Saturday, January 23, 2016

THE GUARDIAN (1990) (Blu-ray Review)

Label: Scream Factory 
Region Code: A
Rating: R
Duration: 92 Minutes
Audio: English DTS-HD MA Stereo 2.0 with Optional English Subtitles
Video: 1080p HD Widescreen (1.85:1) 
Director: William Friedken
Cast: Dwier Brown, Miguel Ferrer, Brad Hall, Carey Lowell

When young Los Angeles couple named Kate (Carey Lowell) and Phil (Dwier Brown, Red Dragon) have a child they take on a live-in nanny named Camille (Jenny Seagrove), who comes with good references. She seems to be an unreal find, she loves on their child as if it were her own, she cooks and cleans... but as the movie unfolds the truth is revealed, the attractive nanny is really a demonic tree nymph with a penchant for kidnapping and sacrificing infants to a gnarly ancient and evil tree in the nearby woods. 

The Guardian is a strange slice of '90s cinema, co-written and directed by William Friedkin of The Exorcist after original director Sam Raimi (Evil Dead 2) left the project to direct Darkman. Raimi would have seemed a more suitable choice with the inclusion of an evil tree and copious amounts of blood, stuff right in his wheel house of horror. Friedkin tries to class it up a bit with the trappings of a '90s psychological thriller with bizarre supernatural elements, but the various elements don't come together at the end of the day, the mix is off and the movie seems adrift without a clear direction. 

The evil wood nymph and her gnarly demon-tree are cool ideas, the imagery is creepy, a knotty old tree with the images of infant babies visible through the bark does make for memorable visuals, as do the various bloody killings throughout the movie, but they just don;t come together in a very pleasing way. I think the biggest beef I have with the movie might be the undefined horror, the way the villain is kind of ambiguous, the why of what's happening is never clear. Sure we see loads of strange stuff happening, surreal nightmares, gruesome killings done by an ancient and evil tree out in the woods, a pack of ravenous wolves, but the set-up and execution are flat and there's so little suspense, what little there is doesn't carry through to any proper end. 

The special effects work by Matthew Mungle are beyond reproach, the tree branches coming to life, impaling victims, this is good stuff  but it is poorly edited with few exceptions. There's an early scene of the demonic nymph holding a baby up into the air as an offering to the demon-tree... then it just blinks out of existence, gone from her hands. There's a ham-fisted scene of a trio of thugs attacking the nanny in the woods, as they attempt to rape her the tree kills all three, one is brutally impaled and is then suddenly engulfed in flames, it's an abrupt and weak edit. I did find myself enjoying the bloody movie magic, but with all due respect to Friedkin the movie feels amateurish and confused about what it wants to be. 

Not an unwatchable movie, but a curious entry from William Friedkin that is seriously flawed. No doubt injured in the scripting process during various rewrites that jammed too many ideas into a jumbled script. none of which are properly fleshed out to any satisfying degree. The strong cast do what they  with the material they've been given, but there's only so many ways to polish a turd, you know? 

Audio/Video: The Guardian arrives on Blu-ray with a nice 1080p HD transfer, framed in the original 1.85 aspect ratio. Not sure what the source for the transfer is but it  is in good shape, there's some good depth and clarity to the image, details are crisp. The skin tones look natural and the black levels are deep. There's also a nice layer of fine film grain intact, this has not been subjected to overly heavy digital clean-up, which is always appreciated. Despite the box indicating there's a 5.1 surround sound mix that is not the case, what we have is a crisp and well-balanced English DTS-HD MA Stereo 2.0 audio track, with optional English subtitles for the hearing impaired. The stereo track is plenty powerful, nicely balanced with clean audio, the score comes through with some good presence, not overpowering.  

