Zombos Says: Fair
I adore Lance Henriksen. Like Jeffrey Combs, he approaches every role with aplomb and skill. Ever since his appearance in Pumpkinhead, I find his characters always rich and emotive. That craggy, lined face and those penetrating eyes speak volumes before he even utters a single word of dialog. And in The Garden, he gets to focus all his demeanor, and that lined face, to portray Lucifer, the big bad fallen angel himself.
In Medieval Christian belief, Lucifer's pride led him to rebel against God, and thus be cast out of heaven, never to see the face of God again. Times change, of course, and the name Lucifer has assumed different connotations, including merchandising rights to a few notable brands of hot sauce. But for The Garden, Lucifer remains the fallen angel who wants to desperately bring the apocalypse upon the mundane world just so he can once again look on the face of God.
Unlike the coming apocalypse in Night Watch, this one is more subtle. It is similar in that it requires just one person to make the wrong choice, but there are no CGI bells and whistles, nor chaotic scenes of impending destruction. Instead of the modern apartment building that is the center of annihilation in Night Watch, in The Garden it is a tree nestled on a quiet farm.
Not just any tree, mind you, but the Tree of Knowledge . The Tree of Knowledge which bears fruit that Adam and Eve were never meant to eat. Everything was fine until Eve was tempted by the serpent—Lucifer in disguise—and God quickly sent her and Adam packing with all of mankind's future woes. Many interpretations exist for the tree, and the nature of the fruit it bears, but for The Garden, the interpretation that seems to fit best is the one that sees the tree as a decision tree. And eating any of its fruit means you make a really, really bad decision (as God made man "Sufficient to have stood, though free to fall").
So the stage is set. Ben (Lance Henriksen) patiently tends to the tree and schemes for a man to take just one bite of its fruit. Once that happens, the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse will ride forth to bring death and destruction to the world of man. Forcing God's hand to destroy that which he created and open the gates of heaven, Lucifer will then be able to see the face of God again.
As godliness goes, usually the struggle between good and evil requires human players in the battle to make decisions that will either aid or hinder either side's plans. For what is God without us? And who would Lucifer tempt if not us? Our principle players for this particular battle, which takes place on this quiet farm, are the boy, Sam (Adam Taylor Gordon), and his father (Brian Wimmer).
Sam has nasty visions of a dead tree and people with their mouths sewn shut, and he is prone to cutting himself when agitated. His father is coping as best he can, but he suffers from alcoholism and a failed marriage. With the boy recently released from psychiatric observation, both hope to strengthen their failed relationship. Ah, weakness! Lucifer can smell it a celestial plane or two away. An automobile accident brings father and son to the farm, and into Lucifer's waiting hands. Let the games begin.
Sam's dad, easily falling under Ben's influence, decides to take Ben's offer to work on the farm for a spell, and Sam, reluctantly, must attend the local school, which is taught by Miss Chapman. As the days progress, Ben persuades Sam's dad to loosen up a bit, but his charms are lost on Sam, who begins to suspect that something is not quite right about the farm, or Ben. His suspicions are confirmed when he sees Ben murder his visiting psychiatrist (Claudia Christian) to keep her from taking Sam away. Or are they? Is Sam seeing visions or reality? And just who are those people with their mouths sewn shut that keep sneaking up on him?
The pacing of The Garden is slow, and the drama occurs between the son, the father, and the devil, not through flashy CGI or action sequences. It is structured more like a stage play, and Mr. Henriksen has a field day playing the devilish one with forced whimsy, pathos, and monstrous evil. He helps to make it work, even though the director, Don Michael Paul, in his audio commentary, notes that budgetary and location constraints forced him to compromise his intended vision with the actual filmed one.
As Ben continues to manipulate Sam and his father, Sam Bozzo's story begins to muddle. While combining religious beliefs into a coherent story is difficult enough, the interplay between characters and their ultimate purpose to the storyline becomes uncertain. Miss Chapman is more than she seems, and though she plays a major role in bringing Armageddon, the reason for why she would want to do such a dastardly deed is never clear. And when Ben finally explains to Sam's dad his ulterior purpose for him, well, he just believes it all without a knowing wink or shake of the head that this guy is bonkers. The bully from school also gets his comeuppance from Ben, but why? Nothing the bully does has any effect on Ben's plans.
Story inconsistencies aside, the direction, special effects and acting are fair, and the unusual subject matter worth consideration. Jon Lee's score is moody and bittersweet, and a perfect companion to Mr. Henriksen's wonderful performance. The DVD extras are well done, and include audio commentary by the director, biography of Lance Henriksen, a behind the scenes look, and trailer. Commentary by the writer would have been welcomed, if only to clarify some plot points.
For the fan of gory and frenetic horror films, The Garden is not for you. For those who like to take a break now and then, sip a little blood-red wine and press the vinyl with a little Mozart while perusing Milton's Paradise Lost, this film may be a rewarding experience, mostly due to Henriksen's presence. Claudia Christian and Sean Young are never hard on the eyes, either.
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