The Film (2/5)
A pair of young parents head out for a date night, leaving their two young children with the babysitter. Once they’re gone, a forgotten pair of glasses leads them back to the house where they discover that the babysitter’s vanished – along with their infant daughter. While the parents are freaking out, we cut to a forest, where the babysitter (who’s actually an ancient druid that worships an evil old tree) sacrifices the infant, who – thanks to a clumsy editing trick - ends up entangled in the tree’s roots (think Freddy Krueger’s ‘Chest of Souls’).
And that’s the prologue – and the basic set up - for William Friedkin’s hugely anticipated foray back into genre filmmaking after The Exorcist took 1973’s audiences by storm. So hugely anticipated, in fact, that the entire cast and crew signed up on name recognition alone, even though the script was far (far) from complete. Question is, did the final product live up to all the anticipation?
The short answer: No. But more on that in a bit.
Once we get past the title sequence and into the film proper, we’re introduced to Phil and Kate (Brown and Lowell, respectively); a couple of young, successful professionals who move to LA, find themselves in a big fancy house, and waste no time at all getting down to the baby-makin’. And, of course, once the little bundle of joy arrives, they name him Jack and set out to find him a Nanny so they can keep working. Enter Camilla (Seagrove) who – spoiler alert but not really – is the same Nanny from the prologue, and she has her sights set on sacrificing tiny little Jack to her evil, ancient tree-god.
And then the rest of the movie is dedicated to trying really hard to make the audience give a damn, because we’re essentially just getting the long-form version of the prologue. And because there’s no mystery about Camilla, who she is, or what she wants (at least from the audience’s perspective), it becomes really tedious waiting for Phil and/or Kate to catch up to what we knew from the very beginning. It comes to life on occasion when Friedkin lets the horror elements sing but those moments are very few and very far between.
But even so, the cast was fine, the makeup and effects work was really good, and considering what we saw happen to the baby in the prologue, the stakes were decently high (at least in theory). So what went wrong?
Again with the short answer: The script.
Adapted from Dan Greenburg’s novel The Nanny, Stephen Volk’s script was originally meant for Sam Raimi, but when he dropped out to pursue Darkman, Friedkin was brought on board. And while they’re both excellent directors, they have very different sensibilities, so there was no way a Sam Raimi script was gonna work for William Friedkin, and Volk started re-writing. Except that Friedkin was never happy with what Volk was turning in, and everything kept changing. At one point it was about Jewish mythology’s child-stealing demon Lilith, but Friedkin vetoed. At another point it was a straightforward psychological thriller about a nanny who stole babies, but the studio vetoed that, intent on cashing in on the marketing frenzy of Friedkin’s big return to horror. So Friedkin and Volk kept writing, and re-writing, and making changes, and re-writing again. Eventually, Volk pitched an adaptation of M.R. James’ The Ash Tree, and Friedkin finally found a concept he liked. But by this point, Volk was exhausted and on the edge and actually ended up going into treatment, leaving Friedkin to finish things up, even after filming had already begun.
But Friedkin’s reputation and stock was still strong, and everybody involved maintained hope and enthusiasm. At least up until the premiere, when everyone finally watched it and were left with a collective “…oh.”
So no – it’s not good.
Everything looks and sounds good; the 1.85:1 1080p transfer is crisp and the 5.1 DTS-HD track is robust. It’s nothing that’s gonna end up on your demo rotation when you wanna flex your system’s muscles, but there’s nothing to complain about either.
Because this is a movie he goes out of his way to not talk about, the big draw here is an interview with Friedkin himself. Except that it’s not a draw – it’s essentially fluff. He talks a bit about why the story initially interested him, but that’s basically it. He says more stuff, but it’s nothing substantial, and you’re left wondering if the interviewers just softballed the entire interview or if it was just badly edited.
Jeremy’s vote: a little from Column A, a little from Column B.
BUT – that’s not the only feature on the disc. Among the handful of interviews are some good stuff with cast members Dwier Brown, Gary Swanson, Jenny Seagrove, and Natalia Nogulich and a fun little chat with effects artist Matthew Mungle. But the real draw here, and the most interesting feature of the bunch, is a very in-depth interview with Stephen Volk, who talks at length about the contentious and rocky scripting process.
And what struck me about all the interviews is that nobody had any illusions about what the finished product ended up being. Everyone was refreshingly candid about the movie they made, and how it wasn’t exactly everything they had hoped it would have been. In fact the only person who seemed to be operating in strict PR mode was Friedkin himself, which is definitely a bit disappointing.
There were some issues with the production value of the interviews, as some were either badly lit or badly edited (or both), but nothing that made them necessarily hard or tedious to watch.
This isn’t a good movie; it’s long and clumsy and badly written. And while I was watching everything unfold I kept wondering what it was that prompted Scream Factory to add it to their library. But it occurs to me that the value in this particular title isn’t just the quality of the film itself, but the place it holds in Friedkin’s legacy as a filmmaker. This was poised to be a huge cultural thing, standing toe to toe with ‘The Scariest Film Ever Made.’ And as such, it’s an interesting addition to any collector’s library, standing as an example (and a conversation starter) about missed potential and unfair expectations. Is that worth $30? That’s ultimately up to you, but I respect Scream Factory for recognizing its value as an interesting little footnote in cinema history.