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John Bennett (James Congdon of The Rockford Files!) and his pretty wife Ellen (Katharine Houghton of Guess Who's Coming To Dinner) are a well to do couple who like to enjoy life on the tropical island where the live. They own a massive house, party with their socialite friends, and employ a few of the locals as hired help around the house. When one of their friends impresses Ellen with her fantastic garden, Ellen jumps at the chance to hire her hunky gardener, Carl (Warhol favorite Joe Dallesandro of Heat and Trash), and her husband, who is so wrapped up in his business affairs that he isn't really paying attention when he should be, doesn't seem to mind footing the bill.
When Carl arrives at the Bennett home he starts things off rather strangely, insisting that he work alone and refusing to affiliate with any of the other help around the house. His results speak for themselves, however, as despite his strange ways, Ellen's garden is soon in full bloom and the house full of all manner of beautiful and exotic flowers. So impressive is the garden that even a member of the local horticultural society admits that she is suitably impressed by Carl's work. Ellen's maid insists that there's something sinister about Carl, suggesting that he might be using black magic in his work but Ellen laughs it off as local superstition.
Things get a little more tense when Ellen starts to have feelings for Carl, who seems happy enough to let her act on them when the time is right. Fighting her instincts proves to be difficult and once she starts to resist the gardener's charms, her world all of a sudden gets a lot stranger and it all seems to be stemming, no pun intended, from the gardener and his flowers.
The Gardener, better known under its home video release title Seeds Of Evil, is an odd film. While the cover art makes it looks like a monster movie, it really works better as a sort of creeping dramatic thriller with some odd supernatural over tones. Don't go into this one expecting stalk and kill slasher movie set pieces or monster run amuck mayhem, as there's really only a couple of set pieces in the film and the ones that are there are not going to impress the gore-hound crowd. There's very little bloodshed, next to no nudity save for Dallesandro's backside which pops up a few times, and the movie relies more on a very strange atmosphere to function more so than any more traditional exploitative elements that we might expect from a seventies horror film.
The three leads of Dallesandro, Haughton and Congdon make for an interesting cast. Dallesandro has never been strong at delivering dialogue and the filmmaker's wisely give him little to say in this movie instead letting his body language do all the work and in that regard he does fine. When he creeps up behind a character or pops out from behind some flowers, it's obvious why Ellen starts to obsess over him but he's still able to give off some menace that serves as some effective foreshadowing of what is to come later on in the picture. Congdon, conflicted as the concerned husband who really only becomes concerned when he thinks his wife might be having an affair, is cocky and confident and while he'll always be known as Jim Rockford to most of us, he does fine with the material here, playing off Houghton's distressed performance well. No one is going to 'wow' you here, but each of the main cast members turn in what could definitely be called solid performances.
The real reason to check out the movie, however, is the atmosphere. To be blunt, not a whole lot happens in The Gardener until the last twenty minutes or so and even then the ending and the big finale is more odd than it is frightening but the movie does have a lot of atmosphere which somehow manages to make the movie interesting even when it technically shouldn't be from a storytelling standpoint. There's enough shadowy spots and weird flowers throughout the movie that it does manage to prove to be just unsettling enough to hold your attention, even if it is far from horrifying. In the end, what you have is a movie that should really be boring but somehow works in spite of itself, thanks more to some solid cinematography and a strange performance from Dallesandro than anything else.The DVD
Subversive has done a fine job on this 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer culled from the film's original negative. In most of the scenes colors jump off of the screen at you (though there are a few that look a bit on the flat side, possibly due to the lighting), the lighting hues used in various scenes look rich and atmospheric especially in some of the creepier moments that take place in the garden, and the black levels stay strong throughout. In terms of print damage there is the odd speck or scratch here and there but by and large, aside from the normal amount of expected film grain, the picture is very, very clean looking. As far as digital issues go, there aren't many mpeg compression artifacts to note (you might see some really mild ones in a couple of the darker spots) but there is some mild line shimmering in a couple of spots. Thankfully it doesn't prove to be too disturbing or disruptive at all. Overall, this is a very detailed, very clean and surprisingly excellent transfer for a low budget film.Sound:
