Monday, February 11, 2013




“Incorporating themes from horror films of both the '50s and the '70s, this suspenseful TV movie stars Cornel Wilde and Jennifer Salt as an archaeologist and his daughter, who discover a strange skull on display at a roadside tourist trap. After the museum owner is killed during an attack from an unseen foe, the pair are subsequently pursued across the American Southwest by a tribe of humanoid creatures that bear a striking resemblance to the gargoyles of myth, leading to a manic game of cat-and-mouse across the desert. This enjoyably spooky film essentially riffs on this one-note premise for over 70 minutes -- sort of an inversion of Night of the Living Dead's claustrophobic scenario -- and fortunately comes off quite well thanks to superb use of the desert locations, an eerie score, uniformly good performances, and Emmy award-winning monster costumes from Stan Winston. A young Scott Glenn appears as a roguish biker who throws in with the good guys after taking a shine to the professor's daughter.” – Rovi’s Allmovie Guide.


So here’s the deal. If, like myself, you were in elementary school during the 1970’s, loved monster movies, and happened to catch Gargoyles on one of its many late night showings, then you know it’s next to impossible to write an unbiased review of this movie. So I’m not even going to try. I loooove Gargoyles.


First off, I love the setting. The barren outskirts along the Texas/New Mexico border give the movie a weird isolated vibe (which is important since the story asks you to accept that a bunch of six foot tall gargoyles have been skittering around unnoticed), while the Carlsbad Caverns gives the creature’s gargoyle hive nicely authentic. It just goes to show how a talented location scout can go a long ways towards making a low budget look good.  Dependable actors help also, and I love the group they rounded up for Gargoyles. The cast is made up of a number of recognizable faces such as Cornel Wilde (The Great Sebastian himself), Woody Chambliss (who apparently started portraying ornery old coots shortly after birth), Grayson Hall (whose character doesn’t have a single scene without a glass of booze in her hand), and even a young Scott Glen (who doesn’t do much but stand around and look like a young Scott Glen, but still). They all come through reliably and play the whole thing straight.

But let’s be honest, the thing that I (and most everybody else) love the best about Gargoyles has to be the old school rubber monster suits. Sure, they may not look like much now, what with their barely concealed zippers, “skin” that creases suspiciously like fabric whenever somebody bends a joint, and wings that just kind of hang there and jiggle around whenever the gargoyles walk, but for their day they were top notch. In fact, the special effects team (including future great Stan Winston in his first credited gig) won an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Makeup for their work on the film. I don’t know, maybe it’s because they left the actors’ eyes visible and built the suits around them, allowing the monsters some means of expression, or maybe it’s the decision to almost always film the gargoyles moving in slow motion, giving them a kind of otherworldly feel, but whatever it is, the suits just work.


As I implied earlier though, I’m well aware that whenever I watch Gargoyles, I do so through a thick, thick haze of nostalgia. That’s why I’m fairly positive that others coming to the movie brand new might somehow be able to find a few faults in it. And though it would be easy to dismiss such people as a bunch of cynical world-weary jerks with no ability to see things through the eyes of a child (that would be an objective evaluation, of course, no bitterness involved), I suppose if pushed hard enough I would begrudgingly admit Gargoyles might have one or two teensy weensy problems. Scott Glen or no Scott Glen, the inclusion of his character and his fellow dirt bikers seems more like padding than anything else, and truth be told, the gargoyles aren’t really scary once they’re out of the shadows and running around in the open.

But even those minor nitpicks are turned into strengths later in the film. After the misunderstood biker subplot is quickly and mercifully dispatched, Scott and the boys join up with the rest of the humans to take part in a pretty effective slow motion chase scene involving the bikers, the police, a shotgun wielding professor, and a gargoyle riding a horse! That’s good stuff right there. And although the gargoyles do lose some of their mystery once they start parading around in front of the camera, the movie makes up for this by turning some of them into characters in their own right. There are some neat moments involving Bernie Casey’s winged leader and his jealous mate after the former takes the professor’s daughter Diane captive. He does so under the pretense of having her teach the gargoyles from her father’s books so the two races can better understand one another, but it isn’t long before Diane begins to suspect the male has other things on his mind besides facilitating inter-species harmony, especially once he begins to mack on her during a reading about a 14th century tale of a maiden’s seduction by an incubus. The lady gargoyle, not having any of this “players gonna play” business going on in her breeding chambers, decides to intervene and gargoyle domestic turmoil ensues.


