Friday, April 9, 2010

Gargoyles (1972): or, Goyles Gone Wild!

The story is well-known: a long, long time ago--around six thousand years, according to the most reputable theological calculations--the archangel Lucifer, flush with devilish pride, rebelled against God and as a result was cast out of Heaven, taking with him a large number of similarly prideful angels. Ever since then, the Light Bearer has waged a war of revenge on God's favored creatures, Humankind, variably seeking either to lure them into iniquity and Hell after death, or else to destroy them completely and establish his infernal kingdom on Earth.

A lesser-known aspect of the story is presented in the opening credits of the made-for-TV movie Gargoyles: while viewing a Pernicious Powerpoint Presentation of devil-centered art through the centuries (paintings by Bosch and Blake, medieval woodcuts, stills from the 1922 silent classic Häxan), a Narrator informs us how Satan also branched out into the creation business himself, fathering a race of demonic humanoids for a predictably eeevil purpose:

[The Devil said,] "My offspring the gargoyles will one day rule the Lord's works, Earth and Man!" And so...while man ruled on earth, the gargoyles waited, lurking, hidden from the light. Reborn every 600 years in Man's reckoning of time, the gargoyles joined battle against man to gain dominion over the earth...

Obviously the Satan Spawn were really bad at this, since by this man's reckoning their first 10 or so attempts must have ended in abject failure. Still, in 1972, in the southern California desert, that time had apparently rolled around once again...

Not a Gargoyle. Probably.

We open with divorced professor Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde) picking up his adult daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt) at the airport. The professor has apparently written a series of best-selling books about how religion is a load of bunk--much like Richard Moll's character in the recently reviewed The Nightmare Never Ends--and has recruited his daughter to take photos for his next book, 5000 Years of Demonology. As the Richard Dawkins of his day, Professor Boley doesn't believe in the supernatural, and hopes to show how man's conception of evil beings through the ages has really just been the result of ignorance, superstition, and one too many bowls of pre-sleepytime gruel.

On their way to Mexico for research, the pair stop at Uncle Willie's Desert Museum, a dust-covered roadside attraction whose owner claims to have found a valuable supernatural artifact. Crusty old Uncle Willie (Woody Chambliss) first comes off as a charlatan, but when the prof threatens to bolt he takes them out the the shed to show them what he's uncovered: the skeleton of a demonic humanoid beast, with horns, wings, and a saurian beak!

"I call it, 'Floopsy.'"

Intrigued, Mercer and Diana ply the old man with liquor and listen to his tales of ancient Indian rituals as night falls on the desert. Soon, though, the beating of leathery wings disturbs their symposium, and a marauding group of living gargoyles on a mission to retrieve their dead tear the shed apart and set it on fire! Diana and Mercer grab the skull and escape, leaving poor old Uncle Willie to perish in the fiery cataclysm.

On the run from the monsters, Mercer and Diana hole up in a local motel run by drunk dowager Mrs. Parks (the scene-stealing Grayson Hall). A pair of wingless gargoyles who look like the offspring of Lou Gossett and a Sleestak invade the Boleys ' room and grab the skull, but when one of them is struck on the highway by a passing semi (that keeps right on truckin', despite having just creamed a freakin' dinosaur-man!), the professor scoops up the body and throws it in his station wagon, hoping to get it back to L.A. in time for the next taping of That's Incredible!--which will be about 8 years later. Unfortunately this brings out the King Gargoyle (Bernie Casey), a winged nightmare who seems less interested in reclaiming his fallen subject's body than in staking a new claim on Diana's--emphasis on "stake."

"Please, just try to relax."

After some shenanigans, rigmarole, and assorted brouhaha, King G kidnaps Diana, taking her back to the Gargoyle HQ where a dozen other scaly horrors are tending to an Alien-style cache of eggs in preparation for exponential reproduction and the eradication of humanity. While Professor Mercer, the local police, and a group of recreational dirt-bike enthusiasts (led by a stonier-than-usual Scott Glenn) comb the desert and engage in periodic skirmishes with the wingless drones (only the winged gargoyles are "breeders"), the head gargoyle forces Diana to read to him from her father's books, passages about medieval women being raped by incubi. Of course this makes King G horny--well, hornier--and he starts putting the moves on his new little pink-skinned petunia. Unfortunately this puts him on the outs with his Muppet-reject winged old lady, whose jealousy leads her to allow the humans into the cave and sets up the final confrontation and another 600 years of thinking about what could have been.

Man, they just don't make TV movies like they used to!

Gargoyles is a fun movie from start to finish, helped along by very brisk pacing (the first gargoyle attack comes IMMEDIATELY after the first commercial break), some periodically excellent cinematography, a 60s monster movie-style score, and Emmy-winning monster make-up from Ellis Burman Jr. and future FX legend Stan Winston. While the man-in-a-suit aesthetic might seem a little cheesy to an audience weaned on ever more photorealistic CG creatures, there's a reason a whole generation was moved to nightmare by these guys:

"Did you know your Stretch Armstrong doll is under here?"

