Like many Gen-X-ers who grew up watching 70s network TV with the family, I am a child of the occult. The TV Movie of the Week on Friday nights, the ABC Tuesday Night Movie, or whenever, and sometimes NBC, and even other times, CBS, this was our arcane nourishment. The devil, telekinesis, witches and ESP all blasted into our collective ken via the adult box office--Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, and Carrie--and filtered down to the kids through watered-down TV movies and lurid covers for paperbacks we were too young to read yet (though we tried). Ouija boards were sold in toy aisles from Sears to the local 5&10. We pretended crosses would burn us and that we could be telekinetic if we concentrated hard enough. We revered the name of Adrian (used in both The Omen and Rosemary's Baby, Adrian became to default name for Satan's offspring, male or female). In hindsight, the occult seemed a natural outgrowth of late-60s hippie fashion--post-Manson but pre-Satanic panic--the frocks and robes, the colors, symbols, flowing garments, pagan statues, strange tapestries, drugs, incense and candles--it was all there in the wind. Even my own aunt lived in a commune. I still remember walking through all the beaded curtains as a six year-old kid, seeing all the cats, all the mattresses on the floor, all the long-haired dudes smoking... whatever they were smoking, hearing the weird music and seeing how horrified it made my parents to see it. I loved it.
That was the 70s, man. Evil wasn't evil unless it was threatened. Don't bully Adrian, or us, and no one dies from floating knives.
Yea, though I only got to see the first half hour or so, I remember LOOK WHAT'S HAPPENED TO ROSEMARY'S BABY (1976) vividly as it infested my childhood dreams like a pleasurable fever for weeks. And I remember the flak it received the next day at the playground from the kids whose parents let them see clear on to the bitter end. I only saw the first 1/3 and it was amazing. Adrian getting burnt by the cross, what an image. I don't know why that was such a turn-on to my nine year-old brain. I imagined having telekinesis and being allergic to churches for years afterwards. We all did.
As a grown-up, though, the bad reviews this TV movie has made me stay away for decades. I finally saw it only last week (as I'm in the midst of a 70s TV movie phase) and was in paroxysms of tacky so-bad-it's-sublime joy from beginning to end. I mean, Patty Duke as Rosemary, shouting "Why?! WHY?" to the heavens ala her memorable final scene in Valley of the Dolls? Rosemary hiding out with five year-old Adrian at a run-down Jewish funeral home, shouting at the scattered old mourners to "Pray! Pray! Pray!" while the evil Castavets try and locate her and Adrian with their minds? Rosemary freaking out in a trailer with worry Adrian may have killed two kids, serving him milk with one hand while preparing to knife him with the other? Winding up trapped on a Satanic greyhound with no driver? And that's all just "Book One!" It's all downhill from here, but what a ride!
Book Two flashes forward ten years or so. as Adrian is now played by Stephen (Pontypool) McHattie, whose wide, curled smile and hooded stare simultaneously evoke Rutger Hauer, Bo Hopkins, and Jonathan Turkel (what a combo). He drives fast, lives at a mansion/casino with his Satanic guardian (Tina Louise), i.e. the devil's den, but has a Christian (angelic) best friend named Peter (David Huffman) who keeps urging him to pray in church instead of lusting after women (there's a definite gay vibe). Most importantly, Peter urges him to flee his corrupting guardian before his big 21st birthday, as if sensing the ceremony in store. For some reason Adrian can wear a cross against his skin now, and he contemplates it like some strung-out Jesus freak (whereas in Book One he was burnt by one - no explanation how he's suddenly immune, then again a lot of stuff goes unexplained here). It's weird that the Christ option would be subversive, but we're in the devil's house--there's gambling!--cute cocktail waitresses, decadent paintings, slot machines (the only evidence of gambling) and rock bands seemingly 24/7.
Of the original cast, only Ruth Gordon returns, as the sweet old lady Satanist Minnie Castavet; Ray Milland takes over as her husband, Roman; George Maharis takes over from John Cassavetes as Rosemary's no-good (now ex-) husband Guy, who is now a big star in LA. He's told by the Castavets he better come to the casino for Adrian's birthday, as he is needed for a big ceremony, which will either initiate a full possession from his father the devil and/or they will sacrifice him, and then his body will be inhabited by the devil. Or something. Like a lot of this movie, details seem vague and contradictory.
Well, even if it's never very clear but who cares? I love that Milland and Gordon are dressed like, and for the most part behaving like, ordinary elderly tourists coming to visit Guy in LA, then trekking out to the casino like retirees to Vegas. I love that while Adrian's Satanic ceremony goes on in one room in the casino, right through the door there is a band rocking out and assorted young people dancing, oblivious, as if it's nothing more than a craps game. The association is that rock music is evil, that the devil is seeming to draw power from it. These old folks are, in short, cool/. Roman even tokes a joint (he has to "stay with the times")!
