Apr 29, 2014
Before there was William Friedkin’s The Guardian (1990), there was the rather obscure artsploitation horror-melodrama hybrid The Gardener (1974) aka Garden of Death aka Seeds of Evil directed by advertising director turned one-time auteur James H. Kay and starring counter-culture sex symbol Joe Dallesandro (Flesh, Blood for Dracula) in his first non-Warhol-related work. A somewhat campy (if not oftentimes unintentionally so) work that seems like it could have been directed by Curtis Harrington’s even more effeminate yet less talented little brother, The Gardener was such an abject commercial and critical failure upon its original release that director Kay would never again get the opportunity to direct another film (though he apparently got Tennessee Williams' blessing to adopt the playwright's one-act play The Gnädiges Fräulein (1966), but the film was never actually made for whatever reason). In fact, Kay’s nightmarish experience as a first-time director was chronicled in the documentary short The Distribution of Low Budget Films or The Gardener's Seeds of Evil Killed My Million Dollar Dream (1980), which was produced by the associate producer of The Gardener, Chalmer G. Kirkbride Jr., as his Master's Thesis in Public Relations at The American University in Washington, D.C. in 1980. The film also arguably destroyed the early career of Katharine Hepburn's niece Katharine Houghton, who previously received much critical acclaim starring alongside her aunt in Stanley Kramer’s rancid piece of pseudo-comedic melodramatic miscegenation propaganda Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967), even if her character in that film was more or less nothing more than a cipher. A work in the tired tradition of the old school Hollywood Woman’s Films disguised as a mystical supernatural horror flick, The Gardener is a sort of pseudo-counter-culture/tropic mod art flick that tells the oftentimes tedious and equally tasteless yet would-be-tasteful tale of a sexually repressed bourgeois housewife who becomes completely obsessed with her seemingly magical gardener, only to become intolerably hysterical and killing him in the end instead of simply engaging in the carnal pleasures she so pathetically longed for. A sort of modernist reworking of the Ancient Greek myth of the underworld goddess Persephone with vague shades of Pasolini’s Teorema (1968), The Gardener is a work that seems like it probably looked good on paper, but was ultimately executed (or more like excreted) in the worst possible way, as if everything that could have gone wrong did and then some. Indeed, it is one of those films that will probably only appeal to Joe Dallesandro completists and faithful fans of failed celluloid art. Apparently made to appeal to the undersexed appetites of middle-aged middleclass women, The Gardener never quite found its target audience and later had the title changed to Seeds of Evil (which directed Kay described as being “over-the-top”) by the crook distributor so it might wet the lips of the sort of degenerates that hung at 42nd street in NYC during the early 1970s. Filmed in exotic Puerto Rico (though it was originally suppose to be set in the hellhole know as Haiti), The Gardener is like The Last Movie of obscure American horror films, albeit nowhere as interesting as it might sound. Featuring Latin ‘spiritual negroes’ and token voodoo references, hyper horny housewives who channel their sexual energy into homicidal hysteria, blacks and mestizos with aristocratic German names, Little Joe bossing around old brown men around like a boss, and such marvelously mundane melodrama that is so ridiculous that it degenerates into low-camp comedy, The Gardener is one of those films that is so blatantly bad and pretentiously yet prosaically directed that it baffles the viewer to the point where they wonder how it was ever made in the first place.
Beginning with a bedridden broad named Dorothy Burrows (Tanny McDonald) suffering from an intolerable bout of hysteria and then randomly dropping dead after a nurse brings her some tropical orchids, The Gardener immediately establishes a tone of innate ineptitude as far as horror and melodrama is concerned. Indeed, it takes a rather skilled director to make pretty flowers seem horrifying, yet would-be-auteur James H. Kay does not even seem competent enough to direct a credit card commercial, as a man who simply cannot decide whether he wants to be George Cukor, Federico Fellini, or Mario Bava, though his directing style more resembles that of Herschell Gordon Lewis à la Suburban Roulette (1968) on Valium. After non-babe Burrows drops dead in the hospital, her two catty/horny bourgeois housewife friends, Ellen Bennett (Katharine Houghton) and Helena Boardman (Rita Gam), meetup and chat like teenage girls about their dead friend’s handsome and mysterious gardener Carl (Joe Dallesandro). Ultimately, Ellen—a properly trained housewife if there ever was one who certainly looks but does not dare touch when it comes to muscle men that get her panties all wet—takes home the wild long-haired wonder mensch Carl, who looks like a gay prostitute as a fellow wears nothing but a pair of butt-tight brown corduroys (notably, Dallesandro was forced to wear a ton of brown tanning make-up over his skin to make him look more 'exotic' for the role, thus his trademark 'Little Joe' tattoo is covered up). While the wife a rich and domineering, if not hopelessly dumb, fellow named John (James Congdon), Ellen cannot help but keep her longing eyes on super cocky Carl and his cock. Indeed, while Ellen may be in physical paradise, she is in metaphysical hell as the emotionally neglected and childless wife of a bourgeois brute husband. Naturally, John becomes immediately jealous of Carl, even though it takes a number of days before he even actually meets his exotic employee face-to-face, but when he finally does, his irrational hatred only grows all the more. Of course, while Ellen does not ask her pseudo-hunk hubby for much, she refuses to get rid of her meta-pretty pet gardener. Luckily for Ellen, John's golf friend talks him out of firing Carl, absurdly stating, “You know John, we have a pretty good life here…sometimes I think it’s too good. Not enough big worries…so occasionally when the little ones come along they get out of proportion. Now you’ve got a gardener you personally dislike…so what, you don’t have to like your gardener…as long as he does a good job and your wife’s happy, forget it. What you need is some kids to absorb some of that excess energy.” Meanwhile, Carl begins taking control of the social structure of the house in a rather elusive and cryptic fashion, even attempting to fire an old servant named Ralph (Roberto Negron), who he later has poisoned via his pernicious plants. As Ellen's friend Helena states of Carl, “He gets straight to work, doesn’t he?,” and, indeed, soon he will be getting busy being the Don Juan of Puerto Rico, though all the boobeoise broads are too scared to touch him.
