‘Gargoyles,’ the TV movie which first aired on CBS in America in 1972, may not be the best example of its kind, but it may well be its most extraordinary. With the lines now completely eradicated, it already seems a little odd that there was once such a distinction which needed to be made – on one hand boastful chest-puffing from the network, on the other a discrete warning that what you’re about to watch is a step or more down from what you could see at your local cinema. Should there be a chance that the audience may lean towards the latter, networks trailed forthcoming attractions with wild abandon, stopping just shy of declaring that anyone missing the forthcoming television spectacular may as well through their TV set into the sea and take a running jump after it. Viewing figures showed that at the very least, many viewers couldn’t swim – these were enormous events.
Though first appearing in the mid-60s, the 1970s and early 80s were when the TV movie hit its stride. The most surprising element isn’t necessarily their success but what films kinds of were being made. You may have expected cheap knock-offs of whatever was appearing on the silver screen, but films made for television were often far odder and certainly didn’t take their foot off the pedal when it came to horror and suspense. In 1971, Steven Spielberg had already created a classic new monster in the shape of an enormous truck (‘Duel’), and even if you felt safe on the roads you had to contend with violent stalkers (Herschel Daugherty’s ‘The Victim’; Bernard L. Kowalski’s ‘The Woman Hunter’) or peril from above (‘Terror in the Sky’ – Kowalski again) or even already living in your house (John Newland’s ‘Crawlspace’ from 1972). Newland repeated the trick with ‘Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark’ in 1973, perhaps the best-remembered TV horror of them all.
What quickly elevated the TV movie was that you were being scared in the comfort of your own home, surrounded by your family and in the knowledge that at some point you would have to venture upstairs to the loo. To be scared at home with your loved ones was an entirely different prospect from watching a horror film in a designated building with strangers rustling popcorn, and glowing exit signs vying for your attention. TV networks were psychologically tweaking their audiences by putting them in situations they could relate to and environments they were familiar with. Enter – ‘Gargoyles’.
‘ Gargoyles’ was directed by Bill L. Norton, an American with only one previous feature film under his belt, 1971’s ‘Cisco Pike’, starring Gene Hackman, Kris Kristofferson and Karen Black. Norton was a last-minute replacement, his unnamed predecessor baulking at the 18-day shooting schedule in 100-degree+ heat. The screenplay was written by Stephen and Elinor Karpf, a husband and wife team who had initially written about film, not for it. On-set throughout filming, barely a word was changed from the original script. With a very modest budget of around $350,000, the studio did little to interfere, so long as whatever was happening didn’t cost them any extra money. The film starred Cornel Wilde (previously seen in the excellent hunting humans flick, ‘Naked Prey’ from 1965), Jennifer Salt (fresh from Brian de Palma’s ‘Sisters’), ‘House of Dark Shadows’ stalwart, Grayson Hall and Bernie Casey, a former NFL star who had already settled into his new career with appearances in Paul Wendkos’ ‘Guns of the Magnificent Seven’ (1969) and Martin Scorsese’s ‘Boxcar Bertha’ (1972).
A quick synopsis: Dr Mercer Boley (Wilde) and his daughter Diana (Salt) are travelling through New Mexico to research a book on demonology, when they stumble upon a winged skeleton in a tumbledown gas station museum, leading to an encounter with a clutch of gargoyles living in the remote hills, desperate to protect their incubating eggs. As I say, a quick synopsis.
It’s strange to think that in 1972, there was a feeling that all the monsters imaginable had already appeared in films and that of the few left, gargoyles were ripe for the picking. Prior to seeing the film for the first time, I can imagine I was intrigued and fascinated by gargoyles on buildings but never felt that what the world was crying out for was a film about them. Not to disappear too far down the rabbit hole but there is a question about gargoyles living in the American desert having previously only featured on European gothic architecture. Stowaways? Riding thermals above the Atlantic? Of course, what this really is is much more basic. It’s good versus evil; old versus new; devils versus humans. Americans, we had found 200 years previously, were not fond of being controlled by foreigners and here was a threat to control them from within their own country.
One of the reasons ‘Gargoyles’ is so effective is its remote location. With the filming set in the surroundings of Carlsbad Caverns of New Mexico, there is palpably oppressive hot and stickiness throughout the daytime scenes combined with the feeling of constantly being watched by others from above in the pitch black at night. It’s a hostile environment, one where we don’t really belong and one which offers little to help you if you get into difficulties. It would be silly not to mention Wes Craven’s, ‘The Hills Have Eyes’ (1977) at this point, a film with a much larger budget and more recognisable enemies, but which showed a similarly barren landscape as, if not a direct threat, certainly an apathetic bystander. The caverns had previously been the backdrop for the Stewart Granger version of ‘King Solomon’s Mines); ‘Earth vs. The Spider’ (1958) and ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ (1959). In 1974, it would be used for Jerry Jameson’s ‘The Bat People’, a film which borrows rather heavily from ‘Gargoyles’ regardless of where it was filmed.
If ‘Gargoyles’ is famous for anything, it’s that it’s the first film worked on by special effect God, Stan Winston. Winston had only finished his apprenticeship at Disney earlier the same year and was freelancing in make-up departments TV quiz and variety shows. Make-up room gossip had alerted Winston to ‘Gargoyles’ being green-lit and he put himself forward to Del Armstrong, the head of the department on the film. Armstrong, like Wilson, started his career from meagre beginnings, from an unbilled make-up assistant on ‘The Wizard of Oz’ through to ‘Jaws’ (1975) and ‘Return of the Living Dead: Part II’ (1988).
