Monday, October 12, 2015

Hubrisween 2015 :: G is for Gargoyles (1972)

We kick off with an animated preamble illustrating Lucifer's fall from grace and his banishment to Hell. Undaunted, the Devil himself conspires to regain what was lost by declaring his offspring will one day rule the Earth and subjugate God's chosen ones. These offspring, the Gargoyles, have been trying to accomplish this ever since but have thus far been beaten back into the darkness only to reappear and try again once every six hundred years or so (in alliance with their breeding cycle). Cut to modern day (circa 1972), which is about 599 years and 364 days since the last uprising, meaning the demonic revolution is about to happen again. Only it has been so long since the last one humankind has basically forgotten about this ancient adversary, relegating them to the stuff of myths and lawn ornaments.

Enter Dr. Mercer Boley (Wilde), a cultural anthropologist, currently collecting artifacts and research for his new book, Five Thousand Years of Demonology, which will cover all forms of traceable evil since man started documenting such things. Having just finished off a publicity tour, Boley is presently in New Mexico with his daughter, Diana (Salt), heading south to old Mexico where an archaeological dig awaits -- but he needs to make a pit-stop along the way first. Seems he's been contacted by a mystery party who has an ancient Indian exorcism totem to sell but demanded Boley come for it in person. And turns out this meeting place is a ramshackle tourist trap in the middle of nowhere called Uncle Willie's Desert Museum and Reptile Emporium.

Though his daughter feels they've been had, a shrugging Boley says might as well check it out after coming all this way. Now picture a grizzled and sun-baked desert hermit who’s gone a little light-happy and what you've envisioned probably looks a lot like Willie Levitt (Woody Chambliss). Turns out he's a big fan of Dr. Boley and has something even more impressive to show him -- for a cut of the profits on ‘their’ new book. When Boley asks to see what he's selling first, Willie nervously takes them to a separate shed and reveals a ginormous humanoid skeleton complete with wings, a beak and a horned skull.

Again, the Boleys scoff, figuring the old coot has pieced this monstrous fake out of scavenged animal bones. Well, Willie scavenged it alright, claiming to have found the intact skeleton in a desert canyon nearby as he slowly seals the shed up tight as the sun goes down. His palpable fear of the thing and insistence on its authenticity brings out Boley's tape recorder to document the old man's tale; but he barely gets started about a Native American legend concerning "devils" that lived in the rocks when the shed is suddenly besieged from all sides by something powerful enough its claws can slash through corrugated metal as if it were tissue paper!

And as the building collapses, catches fire, and burns all around them, with Willie being killed in the process, Boley manages to retrieve the skull and makes it to their car with Diana and they speed away -- only not fast enough as Willie's legend proves all too real as an honest to god monster latches onto their car and tries to force them off the road! But the attacker is given the slip and the Boleys limp into the nearest fly-speck of a town, leave the car at a service station for repairs, and hole up in a motel -- all under the suspicious bourbon-soaked eye of the manager, Mrs. Parks (Hall). Inside, Boley listens to the last words on tape uttered by poor Willie, which is quickly drowned out by a terrible roar followed by Diana screaming. The next morning, they report the death but leave out the monster part, which leads to a tricky situation when several dirt bikers, led by Reeger (Glenn), get railroaded and hauled in for the crime by the Sheriff (Stevens). 

Then things really hit the fan when the Boleys are attacked in their motel room by two more monsters that make off with the skull, but one of them is hit by a truck as it tried to escape. Realizing this was a living and breathing gargoyle -- stress on the 'was', and much better proof of the same than the skull, Boley hides the body in their room over the protests of Diana, who feels these creatures were not trying to hurt anyone but just wanted the bones of their dead back. Boley doesn't disagree, which means they will most definitely return for the corpse, too. And so, he bullies Diana into helping haul the body to the gas station, where it is quickly loaded into the repaired vehicle. But before they can make an escape, a whole pack of gargoyles attack the station wagon and overturn it, rendering the passengers unconscious. And while his minions retrieve the corpse, a large winged gargoyle becomes fascinated by the prone Diana -- so fascinated he scoops her up after a little *ahem* ‘tinkering’ and carries her off into the desert, destination unknown...

I remember watching Gargoyles (1972) on the CBS Late Movie when I was around eight years old and it had always stuck with me as being both creepy and highly entertaining. What I remembered most is the scene in the motel when the gargoyles’ clawed hands appear over the bed to pull itself out from underneath and then attacked the Boleys to get the skull. Believe me, I checked under my own bed for months after that just to be sure. Though it should be pointed out that, technically, the creatures we’re watching are Grotesques as Gargoyles are, essentially, rain-gutters and downspouts. And how awesome would that have been if these monsters vomited out cones of water as a means of self-defense? Survey says: Pretty damned awesome.

Producers Robert Christiansen and Rick Rosenberg had originally wanted Jud Taylor to direct their telefilm for CBS but he pulled out when they stubbornly refused to expand the budget and shooting schedule. Gargoyles would be just the second film directed by the replacement, Bill Norton, who, together with cinematographer Earl Rath, did an excellent job of maximizing their budget and pulling plenty of chills from Steven and Elinor Karpf’s ambitious script. Not since the heyday of Jack Arnold [It Came from Outer Space (1954), Tarantula (1955)] has the desert been utilized so well. How anything that wide open can feel so isolating is impressive. And with some deft camerawork and superb lighting, the viewer gets the sense that someone is always watching the protagonist from above during the day and that something is ever lurking just out of the minimal pools of light at night -- Diana’s not so lonely late-night walk back from the police station to the motel is ah-mazingly well executed.