As The Gardener slowly progresses, flower king Carl begins to work his magic around the entire Bennett home, thus striking total fear into every single one of the brown servants, who are naturally closer to the natural world. When a superstitious negro servant named Liza, who is no novice to voodoo, attempts to warn Ellen that Carl is a wicked witch doctor of sorts, the horny housewife patronizingly replies, “Carl is not a witch doctor […] Carl has a very unusual talent that some people don’t understand, that’s all” as if the maid is some sort of retarded child that is afraid of an imaginary monster in the closet. When Ellen decides to go against Liza's warning and wears some magical glowing flowers given to her by Carl as part of her costume at a bacchanalian ‘Gods of Mythology’ party, she becomes seemingly possessed and even injures her husband John with the costume despite the fact he is wearing armor. One darkly romantic night not long after the party, Carl seduces Ellen and kisses her near the swimming pool (where she oftentimes voyeuristically watches him swim naked) and she instantly faints, thus demonstrating the mysterious Gardener's super sexual power over her. After her niece Jane randomly disappears and she witnesses a plant killing a poor kitty cat, Ellen becomes suspicious of Carl and his hermetic plant powers, complaining to Helena that, “something horrible involving Carl,” to which her friend replies, “I told you, its sex…Only you’re so damn stiff you won’t admit to yourself you feel it. That’s why you nerves are shot.” Not surprisingly, Ellen decides to get rid of Carl and Helena gladly takes him on as an employee/sex object. Meanwhile, Ellen and Helena do some research on Carl’s previous employers and discover that most of the women who he used to work for are either dead or crazy. Ostensibly concerned for her friends welfare (but also because she is jealous that she now owns Carl), Ellen goes to check up on Helena and finds her friend entangled in plants and seeming like she has just been gang banged by an entire army platoon. In a horrendous would-be-homage to Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), Ellen attempts to slice up the plants that have entangled her friend in organic bondage, but it kills Helena as her veins are connected to the viridiplantae. Of course, from there, Ellen, who is suffering from homicidal hysteria at this point (she seems more pissed off about the fact that Helena got down and dirty with Carl than the fact that Carl is an evil supernatural entity of sorts), goes to hunt down Carl and when she finds him, she shoots him, but he runs away and his clothes magically get lost somewhere on the way. Ultimately, Carl morphs into a tree and Ellen continues shooting him. Not satisfied he is dead, Ellen decides to cover the tree with gasoline and set it on fire. Indeed, it seems that Ellen’s sexual repression got the best of her and her irrational burning of Carl did little to extinguish her unquenchable sexual appetite.
You know a film is a mess when its own director states of it, “Actually, I think THE GARDENER is a brilliant concept that was never quite realized. I could remake that film and it would be a brilliant film,” as James H. Kay matter-of-factly stated in the documentary The Distribution of Low Budget Films or The Gardener's Seeds of Evil Killed My Million Dollar Dream. As revealed in the same doc, The Gardener cost $800,000 to make but would only recover $50,000, with the sleazebag distributor apparently taking the money and running, thus leaving producer Chalmer G. Kirkbride Jr. (and his elderly father, who paid for a good chunk of the film) broke. Indeed, I have to agree with Kay, as The Gardener had all the ingredients to be an offbeat cult horror masterpiece, thus making it all the more of a celluloid tragedy that the film falls short on so many levels (with Dallesandro's lack of height not being one of them). For those interested in The Gardener and its troubled history, you can learn everything you could ever want to know about the film by checking out the out-of-print dvd release put out by the now-defunct cult label Subversive Cinema, which, among other things, features the first and sole full-length commentary track ever given by Joe Dallesandro, who reveals he has a hard time remembering a lot of aspects of the film (though he confesses to gambling a lot while working on the production), but he does tell his life story. Indeed, Dallesandro decided to star in The Gardener on the recommendation of his mentor Paul Morrissey in the hope that it would enable him to break into the mainstream and get away from doing arthouse films with the Warhol crowd. Admittedly, while I found The Gardener to be nothing short of an agonizing experience the first time I saw the film, it has turned into a guilty pleasure of sorts for me, as a work that only gets better on subsequent viewings. Instead of ominously orgasmic orchids, the film ultimately features an unintentional satire of the dreaded Woman’s Film and the fact that the work features Little Joe as a human-tree hybrid does not hurt, even if his acting is a bit ‘wooden.’ If nothing else, The Gardener certainly offers an overall more enjoyable experience than similar works of the same celluloid species like The Kirlian Witness (1979) and Friedkin's The Guardian.
Posted by Soiled Sinema at 8:43 PM
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