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The Garden
cast: Lance Henriksen, Claudia Christian, Sean Young, Brian Wimmer, and Adam Taylor-Gordon

director: Don Michael Paul

92 minutes (nr) 2005
widescreen ratio 1.77:1
Anchor Bay NTSC DVD Region 1 retail

RATING: 5/10
reviewed by Paul Higson
Christian rock is the habitat of mediocre guitar songwriters and heaven help us if they ever move into Christian horror films. We might have just that with Don Michael Paul's The Garden, catching us on the hop with a cast of exploitation notables. Religion, of course, is omnipresent and has easy invite into most films, though, almost to a script, it normally serves has little more than a tool, the representative of good, contesting and then vanquishing the supernatural bad. For most films Christianity is no more than a prop from the cupboard.

Religion became secondary to the horror in The House Of Mortal Sin, The Devils, Communion (aka: Alice, Sweet, Alice) and even, The Exorcist (though William Peter Blatty might dispute this). The Rapture and Dogma took their religion more seriously. The latter was a comedy, of course, an understanding of the bible and early theological teachings supporting the devotional nature of the composition, it is tactically as shocking as the good book in the hands of the Kevin Smith. How is it that the mighty Christian right of America, 30 years into a steady multimedia brainwashing programme of its population, television evangelism and family features, that they have not braved moving into the horror film field with its captive teen audience?

Most audiences are not mean-spirited enough to want the protagonists fed into a grinder screaming. They want to escape with the heroes, the evil dropped, the killer stopped, good winning over evil. The religious organisations could step in and emphasise the role played by their god in the correction of the nefandous. The respective churches may simply be working their way towards it. Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ was identified by all as hard gore exploitation horror, Stephen Hopkins' The Reaping is in cinemas now, visiting the ten plagues of Egypt on a small American town, and Cold Fish director David Fairman has teamed up with Jon Paul Gates to launch Albion Productions in the UK, a company dedicated to making Christian feature films, though that is not to say Fairman will tread the dark territory that brought him to critical notice in 2000.

The Garden is a couple of years old already, produced by television legend Stephen J. Cannell, the scriptwriting duties, however, left to Samuel Bozzo. His parents separated, David (Adam Taylor-Gordon) is a boy who has turned to self-harming. Collected from the psychiatrist by his father, Adam (Brian Wimmer), they are travelling with four newly bought horses in tow when a figure steps out into the road causing the vehicle to veer down an embankment. They are attended to by an old man (Lance Henriksen) living alone on a nearby farm and when news reaches that the family ranch has gone into an all too timely quarantine due to water pollution, the kindly old strip of leather agrees to put them up for as long as it takes for the situation to remedy. The old man is a tough old goat, sexist and still living for the now. Women are a receptacle for his lust. "I'm married to life. I've no idea to cheat on it," he tells Adam, continuing, "One man for one woman. That's a sick joke on all of us." Satan is machismo. He is also a keen gardener, in fact, it is the Garden of Satan (which would have been a meatier title for the film), a verdant plot that doesn't do justice on the Eden he means to replicate.

His target is to tempt a man to eat from the tree of life whereupon he can reverse the final judgement and bring about the apocalypse, his final revenge on God. He has spent how long trying to bring this about, huh? How difficult can it be? Well, the sword of truth protects the tree, and the devil must rear someone with the essential conflicting goodness to draw the sword to him or her at the vital moment so suspending it, preventing it from repelling the sinful apple biter. The plot does come to a potentially cataclysmic head, but stupid Satan has only gone and housed the boy that will throw the spanner in his works, that extra little hand to take up the sword and turn it upon Satan instead. The four horsemen of the apocalypse burst out of Old Merkatrig's barn and instead of going their four directions turning the globe into a neat pie chart of misery, they set upon Lance, striking him in turn with their swords and axes and... biffing him with the scales. Don't laugh! I said... oh, now you're just being rude.

So, where do we go from here? (Is it down to the lake I fear?) We can only denounce this tragic little adventure. It has some grubby details, superbly shot by Tom Calloway, and the soundtrack frequently rumbles and echoes indignantly, but it's namby-pamby when it comes to showing us the horror money shot, cutting away from the axe blow and the death by repeated horse kick. Shouldn't those scales be weighing his bloody wrenched-out heart rather than bonking him on the noggin. It is intolerably mard. It's safe and survivable, and even if the heroes were to die in a shock conclusion it would be too late to warrant sufficient interest. The film is populated by the bland and the unconvincing, there is nothing earthing it to reality.

Henriksen is allowed to deliver some juicy lines. "They say, if we could see what the angels see, we wouldn't have salt in our eyes." Returning to the boys practice of nicking chunks out of his forearms, Henriksen relishes his permeating role in everything bad, with a line that in an earlier decade would have made it onto horror fan T-shirts: "I am that razor blade." Verbal interplay between the central trio in the shadowy interiors of the house provides quiet highlights: conversations on man's desires between the devil and Andy, the allegorical banter with the child over a game of chess. He almost dares the boy to interfere with his plans. "You're thinking about how you're going to defend yourself against my next move, aren't you... the winner must be ready to attack." It feels as if the film is based around those few scenes.

Outside the house the dialogue sinks. "If you believe in the bible he is trying to save you," is simple and lame. Having said that, the classroom banter is dual purpose, intentionally simple and nonsensical. The teacher (played by Sean Young) is the tool of the devil and must be good but indebted to acting on his behalf. She teaches the "first and last book of the bible," and asks the parents' permission for that, some parents having a "first amendment problem" with such on a curriculum. But the boy David picks it up a little too quickly, and it sounds phenomenally bogus when he enters the theological arguments. His earlier snipe at the origins of the universe was more my bag after 90 minutes of this: "There was a big explosion and a lot of stuff shot out of it."
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