Over the course of his multi-decade filmmaking career, William Friedkin has amassed an eclectic resume. Of course, horror fans know Friedkin best for The Exorcist – his 1973 masterpiece remains among the best horror movies of all time. To date, Friedkin has successfully dabbled in crime dramas (The French Connection), action-thrillers (Sorcerer), neo-noir (Killer Joe), and even sports dramas (Blue Chips). But Friedkin’s return to horror after a nearly 20-year absence fell short of expectations. Based on Dan Greenburg’s novel, The Nanny, Friedkin’s 1990 dark fairy-tale The Guardian bombed with audiences and critics alike. Even Friedkin himself distanced himself from the movie.
Phil and Kate Sterling have the perfect life. An amazing career, a new California house, and a beautiful baby boy, Jake – everything is heading in the right direction. With aspirations of returning to her career, Kate convinces Phil to hire a nanny. But when their first-choice mysteriously becomes unavailable, they welcome English nanny, Camilla, into their homes. Initially, Camilla seems like a good fit. She’s attentive, affectionate, and completely devoted to baby Jake. Soon after her arrival into the house, however, cracks start to appear in Camilla’s seemingly flawless presentation. And when a past family surfaces with bizarre warnings, Phil fears they’ve invited danger into their home.
The Guardian’s Eccentric Tics Compensate For a Run-of-the-Mill Story
On the surface, The Guardian is a generic horror thriller with a run-of-the-mill story. Take away the supernatural elements and the movie plays like any number of late 80s and early 90s psychological thrillers. Like Pacific Heights, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, and Single, White Female, Friedkin doesn’t even try to hide his movie’s threat. As a result, The Guardian lacks much in the way of suspense. Yet what’s more surprisingly is the absence of many jolts and scares. No one would fault you for wondering if this is indeed the same man who made The Exorcist.
…The Guardian lacks much in the way of suspense.
In spite of its lack of scares, The Guardian benefits from its eccentric style and often tonally inconsistent approach to the material. If the story feels convention, the atmosphere often taps into midnight movie territory. Impressive dark fairy tale imagery and a handful of sexually charged scenes mix with standard psychological thriller and occasional exploitation movie. What results is a watchable movie that is never dull and doesn’t overstay its welcome.
Good Practical Gore Effects Overcome An Obviously Modest Budget
Perhaps The Guardian’s best attribute is its surprisingly good practical gore effects. Clearly, Friedkin was working with a modest budget. At times, The Guardian looks like a staid made-for-television movie. However, these scenes are often followed by some inspired, striking imagery, particularly Friedkin’s dream sequences. And the effects crew overcome the hurdle of bringing a tree to frightening life. If the effects are occasionally limited, the inventiveness and shocking doses of gore more than make up for it. Think of The Guardian’s ‘Killer tree’ scenes like a Rated-R, non-CGI Groot. It’s hard not to be somewhat impressed when jagged roots pop up from the ground, impaling a victim.
The Guardian’s Mixed Cast Turns in Perfectly Adequate Workmanlike Performances
To be clear, none of the performances in The Guardian are bad. In what’s a strange, tonally inconsistent movie, the cast is uniformly adequate and the performances workmanlike. As the evil Hamadryad ‘Camila’, Jenny Seagrove offers the required mix of mysterious sex appeal and disarming pleasantry. Whether Seagrove is ever as menacing as The Guardian requires – or it’s a failure of directing – is debatable. Neither Dwier Brown nor Carey Lowell demand much empathy for their characters front the audience. In Lowell’s case, Friedkin et al’s screenplay oddly sidelines her for much of the movie. As for Brown, he’s perfectly fine, if not a little vanilla in the role. Arguably, the supporting cast, particularly Brad Hall, give the movie its best performances.
The Guardian Should Appeal To Die-Hard 90’s Horror Fans
No, The Guardian isn’t technical a ‘good’ horror movie. Even fans of this 90’s oddity would be hard-pressed to argue it doesn’t represent something of a downgrade for Friedkin. Nevertheless, it’s hardly a bad move that should be dismissed out of hand. Certainly, The Guardian works much better than a movie about a killer tree nymph should work. And some of the movie’s eccentricities distinguish it from the decade’s more generic offerings. While there isn’t much here to recommend to casual horror fans, die-hard 90’s horrorphiles should certainly check this one out.