a few weeks later, but I think that’s more of a mythology thing than a judgment of her values. I’m not sure.
One of the great insane storytelling choices happens during the hiring section. They interview a bunch of candidates and it’s unclear who their top choice would be, though Kate was mildly concerned that Phil might be too attracted to one named Camilla (Jenny Seagrove, LOCAL HERO) – he did, after all, ask her in the interview if she had “a steady boyfriend” – what the fuck? But they talk about it and playfully decide to write their choices on paper to reveal to each other at the same time. We don’t see what names they wrote down, but it cuts to one of the applicants, Arlene (Theresa Randle, GIRL 6, SPAWN), riding her bicycle down a highway… then hitting a pothole, and being hurled off the road, smashing onto a giant cactus. Then we cut to Camilla having the job. It’s never indicated whether this was magic or a freak accident, and they don’t even reference it except to later mention that Camilla wasn’t their first choice. Beautiful!
Immediately this new nanny is giving advice about breastfeeding, noting baby Jacob’s zodiac sign, saying weird shit about baby’s blood changing after four weeks, being caught naked bathing with the baby in the middle of the night, and giving Phil a peek.
If some awkward dialogue hasn’t yet clued you in that this isn’t a classy affair, check out the scene where Camilla sits in a nearby meadow with baby Jake and then three bikers (Jack David Walker [WAXWORK], Willy Parsons [TRANCERS II] and Frank Noon [the sideshow barker from DARKMAN!]) randomly show up and try to rape her. It’s like they came through a portal from a DEATH WISH sequel. She runs into the forest to a large tree (which they seem oddly frightened by) and then the branches and roots of the tree fuck the rapists up and some wolves come and munch on their entrails.
The Sterlings have a dinner party, where their friend/neighbor/house designer Ned (Brad Hall, TROLL) and Phil’s boss Ralph (Miguel Ferrer, THE NIGHT FLIER) get all hubba hubba about Camilla, and Ned starts trying to ask her out (without success). Also Phil is having nightmares about fucking her. All the men want to climb this particular tree.
Ned’s move is to promise to drive her to a doctor’s appointment and show up with flowers. But she stands him up and when he goes looking for her he follows her into the woods and first sees her bathing in a creek, then naked on top of that giant tree, fusing with the bark, and surrounded by wolves. I guess it’s kinda like if you had a crush on somebody and then caught a glimpse of them shooting up or something that you weren’t comfortable with. So he doesn’t pull a “Oh hey, wow, I was just walking through the woods, surprised I bumped into you here.” Instead he runs off and he’s chased by wolves (or he says they’re coyotes?) that surround his house-of-many-windows. He has just enough time to call the police (who won’t listen) and leave an incoherent warning on Phil and Kate’s answering machine before the animals bust in and eat him and then Camilla comes in, takes the body and magically disappears the blood trails.
Phil is contacted by a woman named Molly (Natalia Nogulich, SPARTAN) who tries to convince him his nanny is the same one she hired under a different name who disappeared with her baby, and at first he’s kinda like “come on, lady!” When he does come around and tries to confront Camilla about it his wife is like “what the fuck are you talking about?” and then Jake gets really sick so they have to bring him to the hospital. Camilla takes the opportunity to try to nap their baby, and then the movie truly goes nuts. They get chased by wolves, Camilla levitates through the woods, Kate rams her with her Jeep and she goes flying and smashes against her precious tree, they notice baby faces grown into the tree. I like the stormy night time atmosphere of this climax.
The next day, in the light of day, this all sounds so crazy. A cop (Xander Berkeley, CANDYMAN) explains that they couldn’t find any proof that this nanny they’re talking about ever existed, and yeah, they saw the tree, it kind of looks like babies, but somebody must’ve carved it that way.
That seems like the end, but Phil gets an idea… he gets a chain saw and goes to cut down that fucking tree. And it bleeds. Little does he know that Camilla, who has now become a tree person, is at the house attacking Kate. There’s a great cut from him slicing at the tree to one of Camilla’s legs tearing off. Timber!
THE GUARDIAN is credited as based on a novel called The Nanny by Dan Greenburg. Sam Raimi was attached to direct before he left to do DARKMAN. That version was reportedly more jokey but also not supernatural. Seagrove signed on to do this thriller and then Friedkin starts telling her he’s been reading about Druids and she’s gonna feed babies to a tree. Screenwriter Stephen Volk (GOTHIC, GHOSTWATCH) supposedly had a nervous breakdown during all the rewrites, leaving Friedkin to figure it out.
In an interview on the Scream Factory blu-ray Friedkin is clear that it wasn’t something he poured his heart into – he did it out of gratitude to his former manager, who was the producer – but he doesn’t really seem ashamed of it. He’s dismissive of the novel, says “I know what it’s about” because he “glanced at it.”
It certainly didn’t make the mark anybody wanted from a new horror movie FROM THE DIRECTOR OF “THE EXORCIST”. I actually saw it in the theater but all I remembered was there was something about a killer tree. I thought Rebecca De Mornay was in it, getting it mixed up with THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE.
I’m glad I revisited it. It’s obviously not as well crafted as THE EXORCIST. The characters don’t seem very real, the performances are fine but not memorable, it’s not reaching for the stars. THE EXORCIST is a guy with the hubris to try to push cinema to new places, THE GUARDIAN is a guy who’s willing to say, “That’s good enough, let’s move on.” But it’s fun to see this crazy druid shit done with some amount of conviction and invention, from a director who’s gonna make some good sequences even on his worst day. It’s the best killer tree lady movie I’ve seen lately.