The film is also anchored by an outstanding cast with some hardened veterans on one end and some brand new faces on the other. Vintage actor Cornell Wilde was just coming of his eco-disaster flick, No Blade of Grass (1970), and adds some old-school gravitas to the proceedings. Jennifer Salt did this sandwiched between a Woody Allen and a Brian de Palma flick but wouldn’t find true success until she got hooked up with the TV spoof Soap. After a few TV episodes I believe this was Scott Glenn’s first feature. And according to several sources, it was Dark Shadows alum Grayson Hall’s idea to have a liquor bottle permanently attached to one hand of her character and an ever present tumbler stuck to the other.

But the production’s biggest asset is the gargoyles themselves, designed and provided by Ellis Burman, Del Armstrong, Stan Winston and (according to Norton’s director commentary) an uncredited Rick Baker. (The skeleton was provided by the legendary Bischoff’s Taxidermy of Los Angeles.) I counted at least a dozen different and unique gargoyles. The head sculpts are what really set each apart (notice how the designs allows the natural eye to show through, blink, and emote), while the bodies look like descendants of Sid and Marty Kroft’s Sleestaks. But the suits only real failings are the wings on the dominant “breeders”. 

The Alpha gargoyle that kidnaps Diana and wants ‘to play house’ was played by Bernie Casey and voiced by a distorted Vic Perrin. (And spare a moment of pity for Casey and the poor stuntmen who had to wear those costumes in the 100 degree heat as they filmed in and around Carlsbad, New Mexico.) And though I think they hold up remarkably well some forty years later – well, that final flying sequence is pretty hilarious, even in the crisp, restored light of a digital DVD, Norton wasn’t so sure and tried to use the less is more approach and suggestion and shadows until the attacks on the motel. And from there, he used a process called step-printing to slow the creatures’ motions to give them an unnatural feel.

And as creepy and effective as Gargoyles has been thus far, it gets even better as we flap and claw toward the climax with even more creepy and more effective shock moments. It begins when Boley rallies the Sheriff to form a posse, including those exonerated off-road bikers, to head into the desert to rescue Diana, who is teaching the curious Alpha what is to be human. Held in a large cave filled with thousands of gargoyle eggs, some of which are starting to hatch, these two broach the subject of peaceful co-existence but the conversation is cut short when a scout reports that a caravan of humans with guns are headed their way. Meantime, that posse comes across the gas station attendant’s pick-up, meandering in a slow circle. He and Mrs. Cross had been sent to contact the State Police after the gargoyles tore down the phone and power lines. They didn’t make it. The empty cab is filled with blood, and though his body is never found her body is discovered hanging upside down from a power pole, which scares off over half the search party.

As night falls, the gargoyles attack the remaining humans and quickly rout them. Boley is captured and taken to the cave, where the Alpha gloats that the era of man is over. But while he turns his attention back on Diana, who reads gothic nun porn to distract him, her father escapes. He finds the Sheriff and warns the end is nigh unless they take out the egg chamber, which they manage to do when Reeger sacrifices himself to blow the cave up. Meanwhile, with only the two winged gargoyles left, Boley confronts the Alpha, who was trying to escape with Diana to start a new colony. With rock in hand, Boley attacks the female gargoyle, destroying a wing, forcing the Alpha to leave Diana behind and fly away with the injured female to try again in another 600 years.

Considering when it was filmed, an argument could be made that Gargoyles was less a biblical allegory and more a treatise on the prickly racial undercurrents dividing America at the time. (Technically, and sadly, they still kinda do.) An even bigger argument could be made tying it to the treatment of Native Americans, whose graves are robbed in the name of science and who were nearly and systematically eliminated from existence for being sub-human savages. And either approach starts to get really sticky when you plug in the Alpha coming down with Ro-Man’s Syndrome over Diana and the implications of that makes my head hurt. And so, that is why I like to take Gargoyles at face-value as nothing more than a genuine throwback monster movie. No more. No less. And a huge thanks to Hen’s Tooth Video for releasing this on DVD. Hopefully, many more MFTV movies of this vintage will be getting the same treatment soon.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd.

Gargoyles (1972) Tomorrow Entertainment :: Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS)/ EP: Roger Gimbel / P: Robert W. Christiansen, Rick Rosenberg / D: Bill L. Norton / W: Steven Karpf, Elinor Karpf / C: Earl Rath / E: Frank P. Keller / M: Robert Prince / S: Cornel Wilde, Jennifer Salt, Grayson Hall, Scott Glenn, Woody Chambliss, William Stevens, Bernie Casey


Anonymous said...

No Lie: 'Twas but a kid back in the '70s and an establishing shot in "Gargoyles," in which a shadow on a hillside overlooking the station wagon in the valley below casually opened the wings from its humanoid form, had me checking the rafters from the kitchen window of my parents' suburban home for monsters scrabbling on the roof for years to come. A simple but effective fearmongering bit of cinematic technique!

-Troy Z

W.B. Kelso said...

I hear ya. Checked under the bed for months on end. You know, just to be safe. Thanks for reading!

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