Throughout the three "books" the set and setting is always unique, strange, not quite right, as if the art direction was done by a fundamentalist Christian schizophrenic after six rewrites. For example, it's jarring to see Adrian argue with his guardian and/or Roman in the other room at a weird Satanic initiation then leave and walk right back into the casino/bar (basically a typical TV bar/restaurant set, but adorned with big unmanned slot machines), full of guests and/or gamblers, where his Christian boyfriend sulks at the bar and keeps pushing him to leave. You would think for something this important the Satanists would at least like to study the guest list. The best they can do to get rid of this white-wearing buzzkill (he "flunked out of divinity school") is have him be attacked by a falcon in his car (falcons were very 'in' at the time). But that's not a debit. I like the feeling of disassociation, as it's very dream-like. Though the circulating print is muddy as heck, the Book One scenes of Rosemary dragging Adrian down dark, deserted, windy, lightning-choked city streets has a surreal, almost Argento-esque nightmare interiority. There is never the feeling we're in any definable reality, especially when nearly everyone Adrian runs into, aside from Peter and his mother, seem 'in on it.' Who is this weird Christian Adrian is hanging out with, and why do Rosemary and Adrian run without thinking twice into the trailer of Tina Louise in Act One? Why would she suddenly trust a complete stranger? In Book One, why does child Adrian take to the street at Roman's telepathic command, only shout his own name to the heavens? Did the writers forget his name (since Rosemary prefers to call him "Andrew"?) What's the deal with Rosemary's obsession with giving Adrian milk? First Rosemary tells a lady on the bus he doesn't like it, then in the trailer she's forcing him to drink some from Louise's fridge, getting ready to stab him with her other hand at the same time. Was there an early draft where they'd know he was evil if he refused to drink it? And why does Rosemary freak out so much over whether Adrian killed someone? I mean she freaks out, as if his taking a life would somehow damn the good side of him. But who cares, really? If you can love the bad writing and if you don't expect it to measure up remotely close to the original, you can fall into a swoon at the sublime mess that is. I mean, you've got Patty Duke threatening to kill Adrian over the phone, and with a vicious insanity in her voice where you know she means it. Duke goes for broke. Nearly every line is delivered at pich-perfect overwrought hysteria.
The 21st birthday party/ceremony is the real showstopper--and your reaction to it will indicate whether you like this movie as much as I do. In order to prepare Adrian for his magical rock and roll birthday initiation/possession, the Satanists first drug him, then lay him out on the dining room table, and paint him up like a glam rock mime. I kid you not, right down to the white face, red cheeks and lashes. Once this is done, McHattie does a ridiculous kind of 'stick puppet with loose strings' mime performance (indicating the devil not being used to moving around in a human body, one presumes) before sashaying out of the room and into the dancer-packed other room, where the band is getting down and dirty. ("Let him go to the music," counsels Roman). In a cool tracking shot, Adrian dances his way through the throng and up to the stage where he stars blankly out at the crowd and does a weird little two step rock shuffle (believe it or not, McHattie actually lends his spastic dancing scene a certain level of pouty Jim Morrison meets beatnik Frank Gorshin cool).
The Christian boyfriend, meanwhile, sensing what's going on, in a kind of Footloose-prefiguring moment, tries to unplug the amps and stop the party! Stop the music! The sight of this white clad idiot freaking out and trying to save Adrian's soul by running up, unplugging the amps and telling everyone to stop dancin is so deadpan ridiculous it has to be meant tongue-in-cheek, like some Jack Chick tract enacted by the Anton LaVey players. The music keeps going, even without the cords, and Peter is ushered outside, where he's electrocuted by Guy and ends up being thrown against the window like a lit-up Christmas angel on the electric cross, right where Adrian is doing his devil strut/dance! Adrian-- made-up like a glam rock mime, and succumbing to the devil's music--gazing at his friend plastered against the window, all lit up like a tacky electric Jesus (see top). What a moment! I jumped out of my easy chair and started singing Satan's praises.
Satan's got a triangle / so big and so wide (at the hypotenuse). A lot of Gen-X TV movie bloggers were awakened to the 'call' of film criticism when this film scared the hell out of them as kids. Kindertrauma's Unkle Lancifer for example relates a very vivid and relatable tale of how screwed up it made his sleep patterns for months (here). Me, I never saw it in its original airing that I know of. Since I was only eight I probably had to go to bed before the ending even if I did, and without the ending it all kind of just goes nowhere a kid might willingly follow. In fact, the first twenty minutes of the film consists solely of watching two Coast Guard pilots (Doug McClure and Michael "Let's be careful out there!" Conrad) circling over a floundering yacht and then lowering McClure down in a little basket as the sound of the chopper blades soothes and lulls any boy who would have been me, and the whole thing has a laid-back kind of procedurally organic flow that modern movies would never have the patience to detail today. But that was what made the 70s cool: McClure and Conrad are actually up in this chopper, for real, and someone, either McClure or a stunt man, really is being lowered in that basket. Today of course it would all be done with a green screen, doubtful there'd even be a real helicopter. This ain't today.