You've got the option of watching The Gardener with either the film's original English language Dolby Digital Mono sound mix or in a newly created Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix. You can't really go wrong with either mix, and the differences between the two tracks aren't really all that noticeable anyway, but the 2.0 mix does spread things out a little bit between channels adding some nice directional effects in a couple of spots that would otherwise come at you out of the center channel, and it also seems to be a little bit louder. Dialogue is clean, clear and easy to understand and the film's score sound just fine, even if the limitations of the original source material are audible in a few spots.Extras:
This is where the disc really shines! First up are two commentary tracks, the first with star Joe Dallesandro and the second with director James H. Key. The Dallesandro commentary is excellent, he's got plenty to say about the film, how he came on board and got involved with it after leaving Warhol's 'Factory' and how he got along with some of the co-stars on set. He discusses his technique, how he doesn't see himself as that great an actor and how he only took the roll because Key told him he figured that he could handle the part seeing as there was so little dialogue for his character to have to worry about. He also talks about the influence that some of the films he made before this have had on modern cinema, such as Trash, and how he somehow always manages to end up getting hit anytime an explosion has to go off on set for effects purposes. He details his part in the film's finale, where he had to deal with some of the special effects work which he refers to as 'painful.' It's a pretty down to earth and unpretentious commentary track that does a nice job of detailing his involvement in this film and giving us a nice run down of his work in some of his earlier projects as well.
Unfortunately, the director's commentary isn't as strong. It's not that it's bad, it's that Key spends a lot of time explaining to us what is happening on screen when it's already pretty obvious to us what is happening on screen. The other problem is that there is a fair amount of dead air in the track and particularly towards the end of the film there are some long stretches where he finds himself with nothing to say. That being said, Key does manage to get a few interesting stories into the track here and there, detailing some of the locations and effects work as well as supplying some amusing anecdotes about some of the cast members he had to work with – whether or not you'll want to sit through the whole track to uncover those stories will completely depend on how much you enjoyed the film.
After that we're treated to an almost forty-minute long documentary on the making of the film that contains some solid interviews with Kay, Dallesandro and actress Katharine Houghton. This is a very interesting and well paced piece that contains some clips from the film, some nice behind the scenes photographs and plenty of interview footage which combines to make for a comprehensive look at how The Gardener came together. Dallesandro talks about how the ladies in the cast spent a lot of time worrying about their skin and Houghton discusses how she doesn't feel that the film ruined her career as everything she was offered after Guess Who's Coming To Dinner was more or less a rehash of that movie anyway. Key looks back on the movie quite fondly despite the fact that it didn't really achieve a lot of success and sums his thoughts up nicely when he says he doesn't think that it hurt anyone.
Subversive have also supplied an interesting second featurette entitled How To Make An Independent Feature which is a half hour short video made by the producer of The Gardener, Chalmer Kirkbridge Jr.. Shot completely on video in the late seventies or early eighties, this featurette contains some interesting interview footage with Kirkbridge Jr. and his father who executive produced the film as well, and also manages to work in clips from a more successful independent horror film, Phantasm. Kirkbridge explains how he got the money together for The Gardener as well as why he doesn't think that it did so well. He also manages to get some interviews with a few of the other people involved in the production here as well. It's a dated production in terms of how its put together and how it looks but it is quite interesting to watch and get his take on the film.
Rounding out the extra features are a nice still gallery of behind the scenes photographs and promotional artwork, a trailer for the feature, trailers for other Subversive DVD releases, and a DVD credits screen.Final Thoughts:
Say what you will about the merits of this unusual film, Subversive have really gone out of their way to give it the deluxe treatment for its DVD debut. While The Gardener isn't going to be for all tastes it is an interesting and unique, if not entirely successful, cinematic oddity that stands apart from the crowd. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.