Gargoyles is a 1972 American made-for-television supernatural horror film directed by Bill L. Norton from a screenplay written by Stephen and Elinor Karpf (Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell). The movie stars Cornel Wilde, Jennifer Salt, Grayson Hall and Bernie Casey.
Despite being one of the best-remembered TV movies ever made, Gargoyles has enjoyed a rather torrid time ever since, only making brief appearances via legal avenues on DVD and now being seen as more of a novelty than the classic it was long-hailed.
The ‘horror’ title font is an early sign as to where the problems with the film lie; it seems completely unable to decide what tone it wants to take, veering from a solemn introduction advising us via stone effigies – and a still from Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages – that Man should know his place, to horrendously padded melodrama to costumes that range from effectively beguiling to last-minute fancy dress party indecision.
We learn via a booming voice (actually that of Vic Perrin, whose voice can be heard on countless cartoons and other works from the ’60s to the ’80s) that the titular creatures, the spawn of Satan himself, have prowled the Earth for millennia, rising every 600 years in an attempt to wrestle power from Man to become the ruling presence on Earth.
Hitting the ground running, we cut to the dust bowl deserts of North America, joining a sceptical author on the supernatural and his adult daughter, as they poke around Uncle Willie’s Desert Museum looking for artefacts and long-lost bunkum.
Uncle Willie keeps his favourite exhibit at the back of the tumbledown shack, a strange skeleton he found in the hills, which the author, Doctor Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde, once on the blacklist of actors unable to work during the McCarthy-era anti-Communist purge) laughs off as a collection of badly thrown together animal bones.
Meanwhile, Boley’s daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt) shows more sympathetic interest and they stay to listen to the old man’s tales of ancient myths, only to be rudely interrupted by the flapping of wings by night, something eagerly battering at the roof of the shack and eventually starting a blaze which takes Willie but the other pair manage to flee.
With the skeleton tucked under his arm, they take shelter at a local motel, run by one of the more familiar faces in the film, Grayson Hall from the TV series, Dark Shadows. As two of the gargoyle clan attempt to retrieve their relative’s skeleton, one is hit by a passing truck, his limp body taken inside by the doc, with a view to making a lot of dosh from the planned exploitation of the fabulous beast.
All this interference raises the hackles of the head Gargoyle honcho (played by Bernie Casey, also seen in John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness and Doctor Black, Mr. Hyde) – naturally, being the big boss, he has the best costume and make-up.
Following some talky scenes which don’t develop the story whatsoever and leave all the human characters even more dislikable, Diana is kidnapped by Bernie (let’s assume that’s the Gargoyle’s name too) and he tells her, having taught himself English, that his kind only mean to exist as a race, not to cause the humans harm.
We also meet a lady ‘Goyle and get to see a Gargoyle maternity ward, thousands of eggs (apparently, we see about half a dozen) being tenderly cared for by the clutch of Gargoyles who remain.
A search party of the doc and the local cops – with the help of a local biker – are duly dispatched to rescue her, where the tone suddenly changes from a plan of co-existence to an all-out war between the two sides.
Gargoyles is similar to the Planet of the Apes series of films in many ways, the costumes being such that you accept them quite quickly for all their failings and there aren’t many, it takes a harsh audience to ridicule what was never meant to be big box-office.
Similarly, the familiar but remote backdrop are alien enough for you not to worry about why no-one has spotted the horned scamps earlier. It’s worth noting that the film came out slap bang between two of the smashes of the Apes series, Escape and Conquest.
There are also early glimpses at techniques later used in the television series The Incredible Hulk, slow-motion attacks by the creatures, defying any issues with costumes or acting ability. Ah, the actors. Truly, no one excels themselves, only Bernie gives it a bit of oomph.
The script is the real failing, badly-paced and seemingly not confident enough in a plot that sinks or swims by whether, like Apes, there’s a truth and an earnestness in both the performances of the actors and trust in the audience that is watching.
Quibbles aside, the nostalgia that Gargoyles engenders, even if you haven’t seen it before, is heady, the TV movie limitations being redolent of plastic toys, garish cartoons and monster mags galore. It is well worth seeking out, if only for the chest-pumping joy of seeing monsters on primetime telly and a tear-inducing flying sequence.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA
“The finale was frustrating for me: it just abruptly stops as the head monster flaps his wings with his fluffy partner under his arm and the moronic anthropologist wonders what to do next! This oddball ’70s TV movie relic is highly entertaining nonetheless, and worth checking out, especially if you’re a fan of that form.”Eric Messina, Monster!
Cast and characters:
Cornel Wilde … Doctor Mercer Boley – Night Gallery TV series
Jennifer Salt … Diana Boley – Sisters
Grayson Hall … Mrs Parks – Night of Dark Shadows; House of Dark Shadows; Dark Shadows TV series; The Wide World of Mystery
Bernie Casey … The Gargoyle – Doctor Black, Mr. Hyde; It Happened at Lakewood Manor
Scott Glenn … James Reeger – Grizzly (2014); The Silence of the Lambs; The Keep; Hex
William Stevens … Police Chief – The Invaders TV series
John Gruber … Jesse
Woody Chambliss… Uncle Willie
Jim Connell … Buddy
Tim Burns … Morris Ray
Mickey Alzola … Gargoyle
Greg Walker … Gargoyle
Rock Walker … Gargoyle
Gargoyles – an architectural feature