Saturday, May 7, 2011

The Return of "Gargoyles"

There are some movies I've seen so many times I've lost track. Others I've seen only once, and I would prefer to keep it that way. And then there is the rare breed: movies I've seen only once and have wanted to see again for years, but have been unable to for one reason or another. Gargoyles (1972), starring Cornel Wilde and Jennifer Salt, is an example of that breed--or was until today.

I saw Gargoyles when it premiered as a TV-movie when I was 12 years old. It made a powerful impression, but 39 years passed before I got a chance to see it again. When Netflix recently made it available, I pounced. I am pleased to say that it holds up.

Gargoyles is a horror movie about a scientist and his daughter (Wilde and Salt, respectively) who come across some demonic reptilian creatures in a western desert. The creatures, we learn, hatch every 500 years or so, at which point they make war on humans and are usually beaten back into obscurity. They have been the source of the worldwide myths and legends about demons; in western Europe, they inspired the gargoyles that adorn cathedrals. With help from a local police chief and some young bikers, Wilde rescues his daughter from the gargoyles and defeats them--at least for the moment.

Gargoyles is intelligent, original, and scary, an achievement considering its origins as a modestly-budgeted movie of the week. It has an ingenious plot (how many TV-movies purport to explain the origin of a global folkloric motif?), likeable leads, good support (from, among others, a young Scott Glenn as a biker), and credible monsters. I emphasize the last point. A horror movie is only as good as its deformed destructive beings, or DDBs, and these gargoyles are good. Created by a team that included budding creature effects master Stan Winston, they are dark, muscular hybrids of human and reptile, mixed variously with birds, apes, bats, and things out of Bosch paintings. Though often in shadow, the gargoyles are seen clearly enough that we don't suspect the filmmakers of trying to hide something. The DDBs' workmanship is good enough to sustain even daylight scrutiny.

Everything else contributes to the presentation of the DDBs. The gargoyle sound effects are creepy; the electronic music sets a foreboding tone. The gargoyles move at a slightly slower speed than the surrounding actors, making the DDBs appear more surreal. The production design of the gargoyle hatchery, which contains eggs that are destroyed by fire, preceded by 14 years the similar design of the hatchery-destroyed-by-fire in Aliens (1986). Without being overly topical, Gargoyles hints at social themes--for example, by casting black actor Bernie Casey as the lead gargoyle, and having him intone about gargoyles and humans as if they were two races in conflict.

Gargoyles is not perfect. It is constrained by its limited budget, brief running time (74 minutes), and TV censorship that keeps it from fully exploring the gargoyle-on-woman subplot that is briefly raised. The gargoyle costumes sometimes fold like the costumes they are. But overall, this is a good horror movie that is worth tracking down.

George Ochoa
Deformed and Destructive Beings: The Purpose of Horror Films

1 comment:

Dan said...

Thanks for the review. It was a great movie and it scarred me for life. I'm doing a song based on the movie with my band coming out next year.