Gardener (The) (1975)
R1 - America - Subversive Cinema
Review written by and copyright: Jari Kovalainen (19th August 2006).
The Film

American director/writer James H. Kay (here billed as “Jim Kay”) is just one of many individuals in the movie business that got his shot in the feature films, and then pretty much disappeared. This probably happened a lot in the 1970s and 1980s, when many low budget horror-movies were produced, and only a handful of directors really made a big career out of them. There are plenty of films that were basically forgotten for years, but which now get that “second chance” - courtesy of the DVD-format. “The Gardener AKA Seeds of Evil (1975)”, released by “Subversive Cinema”, is a prime example of a low budget movie and also a prime example of a bunch of filmmakers that basically did this one thing, and never worked in the feature films again.

“The Gardener” is an ambitious little film, which is unfortunately bound to be a failure from the start. The film opens with a rather creepy scene, where a woman in a hospital bed mysteriously dies, and it seems that the flowers in the room had something to do with it. Soon the story moves to South America (the film was mainly shot in Puerto Rico, though), where a rather wealthy American couple lives. Ellen (Katharine Houghton - from “Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)”) is what you could call a “housewife”, spending time in their big mansion and its garden, while her husband John (James Congdon) earns the living and plays golf. Ellen has found a soul mate from another American woman, Helena (Rita Gam), who is a frequent visitor to the mansion. The key player of the story is introduced, when the young and hunky gardener Carl (Joe Dallesandro - best known for the films he did with producer Andy Warhol and director Paul Morrissey such as “Flesh (1968)”, “Flesh for Frankenstein (1973)”, and “Blood for Dracula (1974)”) comes onto the scene. Carl - with the long ponytail hair, tight jeans, and shirtless upper body is something straight from the pages of “Playgirl”, and this is the character that should bring the “evil presence” to the film. This is the first clue to the `mystery´ of why the film eventually failed. After the introduction of the new gardener, the film starts to build the themes of what you could call “mystery”, “supernatural”, and even “horror”, but the better terms would be “slow”, “confusing” and even “uninteresting”. The basic idea of the film is that Carl is some kind of mythological character with supernatural powers, and he has the control over the flowers he gardens. The flowers grow faster than they should and are placed everywhere, and they produce powers that could mesmerize the people around them - perhaps even kill..

“The Gardener” is not exactly that easy a piece for the reviewer, even when it´s clearly a flawed film in many ways. The story is way too slow paced and often confusing, and since this should produce at least some tension and scary atmosphere, it´s safe to say that director Kay didn´t have the abilities to deliver that to the audience. What you have is merely a few scenes here and there that could be described as “scary”, and the rest are just, well, a waste of precious time from the horror-point of view. There are a few capable actors involved that are trying to do what they can, but Dallesandro is not one of them. He basically admits in the audio commentary that he just walked around the garden, hit the marks, and said a few occasional lines - that´s all he had to do. This also means that his character is not very believable (not that it could´ve been), and the “pool boy”-look is most of the times just plain silly (you get used to it, though). The film is also quite repetitive, which here means that people sit in the garden, then there´s a party, then they sit in the garden, then they talk in the garden, and once in a while there´s a “mysterious scene” involving Carl. And then back to the garden to sit and perhaps another party. When the story is starting to reveal its true nature (even that is done so damn sloooooowly), the audience is already “fallen asleep”, like the director Kay says in the commentary. To make matters worse, the film is using some sleepy “TV-series” editing style, with constant fade in-fade out´s between the scenes. Those could work in some daytime soap opera, but not with the film like this one.

What makes this still watchable is the fact that it´s shot on location rather than in a studio, and if you just take the attitude that you´re watching an extended episode of some TV-series similar to “The Twilight Zone”, you have a fairly good chance to see the film as a curious example of low budget filmmaking from the 1970s - something that is best not taken too seriously. It has also some odd “70s art-film” qualities (as also mentioned on the back cover), which occasionally feel quite pleasant to watch. Nothing is really happening, but at least the milieu and the “feel” of the film can be intriguing at times. What is also interesting is the fact that “The Gardener” has all the tools to take the story even more down the cheaper “sexploitation”-route, but although there are some sexual implications between Carl and the women in the film, the film is never explicit, keeping the focus on the mystery-side. Too bad, for some horror-fans, it´s not offering very much in terms of blood and gore either, so in the end you have to stick to the mixture of the mild supernatural, numerous scenes of dialogue and speculation, and a glimpse of some art house -feel. The groovy 70s music score by composer Marc Fredericks is not bad at all, but eventually it´s again quite repetitive - the story of the whole film, really. Certain interest will be maintained just to see how the film is going to end, and the ending is probably one of the best parts in the film - too bad that it suffers from the weak production values and techniques at the same time.

