Thursday, October 29, 2009

31 Days of Halloween: Gargoyles Take Flight in an Offbeat 1972 Made-for-TV Film

A rare network TV-movie excursion into visual horror, Gargoyles opens with a prologue that explains the ancient creatures are the devil's offspring and are reborn every 600 years. They exist to “battle against man to gain dominion of the earth.” This theme closely parallels horror writer H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, in which creatures known as The Old Ones lurk in a parallel world, waiting to regain control of this world from mankind.

Set in Mexico, Gargoyles gets off to a slow start, with anthropologist Dr. Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde) and his daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt from Sisters) visiting an isolated, rundown tourist trap called Uncle Willie's Desert Museum. The skeptical Boley thinks it's a trick when Uncle Willie (Woody Chambliss) shows him the skeleton of a gargoyle, but he's intrigued enough to listen to the old man. Willie tells Boley and Diana about the folklore surrounding Devil's Crossing, an area of mountain caves where strange creatures were believed to live. As night falls and the winds howl, the three humans hear the sound of flapping wings. Something lands on the roof of Willie's shack and a claw tears through the thin aluminum. The shack suddenly caves in on Willie and catches fire. Boley and Diana abandon the old-timer and escape with a gargoyle skull.

After another winged creature attacks them on the road, the father and daughter seek safety in a nearby town where they check into the Cactus Motel. The following night, the gargoyles steal the skull, but during their escape, one of the them is struck by a speeding truck. Boley takes the gargoyle corpse back to his motel room and makes immediate plans to transport it to Los Angeles. However, a short time later, the gargoyles return with reinforcements. They knock Boley unconscious, recover the dead gargoyle—and kidnap Diana. Boley’s attempt to rescue his daughter results in an offbeat ending for broadcast television of that era (but I'll leave it at that).

Bernie Casey gives an intelligent performance as the head gargoyle. He exudes menace and generates a surprising amount of sexual tension, especially in a scene in which he kneels over an unconscious Diana and fondles her face and hair. The Emmy-winning Stan Winston make-up is marvelous, complete with wings, horns, a pointy chin, white eyes, and vampiric fangs. Sadly, the supporting gargoyles don't look as good as their leader, undoubtedly the result of a low budget.

The scenes inside the gargoyles’ lair add some depth to the film. The gargoyles look very human-like as they cuddle their newly-hatched babies. Except for their leader, they don't look or act evil. For a brief part of the film, these lizard-like creatures come across as misunderstood victims. It's only when the head gargoyle threatens Boley that we realize these creatures are mankind's enemies.

I first saw Gargoyles on the CBS Tuesday Night Movie in 1972. It struck me as refreshingly different from the majority of made-for-TV movies. That distinction has only increased over the years—and so has my affection for the film (despite its obvious flaws). I fear, though, that I may be in the minority. That said, I am lucky enough to have family members (especially my wife) who willingly watch it with me because they know I enjoy it. A Gargoyles fan couldn't ask for more!

7 comments:

  1. I have seen this gem, Rick. My uncle showed it to me. The two things that have always stuck with me are the excellent make-up effects (the gargoyles look great) and the fact that Jennifer Salt of SISTERS is in it (I just haven't seen her in very much). Your review is wonderful and will hopefully convince someone to check out GARGOYLES. You might recruit some new fans. Thanks, Rick!

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  2. I saw this movie when it first showed on TV in 1972 as well. I LOVED it. Your review is right on the mark. I didn't expect a made-for-TV movie to capture me like that, but this one did. I especially loved the voices of the gargoyles, that double sound they had. That was a great touch. Great pick, cool review.

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  3. Now I do remember this movie fondly. It's been years since I saw it but I would love to see it again. Good pick Rick. Sorry about the play on words there.

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  4. I just watched this movie again last night. The setting is effective (especially the caves where the gargoyles reside) and the gargoyle makeup/costume is very believable. I found the opening sequence fascinating. My favorite character was Uncle Willy. The direction seemed amateurish but the short running time of 74 minutes helped. This was a fun selection and was expertly written up, Rick.

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  5. I've certainly enjoyed reading everyone's feedback. Glad to know there are other fans of GARGOYLES out there. I neglected to mention that Scott Glenn is one of the heroes. When he's recounting to the sheriff what Jennifer told him about the creatures, he can't remember what she called them (obviously, his biker character is none too bright). So, he calls him "gar-things." It's just fun to say. Try it with your friends!

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  6. Rick, I watched this film with my younger brother. It is one of his favorite horror films. Just because a movie is made on low budget doesn't mean it isn't good. This movie proves it. The only thing I don't like is Bernie Casey's performance. I think he could have made the head Gargoyle more menancing! The SyFy Channel has a good movie you might called GARGOYLE with Michael Pare. It takes place in Russia. Just a suggestion for your enjoyment. I enjoyed your review. My brother would like to read it.

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  7. Rick, I want to see this movie just for the excellent gargoyle costumes. Awesome review.

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