Onto the extras we have a nice array of brand new interviews beginning with actor Dwier Brown (22 Mins) who played Phil in the movie. He speaks about landing the role following Field of Dreams, and how embarrassed director Friedkin was when he didn't recall working with him on a earlier movie. He talks about the cool evil-tree special effects, and what it was like on-set working for Friedkin. There's also a brief interview with Actor Gary Swanson (10 Mins) HD who speaks more about studying with Lee Strasberg and working on Vice Squad than discussing the movie. Actress Natalija Nogulich pops-up for a twelve-minute interview, discussing her fondness for Friedkin and her turn on Star Trek.

Score composer Jack Hues shows up for seven-minutes to discuss his work scoring the film. I didn't realize he was the singer from '80s rockers Wang Chung, which was pretty neat. He speaks about enjoying the opportunity to work alone and the influence of Hitchcock's Vertigo on his own score. There's also a an interview with Makeup Effects Artist Matthew Mungle (The Kindred) who created the bloody special effects, including that gnarly demonic tree. I think the movie is sort of a mess but the special effects are top-notch, he says that Friedkin always wanted more blood and more violence onscreen. 

Scream Factory have also included three vintage interviews produced by Severin Films in 2011 that were included on the Second Sight DVD in the UK. Furst up is Director/Co-writer William Friedkin who speaks about his love of the original Grimm Fairy tales and how they informed his own contemporary version of those tales. He speaks of how he and co-writer Stephen Volk had a falling out during the writing process and tells an interesting personal story about his own experiences with a not-so-great nanny. For her part Jenny Seagrove speaks about how she wanted to make a more straight-forward nanny-kidnapper psychological thriller and how producers scoffed at the notion at the time, until a few years later when The Hand That Rocks the Cradle blew-up at the box office two years later, long after this movie sunk beneath the waves of obscurity. 

Co-screenwriter Stephen Volk sheds light on the origins of the story, adapting the source novel, and working with original director Sam Raimi who saw the project as a tongue-in-cheek horror film. Raimi ended up leaving the project when given the opportunity to direct Darkman. He also speaks about the difficulties of co-writing with Friedkin, who ended up finishing the script on his own after Volk left the project after a nervous breakdown. This was an enlightening interviews that helps explain the mess of a movie we ended up with onscreen. 

Screams Blu-ray is top-notch, but not definitive, missing is an alternate TV cut of the movie with additional scenes,  which Friedkin has disowned. The TV cut is credited to Alan Smithee, and contains additional scenes plus an alternate ending, unfortunately these scenes are not included on the disc, nor is the director's audio commentary from the out-of-print Universal DVD. While this is not the definitive version of the movie, it it well-stuffed with over two hours of extras, which are a better watch that the actual film. 

Special  Features
- NEW A Happy Coincidence - An Interview With Actor Dwier Brown (22 Mins) HD 
- NEW From Strasberg To The Guardian - An Interview With Actor Gary Swanson (10 Mins) HD 
- NEW A Mother's Journey - An Interview With Actress Natalija Nogulich (12 Mins) HD 
- NEW Scoring The Guardian - An Interview With Composer Jack Hues (7 Mins) HD 
- NEW Tree Woman: The Effects Of The Guardian - An Interview With Makeup Effects Artist Matthew Mungle (13 Mins) HD 
- Return To The Genre - An Interview With Director/Co-writer William Friedkin (18 Mins) 
- The Nanny - An Interview With Actress Jenny Seagrove (14 Mins) 
- Don't Go Into The Woods – An Interview With Co-writer Stephen Volk (21 Mins) HD 
- Still Gallery Of Behind-The-Scenes Photos (2 Mins) HD 
Theatrical Trailer (2 Mins) HD 

What could have been a fun tongue-in-cheek horror film about a demonic tree-nymph is bogged down in '90s thriller conventions and poor execution. Fortunately the extras are more entertaining than the movie, they alone are worth the price of purchase. Definitely a movie worth a watch for the curious minded, it has been out-of-print for sometime and it is nice to see it widely available again, for better or worse. 2/5