A monster suit can make or break a horror film. With the right makeup effects and performer, something special can be done with a creature that’s been seen dozens of times. A mediocre film can even be partially redeemed by good monster effects. But even the best suit can’t overcome shots and lighting that reveal its deficiencies. If the performer bringing the creature to life doesn’t understand how to move and hide the reality of a rubber suit, this can also destroy the illusion. 1972’s made-for-TV film Gargoyles is well known in horror circles, mainly for its effects. It features the first ever makeup effects from the legendary Stan Winston (The Terminator, Aliens, Predator, Jurassic Park). His gargoyle suits not only terrified a generation of viewers, they also won him an Emmy. Nearly 40 years later, how well do these nightmare-inducing monsters hold up?
An effective opening montage catches viewers up on the history of gargoyles (or at least the history made up by the screenwriters). A narrator tells us the story of Satan’s fall from grace and banishment to hell. He talks of Satan’s struggle to take over the world and how his children, the gargoyles, will help turn the tide of battle. Every 500 years, the gargoyles are reborn and launch their attack on humanity. Although they have failed in the past, this time things will be different. This voice over is played over paintings and photographs that establish a spooky mood, not unlike an episode of In Search Of or Unsolved Mysteries. The fact that the narrator is voice by Vic Perrin, the control voice from the original Outer Limits series, definitely helps up the creep factor.
From here we meet our lead characters. Dr. Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde, director and star of The Naked Prey) is an author who specializes in demonology. He’s researching his latest book on the history of demons while traveling through Arizona. Joining Dr. Boley is his daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt, 1973’s Sisters). Boley and Diana’s mother have been divorced for some time, so both father and daughter see this as a good time to reconnect and rejuvenate their relationship. Boley has been in contact with a local about information that could help the doctor with his book. He and Diana head off into the desert to find what is hopefully an exciting new artifact depicting demons.
Things end up a little differently than the Boleys expected when they end up at Uncle Willy’s roadside shack. Willy (Woody Chambliss, Gunsmoke) runs a tourist trap full of old knick-knacks and oddities (in other words, junk) that don’t impress the doctor. Just as Boley and Diana are about to leave, Willy tells them that the real reason he brought them out is to see something in his shack. The family gives him one last chance, and Willy doesn’t disappoint. In his shack are the skeletal remains of a gargoyle. Willy says that the remains were found in a nearby cave and he has a lifetime’s worth of stories about strange goings-on in the area that he wants to collaborate with Dr. Boley on in a new book. Before anyone can sign on the dotted line, gargoyles descend on the shack. In an intense sequence, the shack begins to rumble and large claws tear through the roof. Ceiling beams collapse, trapping Willy and causing an oil lamp to burst into flames. The Boleys manage to make it out of the shack with their lives and the gargoyle skull, but Willy is unable to be saved from the fire. As the two drive back towards town, a winged gargoyle tears apart the roof of their car before being thrown from the vehicle.
Dr. Boley decides to hide what happened from the police, because who would believe a gargoyle attack? As their car is repaired, the Boleys find themselves caught up in small town politics. A group of dirt bike riding hooligans (led by Scott Glenn, The Silence of the Lambs) are blamed for Willy’s death. Her conscience heavy, Diana tries to explain what really happened to the bikers. But no one believes her until the gargoyles descend on the motel room she is sharing with her father. In a series of exciting scenes, Diana is eventually kidnapped by the lead gargoyle (Bernie Casey, U.N. Jefferson from Revenge of the Nerds) and taken back to his lair. In a surprising turn from most genre films, as soon as Dr. Boley informs the authorities of what kidnapped Diana, they load up and join him on the gargoyle hunt. There are no scenes of disbelieving authority. It’s just, “You say your daughter’s been kidnapped by gargoyles? Let’s go get ‘um!”
Instead of building up a slow reveal of the gargoyles, director Bill L. Norton (More American Graffiti) shows them off almost as soon as they appear in the story. This is no doubt tied to the fact that the gargoyles look great. The production got more than they bargained for, so they wanted to show them off. Most impressive is the leader portrayed by Casey. He boasts horns, spiked teeth, long claws, and an impressive wingspan. The other gargoyles don’t leave as big of an impression, but it’s not the fault of the suits. The only thing I found disappointing about these “soldier” gargoyles is that they don’t much resemble gargoyles at all. Wings and horns are missing from all of them, making them appear more like lizard people than devil spawn. Even so, the effects on these lesser creatures are still impressive. Considering that most made-for-TV films are shot in about two weeks with about as much time given to pre-production, it’s no surprise that the suits Winston helped developed here won accolades. What lessens the impact of these other gargoyles is that the performers don’t have the presence that Casey brings to his leader role. Where most would imagine gargoyles perched over cliffs, hidden in darkness, director Norton instead keeps these creatures out in the open and standing tall. The monster in Alien was nothing more than a man in a suit, but Ridley Scott’s direction made it seem like a living, breathing terror unlike anything on earth. The gargoyles here at times resemble nothing more than a man running around in a lizard suit, because that’s how Norton shoots them.
All of the actors involved do a decent job, but none are as lively as Casey in his role as the lead gargoyle. Even when saddled with some awful dialogue, he still manages to bring a commanding presence. As far as the humans go, Cornel Wilde impresses the most. This isn’t surprising considering the actor’s pedigree, but even so, Dr. Boley isn’t given much in the way of depth. Jennifer Salt lets her halter top do all the heavy lifting for her. She’s very easy on the eyes, but doesn’t do much besides wear her wardrobe well. From the supporting players, Woody Chambliss is a hoot as Uncle Willy. It’s a shame his character has so little screen time. The gargoyle hunting posse would’ve been livened up quite a bit if Willy was along for the ride. This is one of Scott Glenn’s earliest roles and he plays the biker with a heart of gold well, but without the authority or intensity he would later be known for.
Gargoyles originally aired on November 21, 1972. Viewers at the time (especially younger ones) were transfixed by the creatures they saw onscreen. Many children of the 70s consider the film not only one of the best telefilms of all time, but also one of the scariest. 40 years later the film still maintains a good energy throughout (there is a scare or action scene around every commercial break) and the makeup is impressive. However, some directorial touches do hamper the film. A chase between the cops and bikers goes on far too long and the slow motion effect used whenever the gargoyles are onscreen is effective at first, but gets tiring when it goes on all throughout extended sequences. The restrictions of the television format can also be felt. If the filmmakers were allotted more than 75 minutes to tell their story, things would have been given more room to breathe. This would’ve no doubt enhanced the characters and finale, which is very abrupt. At the end of the day, the film might not live up to its reputation, but it is still a fine example of a dead art form, the television terror.
Film Reviews, MacGuffin Content, Tomb of Terror
BILL L. NORTON (1972)