Remembering William Friedkin: Looking Back at His Three Movies in the ’90s

I still find it hard to believe that William Friedkin has passed away. He died on Monday (August 7, 2023) at 87. The late legendary director first came to prominence when he directed the then-groundbreaking gritty cop drama, The French Connection in 1971 to his Oscar glory. He hits the jackpot again two years later in The Exorcist –– still the best possession-horror movie ever made even today.

Unfortunately, he peaked early with those two movies in the early ’70s, especially in terms of box-office success. His subsequent directorial efforts were mostly a hit-and-miss affair. Some of his flops such as Sorcerer (1977) and The Hunted (2003) were both underrated genre movies worthy of second chances.

Friedkin’s movies from the late ’70s to the ’80s era were hardly box-office hits. He did, however, made a brief comeback in To Live and Die in L.A. in 1985. But that was more of a one-off. As he entered the 1990s era, he directed three features. They came from different genres: supernatural horror (1990’s The Guardian), basketball drama (1994’s Blue Chips) and erotic thriller (1995’s Jade).

Jenny Seagrove in "The Guardian" (1990)

First up is The Guardian, which was heavily marketed at the time of its release as William Friedkin’s return to the horror genre since The Exorcist. It tanked at the box office, making only a paltry US$17 million — a far cry from the gargantuan hit seen in the 1973 horror classic.

So, is The Guardian as bad as the critics and audiences derided it in the first place? I remember seeing it on VHS and recently revisited the movie again. I enjoyed watching The Guardian both times. Sure, the central premise about a demonic tree feeding on innocent babies sounds far-fetched. I admit it was bizarre too while Friedkin, who also co-adapted the screenplay alongside Dan Greenburg and Stephen Volk from Greenburg’s The Nanny novel, skimped on the storytelling side to a bare minimum.

The entire movie is basically a skeletal story about the Sterlings, a young couple (Dwier Brown’s Phil and Carey Lowell’s Kate) who misplaced their trust in the seemingly kind and caring nanny, Camilia (Jenny Seagrove) for taking good care of their infant daughter. The so-called nanny turns out to be a druid who worshipped the demonic tree by sacrificing the innocent toddlers.

But beyond the skimpy plot, The Guardian is a briskly-paced 92-minute horror movie. Friedkin embraces the absurdity of its premise by giving it a mean-spirited screen treatment with consistent dread. It was relentlessly thrilling to watch from the first 7 minutes alone as Friedkin successfully established the ominous tone: A nanny ends up abducting the baby when the couple (Natalia Nogulich’s Molly and Gary Swanson’s Allan) heading out at night.

Friedkin’s dynamic camerawork is put to good use here, capturing the anxieties and the nightmare faced by the characters as the movie progresses further. At one point, we see three thugs harassing Camilia and the baby in the woods and what happens next is an unapologetically violent and macabre moment. Let’s just say the thugs meet their ill-fated dooms after encountering the tree. At the hands of a lesser director, watching a tree killing people might result in a silly-looking moment (I’m sure there are people who found it unintentionally hilarious at the time of its release).

But for some strange reason, Friedkin manages to make it work. There’s a sense of palpable tension from the way he executed the brutality and graphic violence. And he sure knows how to stage a gradual tension and suspense in one of the movie’s elaborate set-piece revolving around Sterlings’ neighbour played by Brad Hall.

The Guardian is also backed by better-than-average acting performances, notably Jenny Seagrove’s sneaky turn as the nanny/druid Camilia. Technical credits are top-notch from Jack Hues’ riveting score to John A. Alonzo’s atmospheric cinematography.

Interestingly, The Guardian was originally meant for Sam Raimi to direct. But he chose to drop out in favour of directing the 1990 superhero classic, Darkman, which also released the same year as Friedkin’s movie. This made me wonder if Raimi sticks to directing The Guardian, I’m sure the result would be more of a macabre comedy similar to his Evil Dead movies.

Nick Nolte and then-newcomer Shaq in "Blue Chips" (1994)

Four years after suffering from The Guardian fiasco, Friedkin tried his hands at tackling a sports genre. A basketball drama, to be exact titled Blue Chips. The movie seems like a hit-in-the-making with Ron Shelton of 1988’s Bull Durham and 1992’s White Men Can’t Jump fame, served as the screenwriter. It even featured the then-rising basketball star Shaq a.k.a. Shaquille O’Neal from Orlando Magic making his acting debut. And yet, Blue Chips failed to recoup its US$35 million budget with a less-than-stellar US$26 million in total gross.

