Made for television and first broadcast in 1972, this Emmy-winning film has since attracted a cult following. During the 1980s and early 1990s, Gargoyles was a staple on cable television stations, but like its counterparts The Night Stalker and The Night Strangler, it has made its debut on VHS, laser disc, and more recently DVD.
Gargoyles begins with an eerie narrative that chronicles the rise and fall of Satan and his minions, which in this explanation consist of both demons (who perhaps serve in hell) and gargoyles (human counterparts living on the earth). The film then eases into the story of anthropologist Mercer Boley (Cornel Wilde, whose films include The Big Combo and Constantine And The Cross) and his daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt, whose film credits include Sisters and Midnight Cowboy and who later starred in the American television show Soap). The couple are headed toward Mexico, where Mercer plans to trace the origin of evil to the Aztecs, Mayans and Incas. Before they cross the border, Mercer plans a pit stop in a southwest state (either Arizona or New Mexico, by the look of the terrain).
Surrounded by miles and miles of stark desert and jagged mountains with roads that lead nowhere, Mercer and Diana finally arrive at Uncle Willie’s Curio Shop, where the old man has unearthed what he believes is the skeleton of an ancient race of creatures. Although sceptical at first, Mercer is curious, and soon Willie (Woody Chambers) relates some of the stories behind these ‘spirits’ and their encounters with the early Native American peoples who once had a camp in the area. Before Willie can finish telling his stories, several gargoyles show up to tear the place apart and retrieve the bones of their dead. In the melee Willie is killed, but Mercer and Diana manage to escape (along with the skull of the gargoyle), with one of the creatures tearing apart their station wagon as they drive down the road.
The next morning, the couple returns to the scene, along with a local police chief and his assistant. As they arrive, they encounter several bikers (including Scott Glenn, who had made several biker movies with Gary Busey, such as Hex and The Shrieking, then later went on to make films such as Vertical Limit and Silence Of The Lambs). A short pursuit ensues, and eventually the cops arrest all the bikers, believing them to be involved in the death of the old man.
Later that night, the gargoyles attack Mercer and Diana in their hotel room in an attempt to acquire the skull. In their escape, one of them is run over. Mercer takes the body back to the hotel room, and once again the gargoyles attack, this time stealing Diana and the body, leaving Mercer to convince the police chief that gargoyles in fact do exist.
The remainder of the film consists of Mercer and a rag-tag of men tracking Diana to a deep cavern, where the head gargoyle (Bernie Casey, whose films include Brian’s Song, Cleopatra Jones, and I’m Gonna Git You Sucka) like an incubus is watching over her. The film’s climax finds Mercer rescuing Diana, Scott Glenn blowing up the gargoyle’s egg chamber with the help of some gasoline and a lighter, and the head gargoyle and his mate escaping the scene by taking flight.
There is very little not to like in this movie. Even though it was made for television, as a horror film it is a serious attempt at creating a solid mythology with frightening monsters. The screenplay, which was written by Steven and Elinor Karpf, is excellent, creating an array of interesting, well-developed characters and a tight plot. The actors take their roles seriously, and except for the dirt biker angle and the police pursuit, the story is compelling and exciting. Robert Prince’s music score, which incorporates weird electronic and animal sounds, adds to the already creepy atmosphere.
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The strongest element of the film, however, is the gargoyles themselves. Created by Stan Winston (Jurassic Park, Pumpkinhead and Aliens), these full-body monster suits won an Emmy Award for outstanding makeup. Although the action and violence in this film are toned down for a television audience, Gargoyles still manages to evoke several creepy moments and exact some genuine chills.
Nitpicking: in Gargoyles, William Stevens plays the police chief. And yet, if you look closely at his uniform, he is wearing captain’s bars (two silver bars on his collar). Shouldn’t he be wearing four gold stars or chief emblems? Oops!