Jarv’s Schlock Vault: Gargoyles
They’re no more dangerous than a high school drop-out on a motorcycle.
Gargoyles are something that I genuinely don’t understand. You’re an architect for the Catholic Church (could be any church, I don’t care), and you decide to place a load of ugly stone grotesqueries on corners and whatnot. I don’t understand why you would want to do this to a place of worship. My best guess is that the architects had a hidden atheist streak and wanted to stick one to the man, but didn’t have the scruples to turn down the moolah. Which, to be honest, sounds exactly like something I would do as well. Regardless of my feelings on Baroque architecture, because they are, much like my opinion on a whole range of subjects from golf to soft furnishings, totally irrelevant, in 1972 Bill L. Norton made a little monster movie that has garnered a significant cult following called, you guessed it, Gargoyles.
Contains Men in Rubber Suits and Spoilers Below.
When I saw this as a kid it scared the bejesus out of me, but watching it as an adult, I felt little more than scorn for my younger self. This happens far too often to me actually: I dig something out that I loved as a child only to find out that not only has it not held up to the present day, but the quirky charm of it I loved as a nipper seems to have evaporated. I know that I’ve used this analogy before, but it’s akin to visiting a seaside town in the summer- you have a great time, the people are friendly, everywhere is busy, the beer is chilled and delicious, the sun is out and it’s all a blast. Then you go back again in February and it’s a desolate promenade with flyers for a long departed circus blowing across. The sky is grey and the people are more like the regulars in the Slaughtered Lamb than those smiling folk from the summer. And you get knifed. Gargoyles didn’t quite turn on me as much as that, but I watched it with a mild sense of disappointment, and one serious, serious problem with the writing that I simply could not get over.
The film opens with a helpful introduction on the nature of Gargoyles and all what they’re all about. Just in case you slept through Religion 101, it tells about Lucifer falling from Heaven etc. The Gargoyles are his children and he promised that every 600 or so years they would resume the war on God’s Children (i.e. us) and eventually he would win and wipe humanity off the face of the Earth. Given the sheer uselessness of the Gargoyles, I have to say that I think he was being a tad optimistic. Anyhoo, enter Dr. Boley (Cornell Wilde) and his daughter Diana (Jennifer Salt- sporting a very fetching line in halter neck tops). He’s an academic on a research trip. Making the disastrous decision to purchase a gargoyle skeleton from a local con artist, he’s feeling optimistic about his next book. Before you can say “stone monster” all hell has broken loose and a lot of men in rubber turn up to retrieve the skeleton causing all sorts of havoc. The local police arrest two bikers for it, and he manages to capture/kill one. Diana tries to trade the bikers freedom for the corpse/ unconscious Gargoyle, but is herself taken by the higher ranking ones (you can tell because they have wings and can talk and whatnot). The rest of the film involves the war between the yokels and the monsters. However, while this is taking place, head Gargoyle is cozying up to her in the pretense of learning to read, which is pissing off Mama Gargoyle no end. Eventually, Boley and the locals torch the entire species, but he decides to only break Mama’s wing allowing the head Gargoyle to fly off into the sunset with his injured mate- but not before a promise that in 600 years his kind will triumph.
I’m just going to deal with my problem with the writing here. I totally understand the rationale for slaughtering the monsters, but the problem I have is that the Gargoyles a) aren’t any kind of threat at all, and b) are clearly sentient. Boley makes the call, and the locals jump all over it, to basically exterminate the entire species with very little provocation, and we aren’t talking about the adults- we’re talking about the spawn. Given that a handful of morons in the arse-end of nowhere has been able to thrash them with no real effort (Lucifer’s plan does, in fact, have a serious flaw), it strikes me as a touch, well, repellent to massacre the entire lot of them and to do it so blithely. The decision to bash the fuckers into extinction is taken in an almost blasé fashion- the academic lacks even base sympathy for an obviously backward race and is quite happy to eradicate the lot without even blinking. This then sits jarringly with the finale of the film- to allow the breeding pair to escape. I suppose, given the utter arse kicking handed out to the rubber freaks, he’s feeling fairly confident about Man’s ability to claim these fuckers, but it still strikes me as a bit, well, weird. As such, I honestly did not like the final act of the film at all, and it left me scratching my head in a bit of bemusement.
This inconsistency is a shame, because the first 2/3 of the film are great fun. Men in terrible costumes maraud around shitty motels, there’s a load of overacting from Bernie Casey as “Gargoyle” and the whole thing has a pleasant, fun feel to it. The acting, actually, from Wilde and Salt is also fairly good, and she must have been struggling not to laugh out loud as Gargoyle pulls the rubber demon equivalent of “do you want to come and see my etchings” on her. The book reading scene that I’m referring to is genuinely hilarious, and a clear high point in the movie.
As is to be expected from a film made in 1972 for TV with no money, the makeup, costumes and effects are crap. The Gargoyles flying is a lousy effect, and the suits look suspiciously like green trousers and a load of dodgy latex. The individual masks themselves, however, supplied by Stan Winston, are genuinely superb, and Ernst Blofeld Gargoyle’s in particular is practically a work of art. Just he’s wearing knock off camo trousers as well. However, this all adds to the charm of it, as the clear shoddiness makes the lumbering attempts by the lower ranked Gargoyles to even win a fight with an old codger like Boley hugely amusing. They crash hilariously through doors that all of a sudden seem to be made out of cardboard, hop around motel rooms and are honestly just an epic fail as the vanguard of Lucifer’s army. I confidently predict, based on this film, that if Armageddon ever comes, then Satan is going to be on the receiving end of the biggest kicking since Agincourt.
Despite my misgivings, though, there is a certain charm to the film. It is entertaining and for the most part, until the final third, our characters are kind of likeable. If there’s one description that I’d use for this film, and so many movies nowadays just don’t have this, then I’d say that Gargoyles has a lot of heart. It’s obvious that everyone involved in the film cared enough about it to go that little bit further, and the gentle atmosphere, and sense of fun really do go a long way with a film like this. Sure, the sets, costumes, makeup and other effects may be crap, but we’ve all sat through countless movies with spellbindingly good effects etc and been thoroughly underwhelmed (looking at you Star Wars Prequels). Gargoyles feels like a bit of a throwback in this regard, and that is quite a pleasant change from the soulless crap that we see so often today.
Overall, I now feel totally ambivalent towards Gargoyles. While it isn’t hateful at all, and it certainly does have both heart and charm, I simply cannot get over the climax of the movie. I pray that I’m wrong about this, but it feels like a wee bit of a “man is the real monster” subtext, but if that is the case, then why on Earth does the Gargoyle get his “evil mastermind” final speech? If it isn’t the case, then why are they not more of a threat in the first half of the film? Because, seriously, they’re no danger to modern man at all, being out gunned (literally), stupid, clumsy and limited in number. I get that there is meant to be literally thousands of them hatching, but these are infants, and we number in the billions. Billions with guns, or at the very least sharp sticks and things. I’m not recommending Gargoyles, but nor am I slating it, and if you ever stumble across it on TV then it’s a totally adequate way to pass the time.
I just do wish the Gargoyles had been more of a menace in the first half of the film.
Until next time,