This week’s movie gives a spotlight to some terrifying creatures that horror movies tend to use as stone decorations, as opposed to living monsters who pose an apocalyptic threat to the human race.
When: November 21, 1972
The symbolism of gargoyles differs around the world, but in Western society, they’re the good guys. While the creatures are inherently scary due to their grotesque appearance, their purpose is to ward off evil spirits, which is why their statues can be found on many churches, libraries, skyscrapers, and university campuses. But, like I said, gargoyles are creepy, which makes them perfect antagonists in horror films.
Of course, gargoyles in horror and pop culture are a rare breed. If you watched cartoons in the ‘90s, you’re probably familiar with Gargoyles, in which the titular creatures serve as misunderstood protectors of New York City. Gargoyles is a great show, but the monsters are portrayed in a heroic light and not that scary.
In Bill L. Norton’s 1972 creature feature Gargoyles, however, the mythical monsters are more threatening, albeit not exactly evil either. But it’s a horror movie featuring some of the coolest and most underutilized monsters in world mythology, and that’s a victory for those of us who love movies that are too ghoul for school. Written by Stephen and Elinor Karpf, Gargoyles stars Cornel Wilde and Jennifer Salt as an anthropologist and his daughter. After taking a strange skeleton from a roadside attraction, they are pursued by a tribe of humanoid creatures across the desert terrains of the American Southwest.
The gargoyles are essentially agents of Satan, sent to Earth by the Dark Lord to hide in the shadows, biding their time until the opportunity to rule the world presents itself. Their allegiance to the Devil is barely mentioned after the prologue, though, and the creatures seem more content to hide in the shadows than launch a coup against humankind.
In fact, the only reason why they show up to torment the humans is that they want to reclaim the bodies and remains of their fallen ones. Why? It’s so their existence can remain a secret until they have time to hatch an army because humanity has a history of trying to make their kind go extinct. If anything, it’s the humans that inspire the gargoyles to hatch a world domination plot, not Satan.
Still, even though there’s a case to be made for the humans being the real monsters, Gargoyles is still a spooky creature movie with some solid horror set-pieces. While the monsters are quite sympathetic, so are the humans, and the scenes where they are in peril are threatening and exciting. There’s a terrific chase scene where the gargoyles run the protagonists’ car off the road after causing a fire, which kills an old man for meddling in their business. The beasts also kidnap women, but not for any sleazy reasons.
Another strong component of the film’s horror credentials is the creature suits, which were handled by the legendary Stan Winston of Alien fame. They’re nightmare-inducing in many ways, but also very charming. This movie used to be a fixture on afternoon television back in the day, and it’s clear that the creators wanted to entice kids with the monsters, while simultaneously appealing to adults.
What’s most impressive about Winston’s work here, however, is how he gave every monster — no matter how inconsequential in the grand scheme of things — some unique qualities. So many horror movies portray groups of creatures as identical, but in Gargoyles, they have their own individual characteristics. It’s a neat touch that helps establish the creatures as a human-like species, as opposed to animals. Also, Winston won his first Emmy for this movie, and it was well deserved.
The performances are also universally strong across the board. Wilde plays a middle-aged everyman hero with stern conviction, but it’s Scott Glenn who steals the show as a biker who ends up in jail after being wrongfully blamed for one of the gargoyles’ crimes. Here, he showcases the charisma and commanding screen presence that’s made him a household name for decades, and it’s unsurprising that he went on to star in more notable projects after Gargoyles.
Gargoyles is a delightful little movie that boasts some amazing creature effects, and monster fans will love it for that reason alone. That said, while the story is quite a basic man-versus-monster scenario, it scores extra points for making the creatures smart and nuanced. It’s the type of movie that wants you to see that everyone is capable of being barbaric, but it also gives both the protagonists and antagonists some justifiable motivations.
The message behind Gargoyles is a simple one: everyone needs to learn to coexist with each other, or else all of us risk being wiped out in the end. That’s what I gathered from it anyway. More people should watch ’70s made-for-television horror movies because there are valuable lessons to be learned from some of them.