Sci Fi TV Genre Gems: Forgotten magic and hidden treasures from the worlds of sci fi TV
What Is It? This early-70’s horror / fantasy TV movie follows paleontologist and occult expert Dr. Mercer Boley investigating the existence of legendary gargoyles in the Southwest desert. Ancient tales claim that gargoyles descended from a race of beings cast out from Heaven with Lucifer when he defied God. They have lived on the Earth for many millennia and they reappear about every five to six hundred years to battle with humans for supremacy of the planet. Dr. Boley and his daughter discover that the gargoyles have indeed returned and are preparing for their war against the human race.
Why It Stands Out: It may be a cheesy TV movie of the 70’s, but it manages to rise above its limitations to strike a primal nerve and deliver a truly creepy and engaging tale.
The Skinny: Put together on a television budget, the acting is wooden at best (except for the late Bernie Casey’s animated portrayal of the lead gargoyle), the dialogue is stilted, and the motivations for the characters often seem driven more by the scriptwriter’s desire to move the action along than how you would actually expect people to behave. But all that aside, Gargoyles managed get under the skin of many of us who watched it when it first aired and it has worked its way into our psyches, leaving a lasting impression (similar to what made 1967’s Quatermass and the Pit, aka Five Million Years to Earth so effective). Part of that is the striking and brilliant gargoyle faces that Stan Winston created for the film (even if the rest of the costumes look like rubber suits with at times very visible zippers). Part of it is the menacing performance by Bernie Casey as the lead gargoyle (you may remember him as U.N. Jefferson from Revenge of the Nerds and he also stopped by Star Trek: DS9 and Babylon 5 for a few guest appearances). And part of it is the modern day manifestation of a battle between humans and an ancient demonic foe that has lurked perennially in our subconscious because of its recurrence in our cultural legends and lore. These factors push Gargoyles into more than just throwaway TV fodder (like the Syfy critters-run-amok cheapies), helping it to offset its production limitations and making it into a must-watch genre movie.
I believe that the movie was intended to act as a pilot for a TV series or they at least wanted to do a few follow up films to give the story some resolution. Apparently it did not pull strong enough ratings, though, and/or it would have been too expensive to produce the show (because of the gargoyle makeup) on a weekly 70’s TV show budget. But with all of the rehashes and remakes going around these days on television and at the movies, this one just might be ripe for a revisit (as long as they don’t go CGI-overload and lose track of the underlying primordial creepiness that made it effective). In any case, it’s definitely one that all science fiction and fantasy fans should check out. Understand that it’s a cheesy production, but don’t let that stop you. It still manages to deliver a memorable genre film that will stick with you for years to come.
Starring: Cornel Wilde, Jennifer Salt, Grayson Hall, Bernie Casey, Scott Glenn
Interesting Facts: This was Stan Winston’s first film working on makeup. Winston of course would go to become a genre legend for his work on films like Aliens, John Carpenter’s The Thing, Terminator 1 & 2, Predator, Edward Scissorhands and more. But he was a newcomer when he took on the job to do the makeup for the gargoyles in this film. His exceptional work here, though, apparently helped him on to bigger and better things.
The late Bernie Casey did not provide the voice for the lead gargoyle because the producers felt his natural voice did not fit the character. The vocal duties were given to Vic Perrin who had a long history of voice work on television including the Control Voice from The Outer Limits, Dr. Zin from Johnny Quest, Metron from Star Trek, and more.
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