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Gargoyles
(1972)

Director: Bill L. Norton 
Cast:
Cornel Wilde, Jennifer Salt, Grayson Hall


There seems to be a feeling among many human beings that the way we run the planet should be totally up to us. After all, in many aspects we seem to be the best living beings on the planet to be in charge of what happens anywhere in the world. We are the smartest beings on the planet, we can adapt to many different kinds of environments - well, according to some people, that makes the planet ours for the taking. But what if some other kind of intelligent species came to our planet and wanting their own piece of our pie? Over the years, there have been a number of different cinematic and television visions involving beings from some other world suddenly showing up on our world and being forced upon us. One of them was with the movie (and subsequent television series of the same name) Alien Nation. It concerned itself with alien slaves from a distant world getting lost and accidentally landing on our world with no way to move on. In both the movie and the television series, the aliens for the most part were accepted by humans. After all, they looked very similar to humans and had private lives that weren't that much different from many human beings. But in this cynical world of ours, I have the gut feeling that if this premise were to happen in real life, humans wouldn't be so accepting as they were in that fictional universe. My feeling is that something more along the lines of District 9 would happen. If you remember that movie, it concerned a large number of alien refugees from a distant world making their way to our planet. No doubt because they looked, talked, and acted very much unlike human beings, they were treated a lot more harshly than the aliens in Alien Nation.

With this universe being as big as it is, and a number of far-off Earth-like planets already being found, I think it would be wise if humanity were to plan as to what to do if aliens came to our planet and wanted some room to live. But there are some people who caution that that concern is something we should not be worrying about, at least as much as another worry about a completely different invading force - a force that is pure evil. I'm talking about Satan and his many demonic followers. Religious people say that Satan and his cronies hate humanity with a passion, and would do anything to take over the planet and the humans that live there. Personally, I take this supposed threat with a grain of salt. There are many problems with the whole setup of Satan and his followers. For one thing, there is the supposed origin of Satan and his demon followers. Reports from the Bible claim that Satan and his demon followers were originally angels that rebelled from God and waged a war with Him, but lost and were cast down into hell. But isn't God supposed to be perfect? If he were perfect, wouldn't he have made angels that wouldn't have rebelled in the first place? There are other questions with the whole Satan and God theory. One question I brought up in a previous review was why Satan has such hatred towards humanity and does everything he can to make humans miserable, when logic states that his anger should be at God. Why not get back at God by giving humans everything that they want? If God had some competition, it might bother Him

But instead, Satan and his cronies are reportedly planning for their eventual conquest of Earth and the humans inhabiting it, while using every opportunity along the way to strike at humanity. There have been a number of movies more or less covering this evil plan, but I have to confess that I simply have not been convinced by any of these movies. The problems I have had with these Gargoylesmovies have been varied, from bad makeup or other special effects making up the demonic forces, to the demonic forces' evil plans, which often don't seem to make all that much sense. When I picked up the made-for-television movie Gargoyles, which involves demonic forces, I didn't know if it would be another example of illogical demonic plans. However, I was reasonably sure I would get some sort of interesting special effects depicting the creatures. In the opening minutes of the movie, we are introduced to the central characters, anthropologist Dr. Mercer Boley (Wilde, who a few years earlier directed No Blade Of Grass) and his daughter Diana (Salt, Soap), who is his assistant. They have traveled to the deserts of the American southwest after a fellow living in the area by the name of Willie (Woody Chambliss, Gunsmoke) informed them that he has uncovered a great find. When they reach Willie, he shows them a skeleton he has unearthed that is not quite human, and not quite animal. To the scepticism of the Boleys, Willie claims that the skeleton is the remains of one of the "devils" that local Native American tribes claimed lived in the area hundreds of years ago. Shortly afterwards, while the Boleys are still trying to decide if the find is genuine, Willie's shack is attacked by some unidentified creature. Willie is killed in the fracas, but the Boleys manage to save the skull of the skeleton and escape from the area. When the Boleys inform the police the next morning of Willie's death, the law soon decides that the attack was done by a motorcycle gang in the area. The Boleys don't believe that conclusion, and they are right. As you have no doubt concluded, the attack was done by one of a group of gargoyles - scale-covered and horned humanoid creatures - living in the area who are determined to get the skull back from the Boleys. Their leader (Bernie Casey of ...tick...tick...tick...) commands more attacks on the Boleys to preserve the gargoyles' secrecy, and in one subsequent attack they manage to kidnap Diana and take her to their secret underground lair. Mercer vows to retrieve his daughter, though with only a few reluctant volunteers with him to help, Mercer knows he has a tough challenge ahead - especially since the gargoyles are in the middle of plans to take over mankind.

