Gargoyles – USA, 1972

Gargoyles is a 1972 American made-for-television supernatural horror feature film directed by Bill L. Norton from a screenplay by Stephen and Elinor Karpf (Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell). It stars Cornel Wilde, Jennifer Salt, Grayson Hall and Bernie Casey.

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The film is, perhaps, most notable for being the first showcase for the talents of makeup and special effects guru, Stan Winston (The Bat People; Dead & BuriedGhoulies).

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Despite being one of the best remembered TV movies ever made, Gargoyles has enjoyed a rather torrid time ever since, only making brief appearances via legal avenues on DVD and now being seen as more of a novelty than the classic it was long-hailed.

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The ‘horror’ title font is an early sign as to where the problems with the film lie; it seems completely unable to decide what tone it wants to take, veering from a solemn introduction advising us via stone effigies – and a still from Häxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages  that Man should know his place, to horrendously padded melodrama to costumes that range from effectively beguiling to last minute fancy dress party indecision.

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We learn via a booming voice (actually that of Vic Perrin, whose voice can be heard on countless cartoons and other works from the 60’s to the 80’s) that the titular creatures, the spawn of Satan himself, have prowled the Earth for millennia, rising every 600 years in an attempt to wrestle power from Man to become the ruling presence on Earth.

Hitting the ground running, we cut to the dustbowl deserts of North America, joining a sceptical author on the supernatural and his adult daughter, as they poke around Uncle Willie’s Desert Museum looking for artefacts and long-lost bunkum.

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Uncle Willie keeps his favourite exhibit at the back of the tumbledown shack, a strange skeleton he found in the hills, which the author, Doctor Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde, once on the blacklist of actors unable to work during the McCarthy-era anti-Communist purge) laughs off as a collection of badly thrown together animal bones.

Meanwhile, Boley’s daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt) shows more sympathetic interest and they stay to listen to the old man’s tales of ancient myths, only to be rudely interrupted by the flapping of wings by night, something eagerly battering at the roof of the shack and eventually starting a blaze which takes Willie but the other pair manage to flee.

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With the skeleton tucked under his arm, they take shelter at a local motel, run by one of the more familiar faces in the film, Grayson Hall from TV series, Dark Shadows. As two of the gargoyle clan attempt to retrieve their relative’s skeleton, one is hit by a passing truck, his limp body taken inside by the doc, with a view to making a lot of dosh from the planned exploitation of the fabulous beast.

All this interference raises the hackles of the head Gargoyle honcho (played by Bernie Casey, also seen in John Carpenter’s In The Mouth of Madness and Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde) – naturally, being the big boss, he has the best costume and make-up.

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Following some talky scenes which don’t develop the story whatsoever and leave all the human characters even more dislikable, Diana is kidnapped by Bernie (let’s assume that’s the Gargoyle’s name too) and he tells her, having taught himself English, that his kind only mean to exist as a race, not to cause the humans harm.

We also meet a lady ‘Goyle and get to see a Gargoyle maternity ward, thousands of eggs (apparently, we see about half a dozen) being tenderly cared for by the clutch of Gargoyles who remain.

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A search party of the doc and the local cops – with the help of a local biker – are duly dispatched to rescue her, where the tone suddenly changes from a plan of co-existence to all-out war between the two sides.

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Gargoyles resembles the The Planet of the Apes series of films in many ways, the costumes being such that you accept them quite quickly for all their failings and there aren’t many, it takes a harsh audience to ridicule what was never meant to be big box-office.

Similarly, the familiar but remote backdrop are alien enough for you not to worry about why no-one has spotted the horned scamps earlier. It’s worth noting that the film came out slap bang between two of the smashes of the Apes series, Escape and Conquest.

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There are also early glimpses at techniques later used in the television series The Incredible Hulk, slow-motion attacks by the creatures, defying any issues with costume or acting ability. Ah, the actors. Truly, no-one excels themselves, only Bernie gives it a bit of oomph.

