Synopsis: It’s every parent’s worst fear as a couple’s live-in babysitter’s true intentions are revealed, and a battle for the newborn baby’s soul ensues.
Stars: Jenny Seagrove, Dwier Brown, Carey Lowell, Brad Hall, Miguel Ferrer, Natalia Nogulich, Pamela Brull, Gary Swanson, Jack David Walker, Willy Parsons, Frank Noon, Theresa Randle, Ray Reinhardt
Director: William Friedkin
Running Length: 92 minutes
TMMM Score: (X/10)
Review: By the time Oscar-winning director William Friedkin joined production of The Guardian in 1989, the film was already struggling. Losing its original director, Sam Raimi, to a greenlit production of the now cult classic Darkman, some doubted the once revered director could turn the project into the hit Universal wanted. After all, Friedkin hadn’t had a movie commercially released since 1985’s To Live and Die in L.A. the last film he produced, Rampage, was filmed in 1987 but went unreleased until 1992 after extensive reworking.
When Friedkin did come aboard, the adaptation of Dan Greenburg’s 1987 novel The Nanny underwent its own reworking to less than spectacular results. Friedkin implemented his current fascination with druid mythology, sending original screenwriter Stephen Volk toward a nervous breakdown. With Friedkin finishing the script and making it more of a folk horror film drawing from tree-worshipping lore than a more straightforward supernatural form of menace, The Guardian became less cohesive and faulty in structure. Instead of the hyped Friedkin return to form everyone hoped for, it was more of a signal that a once successful director had lost his edge.
Greenburg’s original novel focused on a vampiric nanny who drove a wedge between an East Coast family. Friedkin’s version finds Chicago transplants Phil and Kate Sterling moving to Los Angeles when Phil (Dwier Brown, The Cutting Edge) gets a job at a vague advertising agency. Kate (Carey Lowell, License to Kill) is an interior designer but quickly becomes pregnant and, almost within the same beat, has her baby boy, Jake. In their fancy ‘90s home in the hills, they need to pay the bills, so when Kate goes back to work, they hire a nanny, and when their first choice is eliminated via bike accident (it’s never clear if she is killed or seriously injured), Camilla (Jenny Seagrove) comes to stay. Camilla is gorgeous, European, and gives off such weird energy that you almost can’t believe Kate’s maternal instincts would allow her to agree to her employment.
Friedkin deals Kate/Lowell such a dirty hand here by making the mother a complete dodo. It’s an interesting swapping of responsibilities because, most often, the dad isn’t an active participant in these stories. In The Guardian, Phil is the protagonist of most of the action. Kate is barely present and doesn’t even know she has a child. Late in the film, when a doctor examines her barely two-month-old, he asks her when he was last fed, and she answers, “I don’t know, earlier, around lunchtime.” Around lunchtime? Tell me, when was the last time you heard a mother of a newborn, a first-time mother, not give a specific time a baby was fed? Lowell is a decent actress, but even she can’t save her character from coming off like a complete nitwit; she never mounts any defense against her child, often letting Camilla do whatever she wants.
Eventually, we learn that Camilla has been the nanny for several families with newborns, waiting until they have reached a certain age and then sacrificing them to a scary-looking tree in the forest. (You’d think that a tree so centrally located would have raised the suspicion of local police?). While impressively constructed, the tree factors into a few unintentionally hilarious scenes of violence where it attacks hoodlums and Phil, but it also outacts Brown (who is way over his head) at times. Friedkin stretches the short run time far too long but gets in a few chills via a protracted chase sequence featuring Brad Hall as a neighbor interested in Camilla who catches her in the forest having one-on-one time with her tree.
Unsurprisingly, The Guardian was a bomb when it opened but has gained a low-key cult status over the years. It’s admittedly a chunk of goofy cheese fun at times, and that scene where a pack of wolves stalks the neighbor gets frightening and reminds you of the tension Friedkin created in films like The French Connection and The Exorcist. Friedkin wouldn’t make another feature for four years (Blue Chips) and never would fully regain his box office clout. Fans of the director, who passed away in 2023, leaving a career full of these intriguing asides, will want to check this one out to see how his fascination could influence a production so fully…but keep those expectations low.