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The Guardian – film review

September 1, 2018


Muddled adaptation diverges from a perfectly effective source – to its own detriment.

Reviewed on 25th August 2018

Directed by William Friedkin. Screenplay by Stephen Volk and William Friedkin, based on the novel ‘The Nanny’ by Dan Greenburg. Starring: Jenny Seagrove, Dwier Brown and Carey Lowell. Running time: 92 mins.

SPOILER WARNING: The following review contains major spoilers for both the source novel and the film.

Heavily promoted at the time as being Friedkin’s long-awaited return to the horror genre after a seventeen year hiatus since the release of The Exorcist, it is fair to say this 1990 film had little chance of meeting expectations.

Published in 1987, Dan Greenburg’s novel, The Nanny, features prose which is simple and straight forward, somewhat similar in tone to domestic horror tales one might read from the 1960s and 70s (most notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Amityville Horror).

When a New York advertising executive and his wife hire a straight-laced English nanny to help care for their infant son, the couple soon find themselves targeted       by an unrelenting supernatural force – a force determined to take control over every aspect of their lives.

Phil and Julie Pressman are struggling to cope caring for their colic afflicted son, Harry. Harry’s persistent and prolonged crying is exhausting them and driving them to despair. In their escalating desperation, the couple approach an agency for a Nanny to help them and offer a little relief. Enter Luci Redman – mid-thirties (although her skin is more like mid-fifties). Striking to look at, her face might be described as beautiful, except there is something severe and off-putting about it. Six feet tall, she is big-boned and solidly built with piercing light blue eyes so piercing it isn’t pleasant looking into them. Despite initial misgivings regarding Luci’s annoyingly stern take-charge manner and in the face of no other suitable candidates, the couple decide to take her on. The fact she is so effortlessly able to settle the child (while his parents cannot) being the number one concern which secures her employment. Luci’s outward demeanor comes across initially as strident and demanding; rejecting out of hand the concerns of her employers regarding her disrespectful nature. It is only when she is called out on this and threatened to be fired she becomes as sweet as can be, giving the impression this is her true nature – lulling the couple into a false sense of security. The novel is fairly pedestrian to begin with (dealing mainly with the somewhat mundane aspects of child-rearing) – but quickly picks up once Luci’s psychosexual manipulations of the couple come into play. With Phil’s sexual needs being frustratingly unfulfilled since the pregnancy, his ability to fend off Luci’s increasingly provocative advances is seriously impaired.

Midway through the tale, Luci’s intentions begin to take on a sinister, possibly occult bent suggesting witchcraft. However this is never stated overtly. Refreshingly, at this point, she is depicted more as a force of nature with no specific explanation as to her origin or even motivation for her actions. All we know is she is obsessive at best or worse – just inherently evil. As the narrative hurtles towards its grotesquely violent climax, Luci’s persona becomes virtually demonic in nature with her relentless drive in the pursuit of her goals verging on the supernatural. It is here Greenburg finally gives us a sizeable info dump offering up an explanation. It appears Luci is the re-incarnated spirit of a young child raped and murdered in the 1800s. She has incarnated at least twice; moving from family to family – taking over their lives to create the perfect home life she has always craved. The book’s finale (evocatively taking place in a snow-bound cabin in upstate New York) – becomes full-blown horror when Luci is set alight and goes screaming off into the woods, only to return later as a charred corpse, burnt beyond recognition – as she faces off in a vicious final showdown with Phil.

Prior to signing on to helm the film which would eventually become The Guardian, Friedkin had only read a pre-existing draft of the script by Welsh screenwriter Stephen Volk (which by all accounts was a far more faithful adaptation of the source material). The celebrated director signed on to the project as a personal favour for his old friend Joe Wizan – a former agent with the William Morris agency who initiated Friedkin’s break into the film business, who by this time was himself forging a promising career as a producer (having already had a hand in developing such films as Audrey Rose and Iron Eagle). Friedkin was reportedly uninspired by this initial draft (calling the story lame) and would collaborate with Volk on a further rewrite – before embarking on a final draft on his own.

The resulting film bears little resemblance to the novel.

Aside from the title change (Friedkin felt The Nanny might give the wrongful impression the film was a British costume drama) – the most immediate difference between novel and film is the change in locale from New York City to Los Angeles. Sadly this change means we lose the dread-filled Gothic feel of the novel’s final act in favour of, well, no atmosphere at all (the irony being that Friedkin’s intention with The Guardian had been to make a modern day Grimm’s fairy tale – which the novel’s snow-bound climax is clearly meant to be a reference to in the first place).

Right from the outset any potential mystery and intrigue is immediately hamstrung by the unnecessary inclusion of a title card which tells us in no uncertain terms the nanny’s motivation for what we are about to see unfold (she is part of a druidic cult of spirit beings who sacrifice children to blood-drinking pagan tree gods). Since we as an audience are immediately privy to what is going on, it then becomes a matter of waiting for the characters to play catch-up – making the entire viewing experience decidedly disengaging and dull (just imagine how ineffectual and disengaging Hitchcock’s Psycho would have been if the psychiatrist’s explanation of Norman Bates’ behaviour had been placed up front before the story even begins).

While Friedkin’s The Exorcist is widely touted as one of the most terrifying films ever made, Friedkin himself has been loath to label it a horror film. With no interest in – or even affinity for, the horror genre – it makes sense Friedkin wasn’t the original choice to helm The Nanny adaptation (that being Sam Raimi of Evil Dead fame). It is clear Friedkin was approached largely for the instant marquee value he would provide as the director of The Exorcist.

This isn’t to say The Guardian doesn’t appear to be trying to be a horror film – featuring as it does numerous (if barely glimpsed) gore effects and attempted jump scares. It’s just that what makes the novel such a compelling read is the mounting sense of dread Greenburg is able to instil in the reader – with the gradual onion skin reveal of Luci’s true nature.

Tonally and thematically Friedkin’s take on the material is all over the place. Whereas Greenburg’s book has a tightly-knit structure and cohesive through-line, Friedkin’s clearly overbaked screenplay has so much crazy nonsense going on it’s virtually impossible to follow (or even care about) anything that happens. Superfluous characters seem introduced for no good reason other than to offer cheap thrills and provide a body count – the prime example being an unsavoury gang of would-be rapists who menace the Nanny (here renamed Camilla) – only to be dispatched in       a ludicrously grisly manner by the blood-drinking tree. Likewise the admittedly well-directed sequence where a potential paramour is attacked by a pack of home-invading coyotes has virtually no bearing on the central plot and appears to be included only as a desperate attempt to ignite interest in the second half.

While Friedkin has demonstrated with films like Sorcerer and The French Connection he is indeed a masterful (even visionary) director, with the debacle that is The Guardian he has also revealed he can only ever be as good as the material he is given. It’s just a shame in this instance – he was either unwilling or unable to recognize the strengths of Dan Greenburg’s novel and build upon what is, in all honesty, a respectably solid base. Perhaps enough time has passed for a new version of The Nanny to be mounted (with a current visionary at the helm) – one which adheres more closely to the source material.

1.5 stars out of 5

Star ratings: 1 – poor / 2 – below average / 3 – good / 4 – excellent / 5 – unmissable

Greg Moss is a film school graduate with a background in directing music videos     and is currently seeking representation as a screenwriter. He likes creative people, feeding the cat and watching genre movies. Greg can also be heard on the Blu-ray commentary track for the 1980 sci-fi thriller Saturn 3, out now from Scream Factory.

From → film reviews

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