William Friedkin’s autobiography, The Friedkin Connection, is unique in its genre because he freely admits up front that he’s going to cover what he wants to include in the book and will leave the rest on the cutting floor. For example, he doesn’t discuss his marriage to Jeanne Moreau or his first post–Cruising film, Deal Of The Century. He also omits The Guardian, a 1990 effort that represented his first horror film since The Exorcist. It would be hard to say it works — it’s too weird and disjointed to be the commercial effort it wants to be — but it’s an unforgettably weird footnote in Friedkin’s career.
Loosely adapted from the Dan Greenburg novel The Nanny, The Guardian focuses on Phil (Dwier Brown) and Kate (Carey Lowell) a young yuppie couple expecting their first child. Their lifestyle demands that Kate keep working so they look for a nanny and ultimately settle on the poised, lovely Camilla (Jenny Seagrove). Everything seems great but they don’t know that Camilla is the latest incarnation of an ancient Druid who regularly sacrifices infants to a tree-god she worships(!). Camilla starts to bump off anyone who interferes with her plan as Phil and Kate come to realize what they are dealing with, setting the stage for a battle between parents-to-be and ancient magic.
If that sounds strange to you, rest assured that the finished film lives up to its potential for strangeness. Simply put, The Guardian is the kind of misfire that occurs when the wrong filmmaker is paired with the wrong material. This film was originally a project for Sam Raimi, who might have been able to infuse it with the sort of whiz-bang, comic book approach that would have made it tongue-in-cheek fun. Friedkin’s approach is deadly serious, piling on artsy style and serious dramatics in a po-faced manner that only makes its borderline-silly concept tip over into ludicrous camp. By the time it reaches its finale, which involves a battle with an angry tree and a wood nymph trying to steal a baby, you’ll either be in shock or laughing.
However, if you can accept that The Guardian really doesn’t work in its intended way, it’s an intriguing oddity. Friedkin’s direction gives it an intensity and vigor that carries it along, even when the story goes haywire. The cinematography by old pro John Alonzo is gorgeous and he and Friedkin manage some fun setpieces, the best being a bit where a nosy neighbor (Brad Hall) is cornered in his stylish home by supernaturally-controlled wolves. The film also boasts a strong cast: Brown and Lowell do professional work in underwritten roles and Seagrove has an alluring, mysterious quality that almost makes her bizarre character fly. Elsewhere, pros like Miguel Ferrer and Natalija Nogulich pop up in too-brief supporting roles.
In short, The Guardian isn’t a good William Friedkin film but it’s an interesting example of what happens when a distinctive artist tries to tread water in a commercial format. Results from that kind of situation almost always go awry — and The Guardian spins out in a fascinatingly eccentric way.