You kids! You got it too good, with your Nintendo Wheeze and your hippety hop music! And your 300 cable channels of infomercials and FRIENDS reruns!
Well, back in my day, we only had three networks, and a handful of local stations whoring for our attention with Abbott and Costello and GILLIGAN’S ISLAND. And they weren’t 24 hour channels either; many’s a time I woke up to the sound of the National Anthem being played as the channel signed off for the night.
Then there was this little gem from 1973 called… GARGOYLES…
In architecture, gargoyles were stone grotesque figures mounted onto the roofs of medieval buildings, with troughs and spouts carved into the backs and mouths, designed to deliver rainwater falling onto a roof away from the masonry walls and minimise erosion (the name originates from the Latin Gurgulio, or gargula (‘gullet’ or ‘throat’, and you’ll know it from the word ‘gargle’). The gargoyles were often of inhuman proportions (to keep the water away from the building) but could also be human-shaped, like comical monks and such. Gargoyles served other purposes, too, such as scaring those dumb medieval Yahoos into showing up regularly, reminding them of what awaited them if they didn’t stay on the side of the angels (personally, I think they’d have done better with stone boobs, but that’s just me).
Anyway, in more recent children’s fare, gargoyles were heroes and other forces of good, but back in 1973, the makers of GARGOYLES put them in a more antagonistic light. In a prologue narrated by Vic Perrin (the narrator of the classic ’60s series THE OUTER LIMITS), we learn that the Gargoyles are the descendants of Lucifer and the arch-demons, and every 600 years or so they emerge from their hidden caves and try and subdue humanity (the prologue is made of stills of various church gargoyles and pictures of demons, but then a live-action shot taken from later in the movie is shown, which sort of spoils the eventual appearance of the titular creatures – what are you guys, movie trailer makers?).
After the very quick credits –this was a TV movie, made in eighteen days with a single camera, and director Bill L Norton was a replacement for a previous director who turned down the project because he thought it was impossible to shoot this film under such a time constraint – we open on a small Arizona airport, and a plane which deposits Doctor Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde, THE NAKED PREY), an anthropologist with a sideline in demonology and a writer of the sort of coffee table books you’d find in the groovy pads of guys with sideburns and medallions. He’s met by his daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt, SISTERS), and Diana is officially the hottest scientist’s daughter since Altaira in FORBIDDEN PLANET. They’ve met in order to visit Uncle Willie – no, that’s not a euphemism – one of those crazy old guys who gave up prospecting and scaring away the Scooby Gang in order to sell gas and run a museum of oddities like the Amazing One Headed Snake (no, not another euphemism). Once there, Uncle Willie (Woodrow Chambliss, who also appeared in another memorable ’70s horror movie, THE DEVIL’S RAIN) takes them to an isolated shack and locks them all inside (me, I’d be pissing myself at this point, but I’m a big girl – sorry, girls) to show them a skeleton of a winged, horned creature found in the local hills, part of local Indian legends. Dr Boley is impressed with what he believes is the skill that went into creating such a fake, but Willie is dead serious, and starts to recall the Native American exorcism rites related to the legends, something Boley is more interested in. However, while recording these, the shack is attacked from the outside, an oil lamp is tipped off and starts a fire, Uncle Willie is killed by a falling beam. Boley and Diana barely escape, Boley taking with him the horned skull.
However, their escape in Boley’s car is premature, as whatever attacked them at the shack has followed them – at 30 mph – and leapt onto the roof of their car! But they do escape, though when they reach a local town to report the incident, they decide to tone down their story, and stop in a seedy motel for the night. But it’s a long night, as one of the Gargoyles gets killed, his fellows come along and retrieve the body before the local police can see it (I hate when that happens), and the police blame Willie’s death and the subsequent mayhem on some bikers (led by a young Scott Glenn, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS) and arrest them. However, when the leader of the Gargoyles (Bernie Casey, I’M GONNA GIT YA SUCKA) sets eyes on Diana and has her kidnapped and taken back to their underground lair, where more and more of his people are hatching from their eggs, it might be too late to save humanity…
Viewed forty years later, when the medium of television has evolved into something faster and more explicit, the impact that GARGOYLES had on its viewers, especially young and impressionable ones, will seem far-fetched.
And yet, this ABC Movie of the Week has aged better than many of its contemporaries. It was the first big break for a young makeup artist named Stan Winston, and do I need to namedrop his later achievements? Okay, why not: JURASSIC PARK, TERMINATOR, PUMPKINHEAD, ALIENS, PREDATOR. Winston managed to create quite a few gargoyle outfits, males and females, winged ones and mute ‘drones’ that look like Sleestaks from LAND OF THE LOST, and gave them individual characteristics. Director Bill Norton also employed screeching electronic music whenever the Gargoyles attacked, and filmed them in a slow-motion effect later reminiscent of THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN, to add to their unearthly quality. Even in quieter, more sedate moments, there are almost subliminal sounds in the background, courtesy of composer Robert Prince, who worked on SQUIRM, GHOST STORY, and that BUCK ROGERS episode with the Space Vampire. You remember the one.
Other movies might minimise our views of the creatures, but Norton gives us a whole lot of them (compare this to many modern horror movies, where we barely glimpse any of the creature or creatures); in fact, a huge change for a movie only 74 minutes long. Sadly, this definitely leads to overexposure, particularly in the scenes where we see the Gargoyles fly, and they’re obviously poor bastards in costumes on wires). But the shots of the Gargoyles’ lair in Carlsbad Caverns is suitably eerie and authentic.
But it’s Bernie Casey that really sells this, more remarkably so because his voice was completely by Vic Perrin, as his normal baritone voice was deemed unsuitable. He sells it with his expressions and his eyes, as he forces the captive Diana to read human books to him, and he makes it subtly clear that he wouldn’t mind being Friends With Benefits with her. The rest of the cast are equally notable, though. Cornel Wilde sells what could be a preposterous story, lending it the conviction that only a veteran actor like him could manage. Jennifer Salt fulfils the Scream Queen role well enough; her acting career fizzled out in the subsequent years, but she made a name for herself as a television writer, scribing for shows such as NIP/TUCK and – I just learned – the second season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY!
The movie has its weak points, partly from the budget and the limitations of television fare at the time. But it remains nevertheless a campy, creepy, entertaining slice of nostalgia, well worth a revisit. It’s available via numerous DVD formats, Video on Demand, and probably blood sacrifice too. Watch a scene from the movie and judge for yourself – here, the monsters really might be at the foot of your bed!
Director: Bill L Norton
Plot: 2 out of 5 stars
Gore: 0 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Derek “Deggsy” O’Brien. The D is silent.