As a child, there were monsters everywhere. I couldn’t see them, but knew they were there, behind every closet door, covered bed, and basement stair. I knew this because there were definitely monsters in the television. Back in those days, I’m not sure there were any TV monsters creepier than Bill L. Norton’s Gargoyles.
Imagined as an ‘ABC Movie of the Week’ back in 1972, Gargoyles was a quick and cheap attempt to cash-in on that era’s obsession with the occult. An opening narration served up by Outer Limits announcer Vic Perrin plays like a Time Life book ad, detailing Satan’s fall from heaven and his ambition to destroy man via his offspring, the gargoyles. From there, we pick up with professor Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde) and his lovely, adult daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt) driving through Arizona and stopping by an dusty tourist trap run by the crusty Uncle Willie (Woody Chambliss).
Mercer is an acclaimed author writing a book exposing and debunking witchcraft and demonology, and Willie claims he’s got something very special. This something turns out to be a creepy humanoid skeleton that blends birdlike features with reptilian ones. Willie swears it’s real and that he acquired it from a local tribe whose rituals involve hunting the beasts. Before Willie can say more, something swoops down in the night sky and attacks the shack, setting fire to the place, and inadvertently, Willie too. Mercer and Diana escape with the sinister skull in tow as proof, pursued through the desert by real devils that resemble the remains they now carry.
Despite a thin plot, Gargoyles doesn’t lack for ambition. Mercer and Diana run afoul of law enforcement, an eccentric hotel owner, a gang of bikers led by Scott Glen, and the gargoyles themselves. The beasties whisk Diana away to Carlsbad Caverns where she meets the gargoyle leader, played by ex-football star Bernie Casey. Casey reveals the true endeavor of the gargoyles and their plan to hatch an army that will drive mankind from the Earth. The script, by Devil Dog writers Steven and Elinor Karpf, plays out like an extended episode of Outer Limits. In fact, Casey’s monster feels like a more menacing version of the Ebonite interrogator from the Limits episode Nightmare. Switching gears, the third act trades up the lonesome ghost story aesthetics for dark fantasy.
Inhuman lifecycles, a connection with primitive man, and a hatchery for the young are all reminiscent of the late 90’s animated series Gargoyles, which wouldn’t be alone in its inspiration. Stephen King acknowledged the influence of Gargoyles in his foreword to Nightmares in the Sky and 2001’s Jeepers Creepers visually references it more than once.
That level of influence isn’t surprising. Gargoyles has a clunky plot and the budget reveals its television roots, but it’s hard to shake. The intent is to tap into our primal dread of the supernatural but the film is too silly for that. Instead we get a fun and creepy monster movie that resembles Godzilla and his kaiju relations more than it does The Exorcist. The acting is solid, with Wilde playing a man of persistent and stubborn reserve. Casey does very good work as a gargoyle who watched too many James Bond movies and Salt warms up here for her role in Depalma’s Sisters. It is, however, fx legend Stan Winston—in one of his first gigs– who steals the show.
Working with very limited resources, Winston renders the grasping claws, flapping wings, and protruding horns with a kind of surreal grace. As wildly imagined as the suits are, they are not without their flaws. In a few scenes you can see zippers and there’s significant crinkle when the creatures bend their limbs. Norton’s answer is to shoot the gargoyles in shadow and slow motion, exaggerating and emphasizing their movements so that they feel otherworldly. On the soundtrack distorted cries add to the hypnotic visuals. As they run cavorting through the underbrush, my kid brain was reminded of the Rumpus of Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. To my adult eyes it evokes the lonesome dance of Death and his subjects in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
Too haphazard and scattershot to be a classic, Gargoyles still works as the distracting entertainment it was created to be. It also has a healthy dose of camp, including an improbable scene where Casey’s head gargoyle slaps one of the female goyles on the ass in slow motion. To watch it now drives home the conflict of rational thought vs superstition. We see the seams but cannot look away as that last, forlorn gargoyle wings it away across moonlit canyons into the night sky.
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