Oh hello! Is it that time already? Boy, where has the month gone? It seems like only yesterday we were standing here talking about the last movie I recommended to you. But I suppose that is the nature of time. That cruel, heartless wench who continues on with or without you and not so much as a how do you do should you lose track of her. My but she is callous and irresistible.
But enough of my ramblings. I get this way when I’m hungry and I haven’t eaten all month. You don’t happen to have a spare spleen with you, would you? Never mind… I suppose you wondering what this month’s offering is. I have something very special for you. One that will bring you back to the darker side nature and what it demands of us. I’m talking about William Friedkin’s 1990 folk horror classic, The Guardian.
Back of the Box Overview
Well-to-do, busy parents Kate and Phil hire a nanny to help them care for their new baby. While the nanny, Camilla, seems perfect, she soon proves to be more than she appears and a diabolical conspiracy involving the safety of their baby is unveiled. Kate and Phil are forced to fight mysterious supernatural forces or lose their new baby boy to an unfathomable evil.
Our loving family of young professionals is played by Dwier Brown and Carey Lowell as Phil and Kate Sterling respectfully. Jenny Seagrove is Camilla Grandier, the villainous forest nymph intent on using the newborn Sterling boy as dinner for the weird, ugly tree in the nearby woods. Brad Hall plays the neighborly Ned Runcie who has a thing for the gorgeous Camilla. The late great Miguel Ferrer plays Ralph Hess, who rounds out the cast with Natalia Nogulich as Molly Sheridan, Pamela Brull as Gail Krasno and Gary Swanson as Allan Sheridan.
Enter the Hamadryad
Gesundheit! For those that aren’t up on ancient Greek mythology, a Hamadryad is a tree-dwelling nymph who protects, and some believe actually are, trees. To appease these creatures a sacrifice was often made and what better to sacrifice than a human, amIright? This was the basis for the source material, The Nanny by Dan Greenburg, where a nanny steals children.
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The film version, however, was different in tone. Sam Raimi (The Evil Dead, 1981) was originally attached to direct the picture, but he left the project to direct Darkman (1990), at which point William Friedkin (The Exorcist, 1974) was brought on board to take over directing duties. The script, which had originally been conceived as a tongue-in-cheek thriller for Raimi, morphed into something more serious over the course of filming, with Friedkin making numerous changes.
Screenwriter Stephen Volk (The Awakening, 2011) attempted a rewrite for Friedkin, re-working the Nanny character as a real-life Lilith, the child-stealing demon from Jewish mythology. Friedkin disliked the idea and Volk then changed the story into a straightforward psychological thriller about an unhinged woman stealing children. Volk was met with yet another rewrite roadblock from Universal Studios as they wanted a supernatural horror film to capitalize on Friedkin’s Exorcist pedigree. Next, Volk borrowed elements from the M.R. James story The Ash-Tree for the newest rewrite. Friedkin liked and fixated on blending tree themes into Camilla’s backstory for what would become yet another rework of the script. Keep in mind that production was already shooting while all of these changes were happening. Actors were literally getting new pages of dialogue while standing on set and waiting for “action” to be called. Because of this chaos, Volk reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown and he left the film in mid-production.
Theatrical Reception/Home Video
The Guardian was released in cinemas on April 27, 1990, opening at the number three spot for the opening weekend. The ensuing weeks, however, were not kind. The critical response was less than favorable with most giving the film a one-star review. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times named it as one of his “Most Hated Films” while Janet Maslin of The New York Times stated “[Friedkin] never sustains the story’s tension for very long, and even cuts off the scarier episodes before they have a chance to sink in. What’s more, he never offers a consistent idea of what sort of evil is at work here.”
Even actress Jenny Seagrove has said in hindsight, “I don’t want to put off anyone from watching it because it is good fun,” but noted that during the first screening, “there was a feeling in the room that it wasn’t the sort of picture everyone had hoped it was going to be.”
Despite all of the negative press, the onset disruptions and the aimless script, The Guardian, thanks in part to home video, has found itself a cult following. During the late ’80s and early ’90s producers weren’t interested in edgier supernatural stories. They wanted conventional dramatic, erotic thrillers, thanks to the likes of Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992). No one was taking the chance on something that wasn’t either dangerously sexy or a part of a mega-franchise like A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) or Friday the 13th (1980). But thanks to The Guardian though, fans that craved such creativity were finally satiated.
The October 1990 home video VHS release saw a spike in the movie’s popularity and to this day select audiences still consider it a classic. Anchor Bay Entertainment picked it up for a DVD release in October 1999, while Shout Factory released it on Blu-ray on January of 2016. The DVD features audio commentary by Friedkin as well as the original theatrical trailer. This release may be tough to find since it has been long out of print, but a UK DVD by Second Sight, which also features the director’s commentary, has since become widely available.
Fun Fact: The television cut of the film offers a different ending than the original theatrical version. This one ends with Phil and Kate returning home from the hospital with baby Jake, while Camilla is still alive in her birthday suit at the tree. Director Friedkin disapproved of this cut of the film so much that he removed his name from the credits, naming Alan von Smithee as the director.
Perhaps by Rami stepping down from the project and Friedkin stepping in, the production lost what most certainly would have been a splatter-fest with tons of comedy – but in turn, gained a more serious human drama story. One where the characters are allowed to be developed properly and the audience is given permission to care for them, making the consequences they face all the more devastating. The Guardian isn’t the Citizen Kane (1941) of horror movies but it also isn’t the Ishtar (1987) either. What it is, is a solid character drama with creepy folklore elements, some over the top gore and a worthwhile antagonist who poses a real threat to the film’s protagonists. It’s a great rainy Saturday night flick that over time warrants a second viewing.
And that’s what I have for you this month. Once again time has gotten away from us. Be sure to fill out our comment section to let us know how you’re enjoying our recommendations. And for more horror, check out the Nightmare on Film Street Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and Instagram accounts.
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One thing I should tell you before you leave. Due to an excessive amount of unreturned tapes, we are implementing a late fee. For every day past the due date of your rental, you will pay us one digit. We will start with fingers and move to toes accordingly. We advise you not to force us to move onto other body parts, you won’t like we remove next.