Like The Guardian, Blue Chips deserved better than the box-office failure indicated back in the day in 1994. An underrated movie that certainly earned its place as one of the best basketball dramas ever made. Shelton’s story revolves around Western University Dolphins coach Pete Bell (Nick Nolte), who ends up resorting to breaking the rules by coaxing three promising players (Shaq’s Neon Bourdeaux, Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway’s Butch McRae and Matt Nover’s Ricky Roe) into joining his team. The scandal-themed plot is a familiar tale of corruption, complete with obligatory moments of Nolte’s character subsequently wrestling with his guilt for his unethical move in the first place.

I admit the corruption part is less interesting compared to what’s happening on the basketball court and the locker-room tension. The latter is evident with the attention-grabbing opening sequence as we see Pete is pissed off after his team suffers a loss in the game. He shouts, walks out, slams the door, comes back in, throws stuff — it was one of Nolte’s finest acting moments. I love the way he expresses his utmost anger, frustration and disappointment at his losing basketball team.

The on-court basketball scenes are top-notch with Friedkin insisting to shoot them for real. Not the cinematic illusion of fake-it-till-you-make-it moments. And by doing so, he enlisted real-life basketball players (Shaq aside, others like Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway and Matt Nover are athletes too) to play the roles of the college basketball team. Friedkin’s lively, tension-filled camerawork successfully captures the sweat-inducing thrills and intensity of the game. Whether it was the dribbling action or Shaq dunking the ball into the net like a rocket thrusting down the ground, the basketball scenes are no doubt a captivating cinematic experience.

Nick Nolte’s excellent lead performance aside, the movie also features a perfectly slimy turn from the late J.T. Walsh as “Happy” Kuykendahl, a “friend of the programme” in charge of helping Pete to get his players under the table. Shaq’s feature debut, however, looks good whenever he’s in action performing slam dunks but his “acting” is rather wooden.

(L-R) Chazz Palminteri, David Caruso and Linda Fiorentino in "Jade" (1995)

Friedkin’s third and final film in the ’90s era saw the then-60-year-old director jumping on the erotic-thriller bandwagon populated by the success of Paul Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct. Joe Eszterhas, who wrote that 1992 movie also in charge of the screenplay for Jade. Both movies even shared some of the same story beats: a man is brutally murdered in the opening scene, a sexy woman who likes to be in control, and a debatable open ending. Is Jade as good as Basic Instinct? “No” would be a straight answer.

But judging by its own merits, Friedkin’s first foray into the erotic-thriller territory does have its moments. He knows well how to grab one’s attention right from the get-go: the opening scene sees the director does several tracking shots around the interiors of a manor, with James Horner’s score going from a slow dread to an escalating tension. The camera gradually made its way up to the staircase, focusing on the ancient mask display before it pans to the hallway and into one of the bedrooms. We hear muffled noises of arguments that grows increasingly audible. Friedkin keeps building the tension from there as Horner’s score soars higher. It makes me feel like I’m watching a scene straight out of an Alfred Hitchcock or even Brian De Palma suspense thriller.

Jade also featured one of Friedkin’s signature scenes: the car chase. A thrillingly staged set piece that proved The French Connection and To Live and Die in L.A. director still has what it takes to film a great car chase like no other. Like the two aforementioned movies that made good use of the respective Brooklyn and California, the car chase in Jade takes place in the city of San Francisco. He never lost his touch in capturing the tactile thrills of the chase — screeching tyres, the drivers zig-zagging their cars left and right — and of course, a sense of edge-of-your-seat urgency. The only exception here is the questionable moment of why Friedkin chose to have the getaway car turn to the crowded street, where a Chinese parade is held, forcing the unseen driver to slow down along the way.

Friedkin’s devotion to realism in his movies extended to his way of shooting most of the sex scenes raw and graphic. He also does a good job integrating a lurid mix of sex, murder mystery and scandal. But only to a certain extent. Eszterhas’s story follows the brutal murder of a well-known businessman (Ron Ulstad), prompting the assistant district attorney David Corelli (David Caruso) to run the investigation. Several pieces of evidence are gathered and one of them apparently has to do with Trina Gavin (Linda Fiorentino), a clinical psychologist who also happens to be Corelli’s ex-lover. We also learn that Trina has married Corelli’s best friend, Matt Gavin (Chazz Palminteri).

Things get complicated when the case involves the governor played by Richard Crenna. As the movie moves along with the inevitable plot thickens, Friedkin can’t seem to find a concrete way to wrap up the story. The movie reportedly had Friedkin did a major change to Eszterhas’s original script. The latter hated it.

The acting, however, is good all around. Former NYPD Blue star and future CSI: Miami regular David Caruso delivers an engaging lead performance as the persistent David Corelli. Not sure why he ended up getting nominated a Razzie for Worst New Star is beyond me (Caruso even hits a double whammy with another one being Kiss of Death). Linda Fiorentino, who made such a breakthrough performance in The Last Seduction, continues to show why she’s a true femme fatale at the time. Some of the supporting roles, namely Chazz Palminteri and Richard Crenna are worth mentioning here.