First off I should warn you that this review does contain a few spoilers...
Back in the seventies viewers with a yen for the macabre were exceedingly well catered for when it came to made for television horror films. Indeed, whilst the horror genre continued to thrive on the silver screen, in addition horror films made specifically for the US TV market also began to pop up with dizzying regularity. At a time when big screen horror was ascending to new heights of grisliness, by contrast these made for television horror efforts were generally kept on a tighter reign by the censorship constraints of mainstream television. However, the seventies still spawned numerous small screen chillers which made a vivid impression upon viewers and have since been embellished with the cult classic tag. Particularly noteworthy examples of the seventies made for television horror phenomenon include Walter Grauman's unsettling Crowhaven Farm (1970), Stephen Spielberg's classic suspense thriller Duel (1971), John Newland's chilling Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark (1973), Jeremy London's bulldozer on the rampage opus Killdozer! (1974), the great Dan Curtis' anthology effort Trilogy Of Terror (1975), Wes Craven's Summer Of Fear (1978) and Tobe Hooper's masterful two part adaptation of the Stephen King vampire yarn Salem's Lot (1979) to name just a few. I could quite literally go on all day if I wanted to.
However, surely no discussion on the subject of notable made for television horror pictures could ever be complete without an honourable mention for the fi;lm I'm reviewing today, namely the 1972 classic Gargoyles. Directed by Bill L. Norton and starring uniquely self-styled acting legend Cornel Wilde, Gargoyles originally aired on the American television network ABC as a "Movie of the Week" and by all accounts had an unnerving effect upon many an impressionable young viewer with its scenes of visitors to a sleepy Arizona desert town being menaced by the demonic beings of the title. Later released theatrically in some parts of Europe, Gargoyles has since ascended to minor cult classic status and is fondly remembered by many horror fans who can still vividly recall watching it on television during their formative years. However, today Gargoyles is perhaps best known for providing legendary film make-up and visual effects maestro the late Stan Winston with his first big break. An unknown at the time, Winston was responsible for creating the famous gargoyle make-up and later scooped an Emmy award for "Outstanding Achievement in Makeup" for his troubles.
The plot of Gargoyles begins with us being introduced to Dr Mercer Boley, a noted anthropologist and writer with a strong interest in the subject of demonology. Accompanied by his devoted grown up daughter Diana, Dr Boley journeys to a remote town in the Arizona desert in order to visit Uncle Willie, a local eccentric and proprietor of a roadside "museum" of curiosities who claims he has something remarkable to show Boley. After some badgering Uncle Willie eventually shows Dr Boley and Diana his discovery, a bizarre skeleton which Willie claims is that of a gargoyle, a race of demonic beings which, according to certain cultural superstition's, have existed in secret since the time Satan was cast out of heaven and return to Earth every several hundred years to launch a fresh bid to destroy mankind.
Dr Boley initially dismisses Willie's skeleton as a clever hoax, however he is forced to eat his words when they are subsequently attacked by several living gargoyles and he and his daughter barely escape with their lives. It soon becomes clear that a freshly spawned brood of gargoyles are occupying a maze of caves beneath in the Arizona desert and when Dr Boley and Diana come into possession of a gargoyle carcass they are subjected to further attacks by the fiendish monsters. When the gargoyles eventually succeed in abducting Diana and whisk her off to their subterranean lair, Dr Boley is left with no choice but to confront the gargoyles in an attempt to rescue his daughter and thwart their evil plans for world domination before it is too late.
Viewed now in retrospect Gargoyles actually more closely resembles a far flung fantasy yarn with some obvious horror overtones as opposed to an out and out horror film, with its central concept of a freshly spawned gargoyle horde terrorising a sleepy Arizona township proving rather far-fetched to say the least. Nevertheless, Gargoyles has still aged reasonably well over the 37 years which has now passed since it's original television airing on ABC, with Bill L. Norton's assured direction and sterling work from his collaborator's ensuring that this well made little television chiller seldom manages to be anything less than entertaining.
Indeed, Norton much to his credit starts Gargoyles off an a strong footing, beginning things with a passage of ominous narration set to a series of macabre historical illustrations which establishes the mythological background of the gargoyles dating back to the casting out of heaven of Satan and his minions. Evocative and stylishly assembled, this opening montage does a fine job of establishing an appropriately creepy tone.
From here Norton continues his good work, weaving an effectively odd, eerie atmosphere around the films lonely desert locations, whilst also delivering a series of potently hair-raising suspense sequences as the titular title creatures quickly make their otherworldly presence felt. Indeed, far from keeping them off screen, Norton actually delivers plentiful amounts of assorted gargoyle mayhem in the opening half hour, starting with a nerve-wracking scene in which Dr Boley and his daughter Diana are attacked by the monsters whilst paying a visit to the ill-fated curiosity collector Uncle Willy. This is then followed by equally effective and memorable in which the Boley's are attacked whilst out of the road by a gargoyle which alights on the roof of their moving car and another in which they are besieged in their motel room by the creatures. Whilst these scenes are undoubtedly played more for playful jump out of your seat style scares as opposed to serious horror they are certainly well done and whilst they are unlikely to scare a contemporary audience it is easy to see how they might have had unwitting youngsters cowering behind the sofa back in the day.