Video

“The Gardener” is presented in Anamorphic 1.78:1, and is a bit of a mixed pack. The transfer is probably restored since it´s very clean and almost without any print damage, and I have to believe that this is taken from the best available elements. On the other side of the coin the transfer is overall soft, and has generally some murkiness - black levels are not spot on. Colours are also very saturated and skin tones unnatural (with quite reddish tones), almost like they would´ve been boosted, and there were some scenes which looked to me as having some compression artifacts (bitrate is not that low, so not sure why is that). Lastly (this is pure speculation), but to me the framing looked a bit “tight” in some selected scenes, so perhaps 1.66:1 would´ve been a better choice for this film?

The transfer is perhaps not in the same level as seen in some other similar releases, but I´m sure that “Subversive Cinema” has done their best to bring this almost forgotten film to DVD, and deserves the kudos for that. The cleaned transfer eventually looks okay, but has some issues that are probably just a result of the original source material (this is quite an old and low budget affair after all). “Dual layer” disc is coded “R1”, and includes 32 chapters. The uncut print includes the original title “The Gardener”, running 86:04 minutes (NTSC), and based on the back cover it´s containing footage not previously seen in the “Seeds of Evil”-release (most likely additional dialogue).

Audio

The disc includes two audio tracks in English Dolby Digital 2.0, which are labeled as “original Mono” and “new Stereo”. Now I´m slightly confused here, since with “Pro Logic”, you have some activity in the rear channels for both of these track (which would indicate that both tracks are more like “Stereo”). There are differences though, and “Stereo” generally sounds more open and fuller (and louder), but also more “echo-ish”, while “Mono” is more flat but also more natural. It could be noted, that even when you have some surround-activity with “Pro Logic”, it´s mainly moving the whole palette to the rears - also dialogue, so stick with “Stereo” from your receiver.

Generally speaking the audio on the film is not what you could call a great audio mix, but this seems to be mainly due to the original production sound. There are some interesting stories in the extras that there were a lot of unwanted sounds while shooting in Puerto Rico (e.g. from tree frogs!), and you can hear that in the film. There are some dialogue scenes where you have some quite loud background noise and when the lines from the actors are kind of low, you have some problems. The audio is also sounding a bit hollow, also something that is most likely due the low budget-nature of the film. Technically both tracks are quite free from major hiss and distortion, so in the end the audio is satisfactory.

Extras

As usual, “Subversive Cinema” gives us plenty of extras, even if the film itself doesn´t fully deserve it (don´t get me wrong, this is how you do a proper DVD-release). We start off with the first Audio commentary from director/writer James H. Kay. This honest and soft-spoken director gives his first and probably last commentary (since this was his only feature film), giving his recollections of the production and the actors, as well as his background. It´s almost a bit sad to hear how Kay, perhaps after many years, sees the film again and pointing out several scenes which he sees that don´t work, or are “overwritten”, “too long”, “has too much”, and “drags”. You almost want to give him a call and say, that “hey, I have seen much worse - we cult film-fans don´t take it that seriously”. It´s quite interesting to hear how the film supposed to be at least somewhat “gothic-horror” and suspense, but in the hands of an inexperienced director that just didn´t happen. Kay also tells how he was in continuous pressure to stay within the budget and at the same time think all the artistic aspects of filmmaking. This commentary gives a very personal insight of the production, but the director also does the rookie mistake when it comes to audio commentaries; he starts watching the film rather than talking, so there are some gaps (quite long near the end). We also learn about the shooting conditions in Puerto Rico (which you could guess included both good and bad experiences), and tidbits such as Katharine Hepburn was the aunt of actress Houghton, and her co-star Gam was the bridesmaid at Grace Kelly's wedding. Kay´s future project was also planned, the play from Tennessee Williams, but that never materialized.

