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DVD SAVANT

The Gardener
(Seeds of Evil)


The Gardener
Subversive Cinema
1975 / Color / 1:78 anamorphic 16:9 / 87 min. / Seeds of Evil / Street Date February 28, 2006 / 24.95
Starring Katharine Houghton, Joe Dallesandro, Rita Gam, James Congdon
Cinematography Michael Zingale
Production Designer Don Gilman
Film Editor Cal Schultz
Original Music Marc Fredericks
Produced by Chalmer Kirkbride Jr., Tony Belletier
Written and Directed by James H.Kay

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

 Revised with APOLOGY, here.


The Gardener is yet another ill-fated attempt to try something different in a horror movie. The tasteful and well-appointed production plays as if its makers had faithfully followed every suggestion in an 'advice to pros' filmmaking book. But its script is awkwardly conceived and the casting is bizarre. Although she starred in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Katharine Houghton wasn't exactly a box-office name, and whoever thought of using Joe Dallesandro of Andy Warhol fame can't have wanted him for his acting ability!

Synopsis:

An upscale Costa Rica resident dies in her hospital room, apparently from a reaction to a potted plant. Ellen Bennett (Katharine Houghton) attends the funeral and snags the services of the dead woman's gardener, Carl (Joe Dallesandro), a sullen but dedicated horticultural genius that never wears a shirt. Ellen's equally idle housewife friend Helena Boardman (Rita Gam) marvels at Ellen's new garden, which blooms into an exotic wonderland, while admiring Carl's body. The servants suspect something's up -- many of Carl's plants are unknown on the island or are out of season, but Ellen ignores their superstitious warnings. Yet Carl's strange attitude prompts her to investigate his employment history ... and she discovers that several of his previous clients either died or went insane.

"It knows what frightens you!" an old horror film tagline might say. The Gardener doesn't really understand what scares people or how a horror film might function. This is a restrained kind of thriiller where almost nothing happens, but not in the good "Val Lewton" sense. The atmosphere and mood try for a weirdness that a movie screen can't communicate: No matter how you present them, beautiful flowers don't look menacing. Combine that with Joe Dallesandro's non-performance -- he's monotoned, mono-expressioned and downright sleep inducing -- and The Gardener never develops any forward momentum. James Congdon (The 4D Man) is fine as Ellen's mostly absent husband. He never gets too excited, even when he sees Carl traipsing through his garden like a drugged fox in a henhouse. Co-producer Tony Belletier worked on movies like The Group and A Thousand Clowns; maybe he helped with the casting.

Katharine Houghton is a smooth actress who resembles a more conventionally pretty version of her aunt, the famous Katharine Hepburn. She and Rita Gam's nosy neighbor spend most of the movie sitting on the veranda drinking exotic mixes and talking about tennis or shopping. Meanwhile we wait patiently for the picture to kick into gear.

But nothing particularly memorable happens. People grow ill or become upset over Carl's real or imagined menace but no tension develops. Ellen and Helena discover disturbing things about Carl's previous employers (one woman has become a lunatic terrified of all plant life) but never become particularly agitated. The only real tension comes when Carl tries to seduce Ellen, but the movie is too reserved to allow anything to happen between them.

Just when we think that Carl is going to turn into a psychopath or a portal to Green Gardening Hell is going to open up in Ellen's back yard, the film stumbles through an unclear series of wrap-up scenes. Carl's real identity may be a sort of supernatural nature spirit, or perhaps a demonic incubus.

It's fairly obvious that writer/director James Kay hoped to create a horror masterpiece from his admittedly original ideas. His script lacks momentum and the horror content lacks bite. Being indirect with terror scenes is not the same as avoiding them altogether. It also seems as if Kay had ideas about stronger content but was pulled back by the father and son Kirkbridge producing team, probably in the name of good taste.

The main cover illustration shows Dallesandro transformed into a weird plant man, a genuine monster. We can see bits of this makeup in the finale but most of it is obscured by unmotivated dissolves and fancy double exposures. (Spoiler) The movie's one bit of blood occurs when Ellen finds Helena entwined in a vine, with green tendrils growing into her arms. Helena has succumbed to Carl's amorous advances and is now apparently being consumed by demonic vegetation. Ellen's frenzied response is to hack away at both the vine and Helena with a hand sickle, chopping both to bits. Now that's going to be hard for Ellen to explain to the cops!

