Editor’s Note: This vintage film review by Mark Finch originally appeared in the May 3, 1990 issue of the Bay Area Reporter (San Francisco’s LGBT weekly newspaper). One of the leading figures in the LGBT independent film world in the 1980s and early ‘90s, Mark worked as the BAR film critic while also serving as head of Frameline Distribution, the LGBT film distribution non-profit; he was also the gay porn reviewer for the BAR and also did film reviews for San Francisco’s other gay paper, the Sentinel as well. Mark was known for his whimsical film criticism style in which he often incorporated mentions of his friends, lovers and roommates as well as frequently making insider jokes about Bay Area institutions and referencing his British heritage. During this time Mark was also head of the London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. In 1992 he became director of the San Francisco International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival as well. In January 1995 he ended his life by leaping from the Golden Gate Bridge.
Anyone who thought William Friedkin should have been burned in hell for Cruising will be enlivened by his new movie The Guardian.
After this flightless horror film, he’ll never find another job in Hollywood. In Beverly Hills, unemployment is worse than fire and brimstone.
The Guardian is about a problem doubtless affecting many young working couples: how to get a good nanny? Brad and Janet (not their real names; I forget what they’re called, and it really doesn’t matter) move from Chicago to L.A. and, before you can say Rosemary’s Baby, Janet’s in ward one, giving birth to a worryingly pale thing they call Jake.
Too Busy to Breast-feed
She’s an interior designer; he’s a graphic artist. They’re too busy to breast-feed. Through the Yellow Pages they hit upon Guardian Angels and pretty soon Jenny Seagrove turns up at the door.
Turns out Jenny’s really a witch who feeds four-week old tots to a tree monster in Brad and Janet’s back garden, in between knocking off their neighbors and local hoodlums.
Now, I have no problem with what happens later (minor levitation; wolves wild on L.A. streets; a tree which enjoys foreplay as much as man-eating), but Jenny Seagrove as a force for evil? Too incredible.
Actually, I like Friedkin’s earlier films. In Cruising and The Exorcist there’s a giddy sense of horror in the midst of urban life. (The same sweaty-forehead feeling you can experience for free in Safeway on Market Street any Saturday night.)
Specifically, Friedkin knows how to mix contemporary anxieties with horror movie myths. For a moment, The Guardian looks like doing the same, possibly repulsively.
Brad’s hired by an L.A. ad agency — The Belly of the Beast — on the basis of his abortion-oriented public information campaign. (It’s not revealed which side he was employed to argue for.)
And his wife has some doubts about having someone else look after their child. Friedkin’s always been able to harvest skiers out of these kind of Modern Parent magazine dilemmas.
Then again, an L.A. suburb (Astral Drive!) isn’t perhaps the best place for Friedkin to set his story. He hardly ever moves the camera out of Brad and Janet’s swank new three-sofa home.
Tellingly, the only other major character is Ned, the house’s architect. Ned’s not like any architect I know. First of all he’s not remotely attractive. He’s what you might call nerdy, or what I call Stephen-King-on-a-stick.
Second, he’s not very smart. When he’s assailed by Jenny and her carnivorous coyotes, his own-designed home proves fairly useless in stopping them.
Surely any Southern California architect worth his salt would safeguard against teleporting nannies and blood-crazed wolves?
I love horror movies. They can often say more about modern anxieties than the whole season of thirtysomething.
In horror, what’s evil is often an index of wider social fears. The Exorcist’s twelve-year-old head-turner spews up a truckload of loathing and worry about pre-teen sexuality and child abuse, as well as stuff about single parents, political stability, and the rewards of being a child star.
The Guardian’s site of evil is a well-spoken English woman with indefatigable etiquette. “She’s European,” hisses one L.A. householder who comes to warn Brad. They nod knowingly.
“She’s too good to be true,” says Brad’s creepy button-down boss, meaning her manners.
It’s her politeness which is seen as a guise, and her foreignness which makes it threatening. Even if she didn’t snack on new-born babes, she would be unnatural in the film’s terms.
As a moderately well spoken Londoner who knows how to use a fork and knife when he has to, I was a little taken aback by the hostility hurled at Jenny’s character.
What’s wrong with good manners and icy formality? It certainly helped me get along with my ex-boyfriend’s mother for seven years.
The other mildly interesting thing about The Guardian is its anti-green theme. The witch’s home — in contrast to Brad and Janet’s H & G interior — is a grizzly looking old oak just beyond the backyard.
Each time someone follows her there they end up thistle-torn and damp with boggy water. The slayings are performed by the tree’s violently animated branches. The soundtrack is merely rural silence.
This is familiar enough to anyone who watched Pet Sematary or Poltergeist. An extra environmental twist to The Guardian is that Brad and Janet are also troubled by what the Chronicle would tag as “swarms of temblors.”
These are narratively unrelated to Jenny’s goings-on — just part of the first reel scene-setting. But it’s scarier than any amount of peckish plantation or Mary-Poppins-gone-bonkers.
In reality and in this film, earthquakes represent nature’s two-fingers at culture — the “fuck you” triumph of irrationality over rationality.