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The Garden (2006)



There are worst-case scenarios in filmmaking that one never considers. Either they're too preposterous (somebody builds a gigantic King Kong robot and ends up using Rick Baker in a monkey suit for the majority of the film) or they require a monetary investment that would hopefully prevent hiring deeply untalented craftsmen (I refer not to actors, directors, or writers -- poor examples of these are possible at any budget level). Take The Garden, for instance. While not the richest production (it's produced by Stephen J. Cannell, who's attempting to make a name for himself in the medium-low budget horror world), it certainly has enough money to shoot on film and with a responsible amount of CGI. The script is a good idea saddled with poor execution, and Don Michael Paul's direction doesn't even have the benefit of a good idea. The most apparent flaw in the film, however, is that the sound effects editor is crazy.

Sam (Adam Taylor Gordon) has horrible nightmares about a creepy tree, horses (also creepy), and other sundry subjects of a vaguely apocalyptic nature (see above, re: creepy). He also cuts himself to ease the pain of his parents' divorce. He looks a bit too clean-cut and well adjusted to be so emo-goth, but hey, who am I to judge? David (Brian Wimmer) is just finishing up his summer of parental custody with the boy, when they get into a horrible car accident. An old rancher, Ben Zachary (Lance Henriksen), brings them back to his place, where he offers David a job. Of course, Ben's not a kindly old man, but we know that from the second we meet him.

The obviousness of Ben's evil nature is a result of the aforementioned crazy sound effects editing. We meet the character about 15 minutes into the film. He puts some some tea on the stove, lights a smoke, and goes to sit on the porch, tapping his cane on the ground. Even if we couldn't see any of this, we could hear all of it. The sounds from each action are so abrasive, even concussive, that the intended ominous foreshadowing becomes a large cast-iron skillet, bashed against our brains until we understand that this man is a Very Bad Man and he will do Naughty Things throughout the course of the film. During my viewing, I hoped that Ben was actually a really nice guy, and that the director and sound effects man were making a clumsy attempt at misdirection. Alas, it was not to be. The word "subtle" is completely forgotten in The Garden, which is a shame, because this is the sort of story that requires restraint, or it will devolve into self-important silliness.

You see, it becomes apparent that Ben is the devil, and it's his job to get an innocent to eat from the Tree of Life (that's right -- Eden sits in Middle America, which makes me wonder how far Adam and Eve had to walk before settling down with the kids between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers). If Ben succeeds in his task, he brings about the apocalypse. Ben and Sam have a traditional mind game for either David's soul or Sam's (it switches back and forth without any real logic), with the world as a bartering chip. Oh, and the four horsemen of the apocalypse show up, dressed as rejects from the Lord of the Rings' Nazgul tryouts.

The endless battering of theme "hints" and Biblical allegories (and it's not even accurate Bible) caused my emotional response to shut down before the film had progressed very far at all, and I was left only with "Mystery Science Theater 3000"-like banter to survive. Luckily, there's much to mock from every angle, such as the Burmese python that rattles like Burmese pythons never do, or the "vintage" Stan Lee-written Spider-man comic that is obviously a early 1990s budget reprint (okay, you'd have to be a comic geek to call that one, but the cover art alone indicates something a bit more modern).

Despite all of this, the cast is game. Wimmer plays David a bit broad, and Adam Taylor Gordon's eyes pop a little too wide, but neither performance detracts from the film to any large degree. In fact, both have some really nice moments... until they open their mouths and the poor quality of the screenplay asserts itself. Claudia Christian ("Babylon 5") and Sean Young (Fatal Instinct) both provide able support in smaller roles.

Henriksen is the most welcome sight in the film, despite having the most overwritten role. He does his best to underplay even when the cinematography, sound, and editing conspire against him. Beyond that, he has to spit out some truly awful dialogue about good and evil, but he lends each line his own gravel-voiced gravitas. We never forget that the words he's saying are grating and overblown, but we're glad that somebody like Lance is still treating them with professional respect. It reminds one of the strong work ethic that Boris Karloff would display, even when he was stuck in mediocre programmers like The Ape.

I would say that the best part of The Garden is that it's only 92 minutes, but I'm reminded of something that Pauline Kael used to say -- "There's no such thing as a great movie that's too long, or a bad movie that's too short." The Anchor Bay DVD provides a crisp picture and a very clear audio track (which is a point against it in this case). There's also a production montage and a director's commentary that's appropriately free of hubris, though Paul does tend to praise the production team for many of things I found so displeasing about the film. Still, there's little point in investing any time in this thorny tangle of mixed Biblical metaphors and clunky storytelling. The Garden bears annoying fruit.