Garden of Evil (1998): In-a-Malcolm-Da-Vida

Matty tends to a truly (plant) potty offering from director James D.R. Hickox.

Hey, remember that daft song that used to fly around the school playground when you were a kid? 

‘What do you do when you need a poo in an English country garden’?

Well, you pull down your pants and fertilise the plants, of course. But we’ll get back to that soon. First, there’s the small matter of Richard Grieco to address…

Having shot to fame as Detective Booker in TV series 21 Jump Street and its spin-off show, the imaginatively titled Booker, by the mid to late ‘90s the model-cum-actor had chalked up a slew of credits in a bevy of B-movies. However, despite his drawing power in the home entertainment arena, pundits were often puzzled as to why Grieco, once touted as The Next Big Thing ™️, was, in their words, slumming it. The answer, perhaps, can be found in James D.R. Hickox’s GARDEN OF EVIL (1998).

“This hasn’t come from me, OK?” an anonymous crew member told me when I spoke to them recently. “But Grieco was drunk by 8AM every day and would stay that way all day long. His breath could’ve knocked out a warthog and he needed multiple takes and a lot of reshoots.”

Grieco had arrived on Garden of Evil two weeks into a three week shoot — and he wasn’t the only on-screen talent causing a bit of behind-the-scenes drama.

“Angie Everhart is brilliant but she, erm, had some stuff going on with the son of George Harrison — yes, THE George Harrison,” said another sheepish Garden of Evil crew’r who demanded that their contribution to this retrospective be shrouded in secrecy too. “And that’s all I’m prepared to say about it. And that hasn’t come from me, OK?” 

A sozzled supporting player and a troubled lead — no wonder Garden of Evil is as crazy as it is. Such shenanigans clearly seeped into this truly weird serial killer flick in the same way that the secret fertiliser concocted by the film’s psycho, a crackpot gardener essayed with scene-chewing glee by Malcolm McDowell [1], seeps into his prize-winning plants. The mystery of what’s inside said Miracle Grow is the thrust of Garden of Evil’s plot, but the — quote, unquote — ‘surprises’ of Alex S. Kim and Joseph Gunn’s lunatic screenplay are telegraphed at every turn. Still, it’d be remiss to call the film terrible. For all its scripting flaws — from the hokey dialogue and cringe-inducing attempts at foreshadowing, to the laughable characterisations and heavy-handed flower puns — Garden of Evil is a hoot.

The fun rests on the fact that it’s so alluringly strange and beautifully contradictory. Consider McDowell and his modus operandi. Looking sixty years-old, McDowell’s nutty nurseryman is actually only in his thirties. He suffers from a rare rapid aging condition, you see, and the malady rots his mind as well as his appearance which, in turn, results in him becoming obsessed with certain women, and going haywire and murdering them when they fail to live up to his impossibly high standards. He then eats their dead bodies and shits out what’s left of them to make — drum roll, please — his fertiliser.

Yep.

It’s a gimmick tailored for a Troma-type yuck-fest or something broad and kitschy a la Dr. Giggles (1992) or Ice Cream Man (1995) [2]. Yet Garden of Evil is delivered with a perversely straight face. Don’t be fooled by Rob Bennet’s candy-coloured cinematography, which teeters on the edge of full-blown psychedelia. Director Hickox clearly believes he’s making an intense horror-thriller epic in the vein of The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Se7en (1995), and the sincerity with which he orchestrates Garden of Evil — his sophomore feature following the similarly horticultural Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995) — is contagious. That said, Hickox, the younger brother of Waxwork (1988) helmer Anthony [3], isn’t entirely without a sense of humour. He can’t be. I mean, any filmmaker that shoots footage of Malcolm McDowell squatting in the bushes and laying a brown cable as if he’s lensing a Tony Scott set piece knows exactly what they’re doing, right? 

“It was a for-hire job,” says actor Kelly Nelson — a Hickox regular and seemingly one of the few people involved with Garden of Evil willing to talk about it on the record [4]. “James was excited because it was a bigger budget than what he’d previously had to work with. He sent me the script and said he had a role for me in it [as Angie’s character’s partner].”

“What’s James like as a director? Well, he loves using a Dutch angle, and he has a gift for keeping things relaxed and fun no matter what so most people were in a good mood for the duration of the show. Angie was fantastic — I always thought Garden of Evil should have helped her acting career as she’s very good in it. She’s a very generous person, too. She threw this monster wrap party for us at a four-storey mansion in the Hollywood Hills. My date passed out and I had to carry her to our car at 2AM [laughs].”

“As for Malcolm, he’s just a legend. He’s a dream to work with and he’s a joy to study when he works. He relishes being the villain and that kind of enthusiasm is, like you say, contagious.” 

Filmed as ‘The Gardener’ and issued as that and ‘Silent Scream’ in several territories, Garden of Evil was pimped at the American Film Market in November 1997 but wound up shelved for several years before finally being released. It surfaced on tape here in the U.K. at the back end of 2000 via Third Millennium (and on DVD via their Planet DVD offshoot). In the U.S., it was released on VHS and DVD as a Blockbuster Exclusive by DEJ in March 2001, and a North American retail edition dropped in 2004. Interestingly, the U.K. releases feature the same art that was designed for the U.S. poster of another straight-to-video McDowell shocker, Island of the Dead (2000) — an atmospheric lil’ creeper about a plague of supernatural flies terrorising the denizens of a small island. 

The exact reason for Garden of Evil’s shelving has never been disclosed. For what it’s worth, rumour has suggested that it was rooted in a dispute between the film’s financiers and its producer, ‘Simon Sheen’. The nom de plume of acclaimed South Korean auteur Shin Sang-ok, Shin and his wife, Choi Eun-hie, were kidnapped and taken to North Korea in 1978 by Kim Jong-il who forced the pair to produce propaganda movies. Garden of Evil was one of four pictures that Shin produced in America after he and Choi escaped Kim’s clutches and sought asylum in the U.S. The others were the 3 Ninjas trilogy: Knuckle Up (1993), Kick Back (1994), and High Noon at Mega Mountain (1998)

[1] McDowell was fresh from a globe-trotting few months when he returned to Los Angeles for Garden of Evil. He’d previously starred in The First 9 ½ Weeks (1998) — the third and final chapter in the tenuously connected erotica saga, the second of which, Another 9 ½ Weeks (1997), also happened to star Everhart — over in Luxembourg, and then, on his way back to the States, appeared in the South African family fantasy The Fairy King of Ar (1998). Incidentally, both Another 9 ½ Weeks and The First 9 ½ Weeks were produced by Barry Barnholtz, who receives thanks in Garden of Evil’s closing crawl.
[2] Speaking of Ice Cream Man, Olivia Hussey essentially portrays the same part in both it and Garden of Evil: the kooky, exposition-spitting mother figure of each films’ respective villains.
[3] The elder Hickox cameos in Garden of Evil as a camp German-accented forensic. He’s the second famous sibling in the film’s cast: then-president Bill Clinton’s younger brother, Roger Clinton, also features.
[4] The gregarious and forthcoming James D.R. Hickox would have almost definitely contributed. Alas, he’s currently recuperating after suffering a brain haemorrhage last year. Get well soon, James — we at The Schlock Pit love you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s