The script is the real failing, badly-paced and seemingly not confident enough in a plot that sinks or swims by whether, like Apes, there’s a truth and an earnestness in both the performances of the actors and a trust in the audience that is watching.

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Quibbles aside, the nostalgia that Gargoyles engenders, even if you haven’t seen it before, is heady, the TV movie limitations being redolent of plastic toys, garish cartoons and monster mags galore. It is well worth seeking out, if only for the chest-pumping joy of seeing monsters on primetime telly and a tear-inducing flying sequence.

Daz Lawrence, HORRORPEDIA

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Other reviews:

“The finale was frustrating for me: it just abruptly stops as the head monster flaps his wings with his fluffy partner under his arm and the moronic anthropologist wonders what to do next! This oddball ’70s TV movie relic is highly entertaining nonetheless, and worth checking out, especially if you’re a fan of that form.”Eric Messina, Monster!

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Cast and characters:

  • Cornel Wilde … Doctor Mercer Boley – Night Gallery TV series
  • Jennifer Salt … Diana Boley – Sisters
  • Grayson Hall … Mrs Parks – Dark Shadows; The Wide World of Mystery
  • Bernie Casey … The Gargoyle – Dr. Black, Mr. HydeIt Happened at Lakewood Manor
  • Scott Glenn … James Reeger – Grizzly (2014); The Silence of the Lambs; The Keep; Hex
  • William Stevens … Police Chief – The Invaders TV series
  • John Gruber … Jesse
  • Woody Chambliss… Uncle Willie
  • Jim Connell … Buddy
  • Tim Burns … Morris Ray
  • Mickey Alzola … Gargoyle
  • Greg Walker … Gargoyle
  • Rock Walker … Gargoyle

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Related:

Rise of the Gargoyles

Gargoyles – architectural feature

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13 Comments on “Gargoyles – USA, 1972”

  1. Scion 777: You may consider Daz Lawrence’s review of Gargoyles to be “terrible” – that’s your opinion and we welcome discussion of movies and critical assessments, however adding a baseless personal insult is inappropriate and has no place on HORRORPEDIA. If you cannot be more constructive then please don’t make comments on this website. Better still, write your own review of Gargoyles so we can all judge your writing skills.

  2. Saw this when it was first in ‘72. A good B movie. I was able to see it again later. Then the second Gargoyle movie came out/it was awful. For about a year i have been pining to see the original again. Lo and behold, found it is n YouTube yesterday. Yeah! Like “THEM”, they play the horror to the fullest and with true suncerity. Thank you Scott Glen, Hunt for Red October Dallas sub captain? Wow. Nearly didn’t recognize him. This review is top notch.

  3. My first time watching this movie and I’m from that 70’s generation! Great movie I’m watching it right now on Comet TV !

  4. This is one of the best cheesyist “70’s” movies ever made.I was 8yrs old when this was aired on TV’S primetime,once I realized that the main Gargoyles voice was of a Blk man I was so of afraid of other Blk men with deep talking voices.And then BLACULA was released in the theaters and I was afraid of all Blk men with hairy faces.WOW I was a young blk male kid myself.

  5. I was 13 when this came out. I remember watching it with my mother. I wasn’t easily frightened by movies or much impressed with TV dramas in general, but the atmosphere of this one stayed with me long after I saw it. Low budget it may have been, but it was very effective in what it was trying to do, and the head Gargoyle part, played by Bernie Casey with that great makeup, has a force to it that makes me remember being 13 and being really spooked by a made-for-TV movie. Even at 13, I thought I was above that sort of thing…but not so. I was impressed instead of bored for a change. But, lucky me, 70s kid, there were other good fantasy, horror, and sci-fi down the road: The Legend of Hell House, The Questor Tapes, Logan’s Run, Star Wars, Suspiria…I would add The Wicker Man, but I didn’t see that one until I was about 40, and I still haven’t seen the longest version now available.

  6. It may seem cheesy now to some but it was a true classic at the time. I was 10 years old and remember it coming on tv and then talking about it the next school day.

    Ranks up there with Dark Night of the Scarecrow.

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