Winston was tasked with creating the one-piece rubber masks for background gargoyles in the film, with Ellis Burman Jr (later to work on six incarnations of Star Trek) given the plum job of creating the mask for the lead gargoyle, played by Bernie Casey. Unfortunately, Casey and Burman did not see eye to eye, and the task of applying the design Burman crafted was passed on to Winston. Winston successfully campaigned to have his name in the film’s credits, to the chagrin of Norton but the delight of artists such as Dick Smith (‘The Exorcist’, 1973) and John Chambers (‘Planet of the Apes’, 1968, not to mention the creation of Spock’s ears in Star Trek) who had both seen their work treated as little more than making-the-tea level. It’s worth noting that ‘Gargoyles’ appears mid-way through the ‘Planet of the Apes’ saga, and doubtless played on audience’s love of moral dilemmas and rubber maks. Indeed, on his first full job, Winston received the ‘Outstanding Make-Up Effects’ Emmy at the following year’s presentation…all of which suggests the make-up was spectacular.
To clarify, the make-up on ‘Gargoyles’ is not spectacular. It’s effective and memorable, but it’s also hokey and a bit daft. There’s very little way around the make-up for a living gargoyle looking a bit daft but it’s not helped by the fact that you see so much of them. The build-up to Mercer and Diana encountering the creatures is very well staged, the contrast between blinding light and impenetrable darkness combined with an already claustrophobic setting. It’s a surprise when we get our first glimpse of a gargoyle, lingering a little longer on-screen than you may expect and with dazzling clarity. It’s more surprising still when the gargoyles take centre stage and you see them throughout in high-resolution glory.
The rubber applications look elaborate but far from convincing, the wings a triumph of sellotape battling against gravity. As far as neoprene wetsuits covered in fishnet go, they’re of Emmy standard. That the film doesn’t decent into farce is a tribute to the crew and to Bernie Casey, whose appearance despite, and, to a large extent, because of the care taken to his make-up, demands your attention throughout. If only the beaked henchmen, looking like Sam the Eagle from The Muppets, had remained in the shadows, their fluttering and scratching could have elicited far more suspense.
This wouldn’t matter as much if the set-up hadn’t been to present the film as a horror movie. 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’ (1922) – that Man should know his place, to horrendously padded melodrama, to costumes that range from effectively beguiling to last-minute fancy dress party indecision. A saving grace comes in the form of some effective slow-motion photography when the gargoyles are on the move, giving them a lurching supernatural quality (whilst in reality probably just allowed for footage to be reusable before their wings fell off).
Casey is the physical embodiment of evil, but the electronically altered voice is that of Vic Perrin, whose tones can be heard on countless cartoons and other works from the ’60s to the ’80s, most notably the opening credits of ‘The Outer Limits’ and countless villains from the original ‘Scooby Doo‘).
There’s an issue of the human characters being somewhat dislikeable to the point of xenophobia, with the lead gargoyle reasonably explaining to Diana that his kind only means to exist as a race, not to cause humans harm. The film’s opening suggests that in fact the two have been at odds for centuries but the 75-minute running time means that the gargoyles are given little backstory. An alcoholic motel owner, played by Grayson Hall, offers some relief from the pious prying of the anthropologists, whilst the appearance of a biker gang (lead by Scott Glenn from ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, 1991), arrested by local police for vandalism committed by gargoyles (easy mistake to make), feels very crowbarred in. By the time you reach the end, there’s still enough life left in the film to give you one last jaw-dropping moment.
Despite…EVERYTHING, ‘Gargoyles’ is thoroughly entertaining over 50 years on. It’s easy to rip to shreds but it’s joyfully preposterous and everyone plays it completely straight. Moreover, everyone went off into the sunset to achieve more great things:
Bill went widescreen to direct ‘Baby: Secret of a Lost Legend’ but returned to the small screen, where he worked prolifically, including both ‘Angel’ and ‘Buffy’.
Wilde had already enjoyed the heyday of his career but still went on to star and direct 1975’s ‘Shark’s Treasure’ (slightly eclipsed by another fish film the same year) and appear in Charles B. Pierce’s ‘Northman’, alongside Lee Majors and Mel Ferrer. He died in 1989.
Salt acted in TV roles throughout the 1980s, as a guest star in everything from ‘Magnum P.I.’ to ‘Murder, She Wrote’, before becoming one of television’s bigtime producers, with ‘Nip/Tuck’ and ‘American Horror Story’ being her major triumphs.
Hall was already in the twilight of her career and had secured her legacy by appearing in 475 episodes of ‘Dark Shadows’. She popped up only occasionally on screens, the stand-out being ‘The Great Ice Rip-Off’, Dan Curtis’ diamond thief caper from 1974 starring Lee J. Cobb. Hall died in 1985.
Casey’s expressive eyes and menacing low brow seemed to lend themselves to horror films, yet he only appeared in two more – the lead in ‘Dr Black, Mr Hyde’ (1976) and John Carpenter’s ‘In the Mouth of Madness’ (1994). Not that this limited his appearances in productions of all kinds, from blaxploitation (Cleopatra Jones, 1973), sci-fi (The Man Who Fell to Earth, 1976) to action (‘Never Say Never Again’, 1983) and much more besides. He died in 2017.