What do you do for an encore when you're responsible for The Exorcist (1973,) a stark confrontation with evil that terrifies audiences and wins plaudits from the Vatican for its authenticity? Director William Friedkin's answer to this question was to wait nearly twenty years and then make The Guardian (1990,) a film about a demonic nanny who feeds babies to a flesh-eating tree.
Young couple Phil (Dwier Brown) and Kate (Carey Lowell) settle down in LA, have a baby and do what any modern young couple would do – hire a live-in nanny to take the little brat off their hands. Camilla (Jenny Seagrove) is well-spoken and ever-helpful. To cap it all, when she's not changing nappies, cooking, cleaning, or pouring drinks for the couple's guests, she likes to wander around in the nude and sit in the tub with the bathroom door open. If male readers think that sounds too good to be true, how right you are, because it soon emerges that she has plans to snatch the baby and spill its blood upon the roots of an ancient and maleficent tree lurking in the woods.
Friedkin handles this Gothic fluff as though he were making The Exorcist all over again, and ladles doomy portent and gruesome gore (exploding heads, people impaled on roots springing from the forest floor) upon a story that calls for a certain archness and whimsy. When you throw in all that titillating naked flesh courtesy of Seagrove and glossy cinematography by John A. Alonzo, the result has the sort of overblown vulgarity commonly associated with Ken Russell. (The Guardian would be a perfect double bill partner for The Lair of the White Worm or Altered States.)
Prowling around in her green, barky birthday suit, Seagrove is certainly eye-catching. But when things get heavy and Phil starts shouting “Get your hands off my baby”, she's a bit lacking in moves compared to the kind of karate-kicking villainous totty we're used to today.
Another glaring absence, from a modern standpoint, is the lack of an ecological subtext. A revenge of nature theme is implicit in the story, with its concrete and plate-glass houses built up around a piece of ancient forest, but Friedkin seems totally oblivious to it. Instead, the tree is just a ghoul that drinks baby blood because baby blood happens to be its cup of tea.
Despite these flaws, The Guardian is a lovable oddity, full of bizarre and incongruous moments, such as the scene where a Peeping Tom sees Seagrove in an amorous embrace that gives new meaning to the term “tree hugging.” Say what you like about the movie as a whole, there's undeniable curiosity value in the sight of this usually reserved British actress being pleasured by animatronic twigs. The extras include a wonderfully entertaining interview with scriptwriter Stephen Volk, whose experience working with Friedkin led him to seek therapy.
The Guardian is released on DVD October 17th