Anthropologist Dr. Mercer Boley and his daughter Diana visit a small Arizona town, after being summoned there for Dr. Boley to inspect a mysterious skeleton that had been found somewhere out in the desert. When they arrive, the doctor and his daughter are greeted by an eccentric shopkeeper calling himself Uncle Willie, who leads them to a shed, where he reveals a strange reptilian, humanoid looking skeleton sporting wings and horns. Boley initially thinks the skeleton is an elaborate hoax, but when the shed they’re all in is attacked by a group of similarly strange creatures, he quickly changes his tune. Uncle Willie ends up dead, and the shed catches fire and burns to the ground, with Boyle and Diana barely making it out alive, but not before they grab the skull as evidence. Boyle becomes intrigued by the artifact and hopes to study it, but it turns out that the creatures who attacked them haven’t given up on retrieving it yet, either. After another series of encounters Boyle deduces that the creatures must be gargoyles, but by the time he figures out what they want and can get anyone else to believe him, the gargoyles have already managed to run off with Diana to hide in the nearby desert caves. It’s now up to Dr. Boyle and the local small-town sheriff to track down the creatures and find Diana before the monsters can carry out their nefarious plans.
Gargoyles is a made-for-TV movie that originally aired on CBS in 1972. Before I came across it I had never actually heard of this film before. Being of a younger generation, the only gargoyles on television that I was aware of up until that point was the TV series produced by Disney in the 90s (which is actually a pretty decent show that you should check out if you enjoy cartoons). But instead of being defenders of the innocent like in the cartoon, these live-action gargoyles are pretty much the polar opposite. Or at least they would be if the film wasn’t from the early 70’s and the producers had been allowed to show more of their evil content on screen. But hey, they couldn’t, so as it stands, Gargoyles ends up being a pretty mundane little outing with very little going for it.
Yup, this is the skeleton. Soak up it’s glory, my friends.
The film’s biggest flaw is it’s lack of a coherent and solid story. The film starts out explaining that the gargoyles are the evil emissaries of the devil meant to overtake and destroy mankind. So you’re set up to think that these guys are going to be super evil little buggers. And to the movie’s credit, it starts off pretty well by only showing bits and pieces of them to the audience, either by a quick swipe of a claw or an ominous shadow. But then the movie goes and seems to get…I don’t know, horribly distracted with itself, I guess. Because before we see the gargoyles again we’re introduced to a forced subplot involving a group of bikers who happen to be hanging around Uncle Willie’s burned out shack and how they get wrongfully accused of arson. I honestly can’t think of a good reason to introduce these guys. The film tries to justify them later as being a convenient group of bodies that happen to be handy for the sheriff to use as a posse to track down Diana. But considering the film managed to find other unrelated characters for the exact same purpose without them being locked behind bars, that seems like a moot point. I can only assume that their inclusion was added solely so that the producers had an excuse to add a car chase scene into the film, because this was the 70’s and any movie coming out of the 70’s wasn’t worth its salt if it didn’t have at least one car chase to its name. What can I say, the 70’s were a weird time. Never-mind that the vehicle they used inexplicably changed between two different car models while it was trying to chase down those errant dirt bikers. It killed some air time, went “zoom zoom” and kicked up some dust, so that’s all that matters. Or at least I assume that was their reasoning, because from a story standpoint that whole scene was just a complete waste of time. And the entire film is littered with tiny moments like that, small instances that seem to be constructed solely to pad out the film. Which might not sound so bad, except that the film only clocks in at around 74 minutes, so all those little instances end up taking up a decent chunk of time. Time that I can’t help but feel would have been better suited to actually expounding on the story which, I thought anyway, was supposed to be about an army of human killing gargoyles. One would think an army of murderous monsters on it’s own would be exciting enough for the American audience of the early 1970’s, but I guess not. Like I said, it was a weird decade.
The sad part is, that even when the gargoyles finally do show up, their motivations seem to be all over the place. With over five-hundred years to think about their takeover of humanity, you’d think these guys would have had a better well thought out plan. But no. Instead, they just seem to be flying by the seat of their green spandex. They’re obsessed with retrieving the skull of their fallen brethren so that the humans don’t have a heads-up of their impending doom, but their method of retrieving it seems to be to just break into the Boley’s hotel room, hide in the bathroom, and scare the puny little humans while they run in and take it. Presumably you’d think they wouldn’t want any witnesses, but they don’t even try to hurt them. Then, when they come back again, this time to retrieve the body of the lone idiot gargoyle who doesn’t know better than to not run out in front of the only vehicle on the road for miles, they trap the Boley’s in their sedan, knock them out, and then roll the car onto its hood before getting the dead gargoyle out of the back of the car. Except now the car’s a wreck and it takes them five minutes to dig his corpse out of the mess they’ve just made. Like, what was the point of flipping the car here, guys? Did you just do it because you could? I’m confused. But then, most of the motivations of these guys confuse me. They want to kill the humans, yet they inexplicably take a hostage. They tell Diane that they want to learn, but they never expound on what exactly it is they’re trying to learn from her. Then when the police show up the gargoyles kill some people and then take yet another hostage because…. Oh hell, who knows. I gave up on trying to figure them out by this point. Maybe if the film had cut out that stupid car chase and all the scenes with the tipsy, horny hotel owner we might have gotten some answers, but alas. We are doomed to be confused.
Although considering the acting on display by most of the cast I guess I shouldn’t just wish away the boozy hotel keeper. In a movie full of dull human characters she did end up being the most entertaining by far, so I guess I’ll forgive her odd inclusion.
Dude, boundaries! BOUNDARIES!
The one thing that this film really has going for it, and what I think is likely the main reason the movie has retained such a cult following for as long as it has, is that all the monster make-up effects were done by the famed effects wizard Stan Winston, and is the first film he worked on. In fact, the effects end up looking so surprisingly good for a cheap made-for-TV outing, that Winston was nominated for, and won, the 1973 Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup (an honor which he shared with two others that year). So at least on that front, the movie does a pretty decent job. Though I will note that while the make-up effects look good, they look good by low-budget 1970’s standards. By today’s standards they look kind of hokey, especially when viewed in full light. But considering the meager budget I’m sure the filmmakers had to work with, the monsters really do look pretty impressive. I kind of wish that they’d only shot the gargoyles in muted lighting, because I think that the use of more shadows would have really added to the effect. But shooting in low-light is hard when you have limited time and only one camera at your disposal, so I’ll take what I can get.
Overall, Gargoyles is a mixed bag. The gargoyle designs look good, and it’s got a good concept and several interesting ideas. But the plot is so unfocused that the movie never really gets a chance to expound on any of them. It does manage to get close a couple of times, but I think the limitations at the time regarding the level of violence and death that was considered appropriate to show on prime-time television likely really limited them. There is some blood shown, and a couple people do indeed die, but considering what the film set the audience up for in the beginning, there was no way they were going to be able to follow through to that grandiose level. The closest they come is having the head gargoyle act like a grade-A creeper towards Diana. Because while blood=bad, lack of boundaries and implied sexual assault are A-Ok, I guess. So the film itself ends up being a bit of a dud, but it at least has some interesting costumes to look at. In the end, I think that Gargoyles is the kind of film that would greatly benefit from an update. It’s got a lot of good ideas, so perhaps a more focused story and a few decades worth of additional technology could give it a hand. As it stands the film is little more than an interesting oddity that’s really only going to be attractive to those curious in nostalgia and the early works of a man known for his impressive skill in special effects. Most everyone else will likely find it very boring.
Gargoyles is available on a variety of streaming services.
Gargoyles is also available on DVD.