The movie doesn't manage any scares but the producers do mount an elaborate and handsomely shot costume party. I think that director Kay, an art instructor, had aesthetic ambitions that didn't quite jibe with the words 'horror movie.'


Subversive Cinema's DVD of The Gardener uses that original 1973 title instead of Seeds of Evil, the name under which it played a few theaters in 1975. It disappeared soon thereafter and eventually became an eccentric filler feature on television. The enhanced widescreen transfer is bright and sharp but flattens out colors, leaving all skin tones the same fleshy orange and overstating the hues in the soft-focus garden scenes. Marc Fredericks' polished music score sounds fine in the remixed stereo track. An original mono is included as well.

The disc has two commentaries, one by Joe Dallesandro and the other by James Kay, who never directed another picture. My curiosity for Dallesandro's remarks waned quickly -- he makes Andy Warhol's Factory sound like a very dull place -- but Kay is an interesting enough listen.

An interview segment revisits the film 35 years later with Dallesandro and leading lady Katharine Houghton. Film researcher Marc Edward Heuck located both to record their memories of the Puerto Rican film shoot. The most unusual extra is a 1980 video put together by producer Chalmer Kirkbridge Jr. for a college film course. It's a humorous post-mortem on the movie he made seven years earlier and is structured much like a modern DVD interview docu. Chalmer chalks up the failure of his show to business inexperience. He and his father entrusted the distribution to an outfit called KKI films, which apparently sub-licensed The Gardener to a bunch of regional outfits, never returned Kirkbridge's phone calls, and pocketed the profits, if any.

Chalmer interviews his father and director Kay 60-Minutes style, cutting their responses into an amusing pattern. Dad does his best to rationalize the loss of eight hundred thousand dollars while we form a mental image of a dozen New Yorkers using the film to take a pleasant paid vacation in Puerto Rico. The son laments the eight seconds of scythe slashing that gave the otherwise tame movie an "R" rating. A very mellow Kay tells the camera quite seriously that he's figured out what he did wrong on The Gardener. He's formed some good theories about how to fix the film, and is ready to go back and direct new scenes to make it work!

Also included are trailers, talent bios, and a still gallery. Subversive Cinema's overall presentation is very good. 1


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Gardener rates:
Movie: Fair ++ and perhaps better than that for sheer oddity
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Two Commentaries, Producer's school project 1980 docu on the filming, talent bios, stills, trailers, new featurette with cast and crew 
1
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed: March 29, 2006

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

Footnotes:

1. Note, 4/16/06: Savant's made a big mistake here, and a really unpleasant one. The Gardener has an entire major extra that I somehow skipped over when I first reviewed the disc last month. I got this email today from a respected film writer and authority who worked on the special edition:

"Hi, Glenn, thank you for taking the time to review The Gardener. I know you get many many discs to review, so it means a lot that you considered this worth writing about, even though you ultimately did not care for it.

I worked on some of the special features for the DVD, and I was a little disappointed that you did not mention the new interview segment with the principals. I went to a lot of trouble to track down Katharine Houghton and get her to talk about her experience on the film, and I also spent some time trying to come up with interesting, non-played-out questions to ask Joe Dallesandro for his on-camera segments. (I was not involved with interviewing James Kay on camera, nor either of the commentary tapings which you did refer to). If it would be possible to revise your review to offer a quick mention of this feature of the disc, include it in the list of extras, and say what you thought of it, I would appreciate your comments. (I wrote the cast/crew bios also, but again, you did already address those, so thanks for that.)"

Well, unfortunately I can't refer back to the disc, as I just returned my copy to its owner. Since I work on DVD extras myself and know how miserable it is to have one's work criticized unfairly, I feel terrible that the people who did these extras won't be credited. And it's altogether possible that after I heard Katharine Houghton, I'd have an altered opinion of the movie, or perhaps be moved to be kinder to it -- it did after all try something daring and different, and there are plenty of movies that don't even try to be good. I went through the extra menus fairly slowly, so I feel like an even bigger dolt - especially when the letter-writer is being so kind.

So I offer my apologies ... and will copy this announcement to the Savant front column to make sure my readers know that The Gardener has an important extra that I skipped. Glenn Erickson

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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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