Unfortunately the obvious consequence of having the gargoyles out on open display so much during the films first half is that it does quickly demystify them and ultimately diminishes whatever power they may have initially possessed to frighten the viewer. In addition it also has to be said that while Gargoyles - at a mere 74 minutes in length - is too short to ever really outstay its welcome, it does rather lose its way in its later stages once Diana becomes a captive of the gargoyles leaving Dr Boley with the task of rescuing his daughter and thwarting the gargoyles' world domination scheme. At this point Gargoyles unfortunately descends into unintentional campiness, especially when the gargoyles begin to speak at which point they instantly become too cartoonish to be at all frightening. To tell the truth however, even these scenes are actually quite amusing in their silly sort of way and the only real bum note proves to be the ending which sees Dr Boley scupper the gargoyles' evil plans with ridiculous ease. Needless to say this proves rather anticlimactic to say the least and indicates to me that the budget simply wasn't there to deliver the more spectacular confrontation between man and gargoyle which the script appeared to be building towards.
Fortunately whenever interest begins to start flagging during the later stages of Gargoyles it is sustained thanks to the wonderfully imaginative make-up and effects work which was obviously poured into the creation of the gargoyles themselves. Indeed, whilst clearly portrayed by actors in tight-fitting costumes, the gargoyles make for truly memorable monsters and are really quite remarkable when you bear in mind that they were created for an early seventies television production put together on a limited budget. Without doubt Stan Winston and his colleagues Del Armstrong and Ellis Burman Jr richly deserved the award they received for their efforts. In actual the production values of Gargoyles are actually excellent right across the board with Earl Rath's superb cinematography and Robert Prince's suitably eerie score proving to be of particular benefit to the film.
Finally on yet another positive note, Gargoyles is given a further boost by some good central performances. Self styled acting great Cornel Wilde - who by this point in his career generally only tended to act in films he himself directed and produced such as his classic 1966 tale of survival The Naked Prey - makes for a particularly solid and likeable leading man. Resisting the temptation to hog the screen as he did in many of his own later productions, Wilde brings a welcome air of authority to his role as the Dr Boley, the level-headed anthropologist with more than a passing interest in demonology. However, the gargoyles themselves are undoubtedly the real stars of the show here and to his credit blaxploitation cinema star Bernie Casey does a fine job of hamming it up as the diabolically inclined head gargoyle. Wilde and Casey also receives able support from the lovely Jennifer Salt who shines in her role as Dr Boley's strong-willed daughter Diana. Unfortunately after appearing prominently in Brian De Palma's classic Sisters (1973) a year later, Salt's acting career would drift into anonymity, although she has in recent years made a name for herself as a television writer, most notably penning numerous episodes of the popular series Nip/Tuck. Elsewhere seasoned character actor Woody Chambliss adds some flavour to the films early stages as the eccentric Uncle Willie and a young Scott Glenn also appears in a prominent supporting role as one of a group of teenage dirt bikers who are wrongly blamed for a murder committed by the gargoyles.
In conclusion it must really be reiterated that while Gargoyles may have understandably succeeded in putting the wind up many a young viewer back in 1972, it is very hard to envisage too many people being especially frightened by it today. However, as you may have gathered from the positive tone of this review, that is still by no means to say that Gargoyles is no longer worth going to the trouble of watching. On the contrary, although is goes off the boil somewhat in its campy final act, Gargoyles remains an enduringly engaging blend of fantasy and horror elements, which succeeds in delivering solid entertainment value thanks to a combination of eerie desert atmosphere, dated yet nevertheless top drawer monster make-up and some memorable gargoyle attack sequences. So despite its rather obvious shortcomings, Gargoyles still offers ample fun for both viewers of a certain age paying it a nostalgic revisit and newcomers alike. As such it stands as an enjoyable, well made and at times pleasantly creepy early addition to the scary television movie phenomenon of the seventies.
Gargoyles was released on US all region's DVD by VCI Home Video way back in January 2000. Presented in full screen VCI's DVD features an extremely clear, bright and colourful transfer of the film which actually looks pretty great considering that this is an early seventies television movie. Extra's are limited to a few cursory text biographies of the films main stars and previews of several other VCI releases, but all in all this is a great way to see his little gem of a film. Unfortunately the bad news is that the VCI DVD has now been out of print for a few years and predictably the usual greedy minority of sellers on Amazon Marketplace are seeking extortionate sums of money (£50+) for used copies. There are also others online who are seemingly doing a roaring trade flogging DVD-R copies presumably ripped straight from the VCI disc. I believe there was also a fairly pricey Japanese DVD released a few years back by Trash Mountain Vieo which double-billed Gargoyles alongside that other classic seventies made for television scarefest Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark. This release still seems to be available according to Amazon Japan, however, I'm not sure how it compares in terms of quality to the out of print VCI release.
Gargoyles (VCI Home Video - US All Region's DVD) (Out Of Print): amazon.com l amazon.co.uk