We the viewers, of course, never come close to being taken in by the gargoyle’s sob story, because at the very beginning of the movie we’ve already been treated to this opening narration:

The devil was once the most favored of the angels serving the Lord, but pride welled in his breast. He thought it unseemly for him to serve. The devil and his band of followers, who likewise suffered from the sin of pride, were defeated in battle by the Lord and his hosts and were banished to the outer most depths of hell, never to know the presence of the Lord or look on Heaven again. Smarting from his wounds, but all the more swollen with pride, the devil cried out from the depths, “It is better to rule in Hell, than to serve in Heaven!” The devil proclaimed what was lost in Heaven would be gained on Earth. He said, “My offspring, the gargoyles, will one day rule the Lord’s works, Earth and man.” And so it came to pass that while man ruled on Earth, the gargoyles waited, lurking, hidden from the light. Reborn every 600 years in man’s reckoning of time, the gargoyles joined battle against man to gain dominion over the Earth. In each coming the gargoyles were nearly destroyed by men who flourished in greater numbers. Now it has been so many hundreds of years that it seems the ancient statues and paintings of gargoyles are just products of man’s imagination. In this year, when man’s thoughts turn towards the many ills he has brought upon himself, man has forgotten his most ancient adversary… the gargoyles.

Yeah, not exactly the kind of information to inspire confidence that  the monster standing in front of you really means it when he claims he just wants to be a good neighbor. Especially considering he’s pretty much a lord of hell lookalike to begin with.


And speaking of the physical appearance of the gargoyles, because so many of them do happen to sport what is traditionally considered a demonic visage, what do you suppose carvings of them are doing hanging around on the roofs of so many old Christian churches? I mean, even though all that stuff in the introduction about gargoyles being the living spawns of Satan is almost certainly made up movie malarkey, you have to admit that the existing sculptures still look the part. In fact, it was their very appearance which caused a bit of anxiety in the 12th century founder of the Cistercian order, St. Bernard of Clairvaux. "What are these fantastic monsters doing in the cloisters under the very eyes of the brothers as they read?” he wrote, “What is the meaning of these unclean monkeys, strange savage lions and monsters? To what purpose are here placed these creatures, half beast, half man? I see several bodies with one head and several heads with one body. Here is a quadruped with a serpent's head, there a fish with a quadruped's head, then again an animal half horse, half goat... Surely if we do not blush for such absurdities we should at least regret what we have spent on them."

Okay, so maybe the good saint was worried as much about collections as he was countenances, but still, he asks a good question. Probably the first answer that jumps to mind is one of simple functionality. Gargoyles have been around since at least ancient Egypt where animal-headed carvings served basically the same purpose as the gutters and downspouts found on most of today’s homes, funneling water away from the sides of buildings. But a closer examination of medieval structures where some pretty grotesque gargoyles are found in places water couldn’t possibly reach would seem to undermine this theory, at least where cathedrals are concerned. Because of this, historians have postulated a number of theories about the purpose of medieval gargoyles ranging from the Church’s inculturation of pagan practices to their acting as good luck charms to legends surrounding St. Romanus defeating a dragon (gargouille) and mounting its head on a wall. In short, they really don’t know the answer. However, Janetta Rebold Benton, PhD, in her book Holy Terrors: Gargoyles on Medieval Buildings, suggests some ideas that are at least worth considering. 


It’s Dr. Benton’s belief that gargoyles on churches likely served a duel purpose, to educate and to frighten. Benton speculates that since illiteracy was fairly common during medieval times (at least among those social classes who had no real need for it yet), gargoyles functioned the same as paintings and stained glass, as a way to convey religious ideas visually. Given their demonic appearance, Gargoyles naturally could be used as a representation of evil spirits, reminding those who glimpsed them of the unseen forces seeking the ruin of their souls. This theory not only makes sense in regards to the gargoyle’s presence on holy places, but would also go a long ways towards explaining why so many of the creatures sit in high nooks and crannies that are almost hidden from sight; just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there watching you (Bwah Ha Haaa!!!).