Miss Gargoyle New Mexico, 1971

Don't Break the Oath

Like the music, the acting has a kind of nostalgic 1960s monster-movie feel, with Cornel Wilde's Professor delivering all his occult knowledge in the deadpan earnestness of a slightly constipated news anchor, and King G himself (voiced by Vic Perrin, who also did narration duties for TV's "The Outer Limits") coming off more like a bumbling Alien Commander trying to overcome that famous Indomitable Human Spirit than like the offspring of a fallen angel. (In fact, opening narration aside, the gargoyles really come across more as cryptozoological entities, never evincing even the tiniest of supernatural powers.) Jennifer Salt, who would go on to greater fame on the soap opera spoof series "Soap", is okay in the acting department, but does most of her work here with her lungs--she's an excellent screamer, and does it often--and with her impressive encasements of those instruments:

"Check under the hood, please."

"I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. Franzetta."

"This isn't a's a sex manual!"

Director Bill L. Norton delivers a mixed bag from behind the camera. On the plus side, he does a good job keeping the gargoyles in shadow for much of the first act, adding to the menace and suspense while still showing them to be dangerous, frightening monsters. However, his penchant for showing the creatures only in slow-motion, even during battles with humans (sometimes on moving cars!) loses its effectiveness very quickly. He does manage some gorgeous compositions with the desert landscape, at times evoking an epic, huge-budget feel:

Vanishing Point

Storm's a-brewin'

No Country for Scaly Men

But at other times he produces some pretty tremendous gaffes--whether due to tight shooting schedules, inability to afford retakes, or basic sloppiness is unclear. Check out the shadows of the crew in the following snaps:

At least there's no lens flare

Ladies and Gentlemen, Your Director

(Note: I'm labeling the post "boom mike cameo," because there's bound to be a boom mike in there somewhere.)

There are perhaps a few other quibbles one could make--a cop car/dirt bike chase goes on a bit too long for my taste, for instance, and the Gargoyle Women somehow manage to lay eggs that are about 5 times the size of any conceivable aperture on their persons--but weighed against the entertainment value Gargoyles provides, they are small ones indeed. 2.75 thumbs for this piece of made-for-TV excellence.

Still yet MORE images from Gargoyles (1972):

Gargoyles Go Wild

Monster in the Bed

Toughest thing about being an elderly sheriff? Depends.

Reading is Sexy

"This way to Burning Man!"

Road Rash

"Get on my horse. My horse is amazing."

Keep watching the skies! Or the boobs. Either's good.


Knarf Black XIV said...

+100 points for the headline alone.

The Duke of DVD said...

Hahahaaaa! Bravo, Vicar! A hilarious uptake on a brilliant gem.

I especially like how the trucker just keeps on truckin'. Those Crenshaw melons ain't gonna deliver themselves to Duluth!

prof. grewbeard said...

i saw this when it premiered, it was a pretty big deal, all the kids in school were talking about it the next day...

Anonymous said...

Oh for the good old days of made for TV monster movies!

Al Bruno III said...

A great review. I seem to recall seeing this at the drive in with my parents oddly enough...

I have a lot of affection for the film, flaws and all, they just don't make them like this anymore!

Hmmm do you wonder if 40 years from now some once and future Duke will be waxing philosophical about MANSQUITO or MEGAPIRANA?

On Smash said...

Saw this movie as a kid 9 years old it scared the bejeebus out of me. Saw it later many years later still very effective.

shiftless said...

Just watched this again last year and the scene in Uncle Willie's museum is still genuinely frightening. The "gar-things" though, not so much.

dfordoom said...

I hadn't even heard of this one. Now it's on my Must See list.

Anonymous said...

Wow, thanks for the reminder of this one, Vicar. It's one of those movies I've seen parts of over the years, but never the entire thing. Guess I need to find it on DVD.
Is it just me getting older and more cynical, or have horror movies just about all ceased to be fun? That's one element that seems to make this movie - and many others like it - work (for lack of a better term). You can sense the crew just outside the frame enjoying what they're doing. It's more than just another paycheck. Case in point, here - the gargoyle effects. You know the effects crew went way beyond the producers' expectations.
And on that point, that's what makes your blog work - your and Mr. D. obviously take great enjoyment in your craft. Thanks once again for the entertaining review.

dfordoom said...

Geo asks: "Is it just me getting older and more cynical, or have horror movies just about all ceased to be fun?"

For me the answer is definitely - yes! As horror and sci-fi movies have become slicker, more mainstream and more expensive they've started taking themselves too seriously, and producers are unwilling to take risks.

The Vicar of VHS said...

Wow, glad to see so many people have fond memories of this one! It's definitely worth tracking down, either to feed your nostalgia or to get a look for the first time at the kind of stuff that scared old timers like us when we were kids!

@Al Bruno III--I watched MANSQUITO when it aired on SciFi (now SyFy, which always makes me think of getting a penicillin shot), and while it was dumb fun, I don't know that it'll have the staying power of these 70s classics. But who knows? Nostalgia is a funny, unpredictable thing.

@Geo--thanks as always for the kind thoughts! As to the Duke and I getting joy from what we do here, I hope that much is obvious. Some might question our journalistic integrity for handing out so few bad reviews, but I think I speak for both of us when I say we're more inclined to celebrate than denigrate--after all, you have to find joy where you can in this life. Plus, it's my blog, and I'll geek out if I want to!

As to Geo and dfordoom's point about the lack of fun in modern movies, I think that's clearly true, and clearly a detriment. When I see stuff like CLASH OF THE TITANS remade through the filter of Frank Miller's 300, I have to just shake my head. At least we still have DEATHSTALKER and ATOR THE FLYING EAGLE to keep us warm!

Karswell said...

I'm not sure I saw this when it originally premiered on TV but I saw it many times throughout the late 70's on Creature Feature. One of the most entertaining TV monster movies ever.

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