Eventually, after surveying the corpses scattered about on deck and below (one of which appears to be floating), McClure heads down to the main cabin and swills some rum with the one survivor (Kim Novak!), the dazed mistress of a now-deceased millionaire sportsman and the sole survivor of this ill-fated deep sea fishing excursion. What is the incredible story of how this all happened? An approaching front necessitates the chopper depart until the next morning. McClure sleeps over on the craft so Novak (there's freaky things going on with the chopper engines) so she will have some time to tell the tale, and let nature, booze, mirrors, Dutch angles, mirrors, and the seducing sound of the waves work their magic in the process.
No one comes to prime time TV movies for the climate. To save money, the sand-blasted scrub of LA (Bronson Canyon in particular) becomes the setting for 90% of the exteriors shown on prime time, especially in the 70s. Gargoyles is no exception, except in the way it uses the desert as a site of sand-blasted timeless weirdness where reptile-like bird demons might come flying in to set fire to your shack any time of the night. Though 90% of 70s occult TV movies have some precedent at the box office (i.e. The Exorcist or Carrie), Gargoyles is totally unique unto itself. The fractured narrative, strong characterizations, unusual father/grown daughter central relationship, wordy monsters (the lead one especially loves to pontificate), a ridiculous climax, and a fast, kinetic action movie-style pacing.
If you've driven ever, way out in the middle of a desolate desert in the hot of the afternoon, without another car in sight for hours, and you just know that heat exhaustion and dehydration could set in long before another car drives by if your car breaks down. In such a place lives 'Uncle Willie' (Woodrow Chambliss) an old drinking man who keeps a strange horned humanoid skeleton he pieced together out in the wilderness in his garage. Cornel Naked Prey Wilde stars as the toupee-wearing dad who travels with his grown daughter (Jennifer Sisters Salt) all the way to Uncle Willie's shack to see it. That same night, while they pass around the bottle, the living versions sweep in to claw through the old coot's corrugated shack, climbing over Dr. Mercer's car as he and Diana try to escape, starting a massive fire and chasing them to a nearby small desert town, trying to retrieve the skull of their ancestor which has been swiped by the Wilde on the way out. See.. to make it valid, Wilde needs evidence, a habeas corpus, and the gargoyles don't like to leave their dead behind. You won't know how to root for as the dad risks his life and his daughter's by refusing to part with his gargoyle memento mori. Eventually the head gargoyle (Bernie Casey) whisks Diana off to the secret gargoyle cave (Bronson, I presume) in response, and demands she teach him to read. Cue backstory!
|Bernie Casey as the head gargoyle|
And the cast! Grayson ("Don't make me take steps, Mr. Shannon!") Hall is great as the boozy motel manager knows right where the sheriff keeps his whiskey bottle and grabs a belt after running into his office before relaying her shocking story (gargoyles trash her place trying to get their bodies back). Scott The Right Stuff Glenn is a cool, helpful biker (his laconic Gary Cooper-meets-Kevin Costner sex appeal is pretty undeniable even in this early role). His gang joins the search to rescue Diana along with the sheriff and a few deputies on horseback for the big climactic battle that evokes, in more ways than one, a western white man vs. Native American battle. Pretty crazy stuff, all in all, with the LA desert doing its magic work as far as creating a sunbleached sense of desolation and post-macho self-reliance Apparently temperatures out there topped 100 degrees during the shoot, which makes those poor stuntmen in those heavy suits all the more heroic.
I don't remember Gargoyles' initial airing (I was only five) but I did catch it on an early Saturday morning creature feature UHF channel a few years later. I remember being confused by the dialogue (the lead gargoyle talked way too much) and unimpressed by the monster suits (especially the ridiculous unflapping bat wings that somehow manage to lift these heavy characters off the ground). Maybe my expectations were too high (I'd heard it was sooo scary). And--for better or worse--the mythology and orientation of these creatures doesn't add up: how can they lay such giant eggs when they're normal human-sized? Are they the good guys --oppressed and attacked for no reason by humans throughout the centuries?--or bad (their big plan is to multiply exponentially and wipe out humans as the dominant race on the planet)? We're supposed to feel warmth when a child gargoyle hatches and is welcomed into the arms of its parent, but then root for Scott Glenn to burn them all alive? I didn't get it.
Now, all grown up in the age of CGI, I'm much more forgiving of such ambivalence and conflicted emotion. Especially now that it's all restored in HD it's much more inviting (I like the red gels in the caves in particular, see above), and that the gargoyles are neither all good or all bad, as emblematic of the complexities of our natural and unnatural order as the 70s can make it. Maybe we'll never get that regain the decade's laid-back and (some might say recklessly) unsupervised sense of wild-child innocence but, thanks to the internet, we can always knock a few back with Grayson Hall, gaze longingly into Glenn's brown eyes, and cheer the posse of bikers, cops, and bewildered locals as they ride off into the hellish 100 degree heat, all in the name wiping out a small tribe of disenfranchised outcasts with nothing more than a half-can of gasoline and a whole mess of divide-crossing gumption.