As there are no official Church writings on gargoyles, there’s no way to know if Benton’s theories are the correct ones, but they are consistent with the Church’s teachings and practices. During every mass we rise to say the Nicene Creed which contains the pronouncement that we believe in God, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. So, in short, it is a central tenant of the faith that part of God’s creation is invisible. And even though we don’t use gargoyles too much in our church architecture these days (sniffle), a quick glance around most Catholic churches will reveal we still use a lot of other items to convey the presence of the unseen. The statues and stained glass are still there, as are the candles, incense, and crucifixes. But there’s one thing in particular we have which more than anything else in the building points towards God’s invisible reality… and relatively few people even pay any attention to it.


According to a 2007 survey of adult Catholics in the United States conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, only about 14% of adult Catholics participate in Eucharistic Adoration. Which means that the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ is present under the appearance of a physical object readily accessible to anybody who cares to walk in the door, and most Catholics don’t even bother to stop by and sit with it for a few minutes. And that’s a shame, because as Sherry Weddell points out in her book Forming Intentional Disciples: The Path to Knowing and Following Jesus, Eucharistic Adoration is the one traditional devotion particularly suited to today’s postmodern mind-set. “Adoration appeals to postmoderns because it is experiential, mysterious, and accessible to everyone: the nonbaptized, the non-Catholic, the unchurched, the lapsed, the badly catechized, the wounded, the skeptical, the seeking, the prodigal, and those who aren’t sure that a relationship with God is even possible. An acquaintance of mine aptly describes it as ‘Spiritual Radiation Therapy’ because it places the soul in the direct presence of Jesus Christ in the trust that he will act if we leave the door open the merest crack. All it requires is the ability to sit down.”

So while it’s a shame (at least to this ‘monster kid’) that we rarely use gargoyles anymore to point our minds towards the invisible part of reality, it’s comforting to know we have something much better, not just something that instructs, but that actually has an affect on those who take the time to contemplate it. Still, it’s been about 600 years or so since medieval times ended, so according to that opening monologue it’s about time the gargoyles started showing back up. Maybe we can have both.


A new gargoyle did actually pop up recently. In January 2013, 89 year old Nora Sly, a parishioner and former secretary at St Mary’s Anglican church in Cowley - Gloucestershire, was memorialized by the members of her parish by having her face used as the model for their latest gargoyle. When asked about the honor, the aged Mrs. Sly noted simply, “I didn’t feel it was all that flattering!”


Anonymous said...

Love the contrast of Adoration to gargoyles in the nooks! A good one for Lent.

St. Bernard's objections were to the use of grotesque figures by strict contemplative monks inside churches. They could read, and he thought the figures would excite the imagination (phantasy, in the vocab. of his day), which is a distraction from mental prayer, so his concerns were quite practical rather than aesthetic. Such images in secular/diocesan churches didn't faze him much.

It's also worth bearing in mind that a LOT of the gargoyles we see on European churches today were added by the neo-gothic artists of the 19th century. Victor Hugo defended Violet le Duc's program of doubling the number of gargoyles on N.D. de Paris on the grounds that the medieval artists always meant to but just never got around to it. Which is crapola.

Still, they look really cool. The movie looks cool, too.
Xena Catolica

Anonymous said...

The go-to guy on St. Bernard and art is Dr. Conrad Rudolf. I studied this topic with him in '90. He's a good guy & writes about the Church sympathetically. The link gives his books.


EegahInc said...

So, skimming through what bits of Dr. Rudolf's stuff I could find online, the argument seems to be that Bernard's comments about costs had to do with his concern (disgust) over the growing attitude of the day that a work of art's spiritual value was measured by the amount of money it took to create it.

If that's the case, then obviously St. Bernard has a sympathetic ear here.

Rocket Scientist said...

This is a favorite movie of mine. I was interested in your take on the presence of gargoyles on cathedrals. This is the same reasoning why my boys had an icon of the Ladder to Heaven on their wall growing up, showing ugly demons dragging people off the ladder. Of course, they thought the demons looks cool. Sigh.

EegahInc said...

Well, I gotta take up for my gender here. Those demons probably did look cool. But just like the xenomorph in Alien, who looked very cool, we guys wouldn't want to meet one in real life :)