The second Audio commentary with actor Joe Dallesandro is moderated by DVD producer Norman Hill, and is generally more entertaining to listen to. This is more like the extended audio interview with Dallesandro, where he talks about his career (which started with Warhol films, continued in Europe where the actor lived approx. 10 years, and after that he has been working again in the US). The commentary is not very scene specific, but you´ll hear some stories from the production of “The Gardener”, as well as from his years in the movie industry, working with directors such as Francis Ford Coppola, John Waters and Louis Malle. You´ll also get a chance to sense what is was to live in Europe and New York “back in the days”, since clearly Dallesandro has been around (he´s never bragging or anything like that, and sounds a very down to earth personality). There are some occasional dry moments, but generally this was interesting and a must for the fans of the actor, and moderator Hill keeps the questions coming.

"Planting the Seeds of Evil"-documentary runs 35:38 minutes, and you´ll hear interviews from director James H. Kay, actor Joe Dallesandro, and actress Katharine Houghton. Kay and Dallesandro speak about some similar issues that you´ll hear from their commentaries, but perhaps in this one you´ll hear more about the beginning of the production from Kay, and how it got off the ground (he was producing commercials before this film), and his stories seems to be working better in the shorter and edited interview. Katharine Houghton does some good for the documentary, since she has plenty to say about the film, being honest about both ups and downs when it comes to “The Gardener” and her career. Both Kay and Houghton also tell some anecdotes about the actress Rita Gam, who is absent from the documentary. Good stuff.

“Million Dollar Dream” (the official title is actually “The Distribution of Low Budget Films or The Gardener's Seeds of Evil Killed My Million Dollar Dream”) -documentary is from the 1980s, and runs 28:37 minutes. This is the project that associate producer (of “The Gardener”) Chalmer G. Kirkbride Jr. did as his Master’s Thesis, and is like an “education video” about the production and distribution of the low budget movie (using “The Gardener” as an example). The documentary doesn´t look very good and is probably pulled from some worn tape-source, but it´s very interesting and includes interviews from the various people from the movie business in those days. Along with the presenter Kirkbride Jr., we hear from his father, executive producer (of “The Gardener”) Chalmer Kirkbride Sr., lawyer Paul Baumgarten, MPAA President Jack Valenti, Avco Embassy president Robert Rehme, movie theater owner Paul Roth, movie and theatre critic Davey Marlin-Jones, and of course director James H. Kay. After this one it´s actually much better to understand why the film like “The Gardener” can fail miserably in the terms of distribution and box office, while the low budget movie like “Phantasm (1979)” can be a hit. It´s quite hard to distribute the film that is so odd in many ways and doesn´t really fit in the “horror-category” (or in any category for that matter), and I´m not talking about “Phantasm” here. We also learn about the peculiar ways of the MPAA (which gave the film an “R”, even when it´s very lame when it comes to blood), how the distributor of the film were a bunch of con-artists, and that the film cost 800 000$. We also hear one amusing comment from Kirkbride Sr., which also pretty much is summing up the main reason why the film failed; “too much talk, too little action”.

Posters and stills gallery runs 2:55 minutes, and includes 2 posters, along with 33 stills (mainly promo and “behind-the-scenes” photos).

Cast & crew biographies are well written (I believe by Marc Edward Heuck), and includes director James H. Kay, associate producer Chalmer G. Kirkbride Jr., actors Joe Dallesandro, James Congdon, Katharine Houghton and Rita Gam.

Trailers include the one from “The Gardener (1975)” (1:27 min), and the ones from “Blood Bath (1976)” (1:58 min), “Metal Skin (1994)” (1:27 min), “The Candy Snatchers (1973)” (2:04 min), “The Freakmaker AKA The Mutations (1974)” (1:50 min) and “Blue Murder (mini-series/1995)" (1:38 min).

DVD Credits are also included, and that page also includes one “Easter Egg”: Alternate opening credits -sequence is running 1:30 minutes, bearing the title “Seeds of Evil”. You can find it by going to the page, and pressing either way from your remote (“up”, “down”, “left” or “right”) until the sickle is highlighted. Then you just press “enter”.

Keep case comes with slipcase, and also includes poster reproduction from the film, with 3 lobby cards.

Overall

“The Gardener” is a quite odd low budget-film, leaving you a bit puzzled at the end; now what genre was this anyway? To whom was it aimed? It´s clearly not pure garbage and you can enjoy it in some degree, but seriously flawed it is (like Yoda would say). The DVD-release from “Subversive Cinema” is again something showing how every company should treat their titles, so no real complaints on that front.

For more info, please visit the homepage of Subversive Cinema.

The Film: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:

 


DVD Compare is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and the Amazon Europe S.a.r.l. Associates Programme, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to amazon.co.uk, amazon.com, amazon.ca, amazon.fr, and amazon.de.