When a critic deals with a movie concerning a monster or monster, there is an inevitable question that comes up that readers want the answer to. And that question is just how well the special effects department has done in its efforts to make the monster look convincing. And if a human actor is playing the monster underneath layers of rubber and latex, there is also the question as to how convincing the performance is. Since I feel that those two questions are probably the most pressing in your mind, I'll get to them now. With my revelation in the previous paragraph that Gargoyles was a made-for-television production - and the fact that it was made in the early 1970s - one might understandably think that the creature effects would look cheap and cheesy. But the pleasant surprise is that this is not the case. A look at the credits reveals that special effects guru Stan Winston - whose first Hollywood credit was for this film - assisted with the gargoyle effects, which look remarkably good. The actors playing the gargoyles appear to be dressed in rubber suits that have a great deal of detail on them, ranging from boils on the skin to hair on certain parts of the body. But it isn't just with the detail where the special effects department didn't cheap out. For one thing, every gargoyle seen in the movie looks unique. Some have wings, some have beaks, and some have horns - each one looks completely different from another. Not only that, we actually get to see a significant number of these completely different gargoyles. How all of this was accomplished when the average made-for-television movie of the time had a pretty low budget I don't know. I do know for certain, however, that when any one of these gargoyles appears on the screen, your attention will be riveted on them, and you will study each and every last detail of these creations.

So when it comes to the portrayal of the title figures, the special effects department definitely doesn't have anything to be ashamed about. However, when it comes to other ways that the gargoyles are depicted, there are definitely some shortcomings in certain areas. One of the ways is how the gargoyles are often depicted in their various actions. For some strange reason, director Bill Norton (More American Graffiti) is inconsistent when showing the gargoyles doing their business. Sometimes he just films the gargoyles walking around and doing their thing normally, but quite often he uses slow motion to depict them creeping around. Possibly he intended the slow motion to make the gargoyles come across as eerie, but it doesn't work at all. The gargoyles seen normally look creepy enough, so he should have just shot all the gargoyle footage at normal speed. But even if all the gargoyle footage had been shot normally, there would still be a problem with the gargoyles, though it's a problem that even the best of directors probably couldn't have done much with. The problem is that the screenplay doesn't give the gargoyle actors much to do that would make their characters compelling. In the beginning we just get a few partial glimpses of them, though that's how many successful monster movies start out. But as the film progresses, not much more is done to flesh them out. We learn that they can speak English, but not until two-thirds of the movie has passed by. And when they do speak, what they have to say isn't all that interesting. The gargoyle leader has the kidnapped Diana read to him, and later makes some statements about the gargoyles' plan to take over mankind, and that is about it. What if the gargoyles spoke sooner, and at more length that would give these demonic characters different personalities, different ways of thinking? Fully fleshed-out evil-minded characters like these could have been really fascinating. But as it is, the movie almost totally wastes the potential it had.

As it turns out, the human characters in Gargoyles for the most part aren't that much more compelling than the demonic creatures themselves. Actors Cornel Wilde and Jennifer Salt do seem to be trying at times, and in their scenes together you sense a rapport that a father and daughter relationship should feel like. However, when they are split up later in the movie, both actors seem kind of lost. After his daughter is kidnapped by the gargoyles, the Wilde character seems to be taking the situation surprisingly well, even when he explains to another character that gargoyles have a history of kidnapping women. The actor who does best is a young Scott Glenn (Night Of The Running Man), who puts some color into his role as one of the accused motorcyclists who later helps Wilde. Clearly director Norton could have had the other actors work at their roles more. While there is some fault to be found in his direction, at the same time there are some positive things to say about it. Except for a couple of scenes that are obvious padding (like when the local police chase down a fleeing motorcyclist for several minutes), Norton manages to unfold the movie at a good brisk clip, not letting any needless material slow things down. Also, while he had to work with extremely cheap interior sets, when the action moves outdoors he does create a little genuine atmosphere that really makes you feel this desert setting is an eerie and desolate place that civilization seems to have forgotten about. So what do we have at the end? Well, I don't know if Gargoyles is a movie that you should actively seek out - the waste of much of its potential is kind of frustrating at times and will make you wonder why the makers of the movie didn't try harder in a number of aspects. But at the same time, it's kind of watchable. If it should come on television one day when you are looking for something to do for seventy-four minutes and can't find anything better to do for that time, this movie will manage to kill the time in a relatively painless way.

(Posted July 9, 2015)

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See also: The Devil's Rain, The Devil's Tomb, Slaughterhouse Rock

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