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!