Forgotten Films: Gargoyles
Back in the 1970’s, the phrase “made-for-TV movie” not only wasn’t the pariah it is today, but it could actually mean a quality film. With television in need of programming material and viable theatrical films limited, producing their own movies made sense. Even without the multitude of entertainment options available these days though, audiences wouldn’t stay tuned in to anything that didn’t hold their interest. In the fall of 1972, the CBS television network premiered a new film that gave a generation of youngsters plenty of fuel for nightmares – Gargoyles!
The film begins with a narrator discussing the history of demons and gargoyles over a creepy montage of ancient drawings and photographs that segues into the arrival of the lead characters at an airport. Archeologist Dr. Mercer Boley and his daughter Diana are investigating the claims of an unusual skeleton at a remote desert tourist attraction. Uncle Willie’s Roadside Museum is a broken down piece of Americana left to die quietly in the middle of nowhere until its proprietor discovers what he claims is the remains of a gargoyle in a nearby canyon. Boley is initially skeptical that the skeleton is a well conceived fake but eventually decides to work with the old man on a book deal in exchange for the information he has gathered over the years.
No sooner does Uncle Willie break out a bottle and start in on tales of Native American demon legends when some horrible sounding force from outside starts to assault the small shack they have locked themselves in. The rotted structure can’t take much strain and caves in on Uncle Willie, starting a fire in the process that engulfs the skeleton. Dr. Boley and his daughter manage to escape unharmed but can only salvage the skull as the dry timber bursts into flames. As they attempt to head for town, something lands on the roof of their car and nearly causes them to crash while trying to knock it loose. They finally make it to civilization, such as it is, and spend the rest of the night in a motel.
The next morning, the duo reports the fire to the local authorities but they omit most of the supernatural details. The Sheriff and his deputy discover a group of bikers picking through the charred remains of the museum and arrest them on suspicion of torching the place. As night falls for a second time, gargoyles attack the motel to retrieve the skull and, while they are successful, one of them is hit by a truck and killed while leaving. Boley hides the body and decides he now has enough proof to head for home. On his way out of town with the corpse, another group of gargoyles flip his car and not only recover their fallen member but also kidnap Diana.
Unable to hide his discovery any longer, Dr. Boley confirms the locals’ claims of seeing monsters with the Sheriff who has no choice but to free the bikers. A rag tag posse of locals and the bikers is formed to locate the gargoyles and rescue Diana while a truck is dispatched to a neighboring town to get help. Meanwhile, Diana is being held prisoner in the gargoyles’ cave by their leader who wants her to teach him how to read after discovering some of her father’s books during the car skirmish. He initially claims that the gargoyles mean mankind no harm and have been persecuted unfairly for thousands of years but it quickly becomes apparent that he has no intention of sharing the Earth with any other species once a sizable army of the reptilian creatures has been hatched.
Using a pack of blood hounds, the rescuers find the gargoyles’ cave and lay down some fairly impressive damage for such a small group. The gargoyle leader tricks Boley into letting himself be captured with the promise of reuniting him with Diana. He sees the hatching chambers and realizes there isn’t much time left to contain the creatures before they become a serious threat. The remaining posse manages to push the gargoyles back into the caves and Boley helps them dowse the eggs in gas and torch the place with the creatures trapped inside. The lead gargoyle and his mate escape with Diana but before they can fly away, Dr. Boley breaks the female’s wing. The leader is forced to carry her instead of Diana and flies off into the darkness as the rest of his race is incinerated.
Gargoyles manages to tell an interesting story without a lot of bloodshed or explicit gore. The human / gargoyle showdown takes place outside at night so aside from a few gunshot flashes and recoiling monsters there isn’t much violence. Like most television movies from this period, it has to rely on atmosphere to keep things interesting and the isolated town that seems to be on the edge of nowhere is very effective. The film was made on a miniscule budget even by 70’s standards and this works in its favor with the limited cast and sets giving the overall production a very remote and claustrophobic feel. Unfortunately, the monetary constraints are very noticeable in the gargoyle costumes, which are clearly wet suits, and the limited shots of the gargoyles flying. Whenever the gargoyles are shown moving through the darkness, the film is slowed down which does produce a fairly thrifty nightmare-like quality.
For a film with a small budget, Gargoyles manages a very respectable cast. Cornel Wilde, a Hollywood leading man from decades earlier and talented director, stars as Dr. Boley and the perpetually cute Jennifer Salt, who was just about to star in Brian De Palma’s Sisters on the big screen, plays his daughter. Woody Chambliss, a character actor known for playing eccentrics, is perfectly cast as Uncle Willie and leaves the viewers wishing he wasn’t killed off in the first act. The head biker is played by a young Scott Glenn who was also on the brink of a successful career in theatrical features including The Right Stuff, The Hunt for Red October, and The Silence of the Lambs. Although virtually unrecognizable under the demonic makeup, Blaxsploitation stalwart Bernie Casey was cast as the gargoyle leader. His voice also was dubbed with a weird metallic reverb that adds an unearthly quality to it but further obscured his performance. Speaking of makeup, both Stan Winston and Rick Baker cut their teeth on this film and their talent shows in what they were able to get on screen with the budget constraints. While the gargoyles bodies leave a lot to be desired, the face masks are very well done with a nice variety of animal like features that were obviously inspired by the creature’s depiction in classic art.
As one of the young viewer who watched the original 1972 broadcast of Gargoyles from behind the sofa his family’s living room (on our gigantic 26 inch console television set no less!), I can attest first hand to the punch it packed back in the day. While time hasn’t been completely kind to the film, a lot of the smaller touches hold up quite well and still manage to build up some atmosphere even some forty plus years later. Hen’s Tooth Video recently released a DVD version of the film with a beautiful transfer that makes the movie look better than I ever remember seeing it before. This edition also includes a highly informative commentary by Director Bill Norton, who shares his displeasure over the budget restrictions and points out more of the film’s faults than the casual viewer will notice on their own. For fans of quirky little movies from times passed, I highly recommend this one.