One 'given' for the average 1950s monster show was that one had to sit through eighty minutes of dull movie to see a few minutes of a cool monster, or some interesting special effects. In Larry Cohen's retro monster show Q: The Winged Serpent the formula is reversed. Although effective in some scenes, the monster isn't all that convincing overall, while the movie around it is terrific. This is perhaps Larry Cohen's best picture, thanks to a great script and good acting from all concerned, especially the wonderfully funny Michael Moriarty.
New York. A window washer is decapitated on the job, and rooftop bathers are plucked into the sky by some unknown thing that comes out of the midday sun. All the standard clichés of the old monster formula are raised, and then made fun of. The rash of killings is frustrating the hell out of detectives David Carradine and Richard Roundtree, who wish it would all go away so they could get some lunch:
Roundtree: "You're not making any sense? You say the window washer lost his head how?"
Meanwhile, Michael Moriarty is having the time of his life playing this role in a cheap Larry Cohen picture as if it were going to get him an Oscar nomination. It should have, as his Jimmy Quinn character is the acting equal of anything Robert De Niro was doing, and one of the best 'New York' characters ever, including the collected films of Scorsese and Lumet. Jimmy Quinn limps around in ratty clothing with a perpetual addled look on his face, as if still slightly unbalanced by the drugs and his time in stir. He's a whining loser who can't wait to proclaim himself the eternal victim. When he finds an angle that might net him a million dollars he turns into a manic joker, goading the city and our two star detectives with jibes and taunts to compensate for his own miserable inferiority.
The acting brilliance rubs off, and both David Carradine and Candy Clark (as Quinn's suffering girlfriend) have some great scenes with him. Clark tells him off but good in one nice domestic tangle, while Larry Cohen stages perhaps his best scene ever in the extended faceoff between Quinn's opportunist extortionist and a room-ful of irate cops and curious city executives. Quinn knows where the monster lives, and negotiates a tight deal to profit from it.
Larry Cohen's script sneaks a great theme beneath its character fun and genre-twisting plot. Carradine is trying to tie-in the giant flying monster with a series of grisly murders, some of which involve people being flayed alive. A museum contact tells him about the ancient Aztec priests and their bloody sacrifices, and its God Quetzalcoatl, the 'feathered flying serpent' of legend. Carradine's superiors of course demand that he keep the two cases separate. Cohen takes the opportunity to make another subversive statement about religion as he had done a few years before in the disturbing God Told Me To. Carradine discovers that his killer or killers believe so thoroughly in their 'dead' religion, that they are willing to sacrifice to it, or be sacrificed themselves, in nauseating horror. Of course, they're nuts, but no more than any seriously orthodox believer. Cohen's sticking point is that their crazed zeal is as legitimate an expression of faith as that encouraged by modern, authorized churches. Perhaps more legitimate, as the sacrifices seem to have resurrected a real monster diety.
A monster that can fly around Manhattan in broad daylight without being detected is absurd, but Cohen distracts us with lots of convincing and surprisingly witty action. The sight of the giant egg in the skyscraper loft is appropriately chilling, and there's at least one huge BOO! moment, when mama serpent sticks her head in when we don't expect it. Jimmy Quinn is the funky cheerleader for a squadron of New York's finest, as they swarm into the Chrysler building's rafters - in true Cohen fashion, a series of angles of noble warriors taking positions to ambush the monster, is undercut by a shot of one of them chugging a beer.
Moriarty is so good, we almost don't care, but when the giant Q finally shows up, he's a mixed bag of monster bones. The effects were all done in literally a matter of days, by ambitious animators so dedicated to the promotion of the lost art of stop-motion, they basically worked for free. The animation model is well designed, but some shots are rather literal and flat, especially when Q flies in flat-on, illusion-ruining side views. There are many more clever and ambitious angles, and some delicate animation as well. Q pulls a number of cops out of work buckets, and either rips them up or lets them fall 50 stories to the pavement below. The animation is great, but the little cop figures have arms and legs that seem far too long, and look a little ridiculous. Knowing how tight the schedule was, the tiny figurines were probably done in a huge rush. Only the skill of Dave Allen's experienced crew could have come up with so many impressive shots so quickly. Peter Kuran probably composited the good animation of tracer bullets showering Q with lead in spinning aerial angles. This is one instance where Larry Cohen got much more effects than he deserved!
Blue Underground's DVD of Q: The Winged Serpent is a good special edition, and a vast improvement on an older disc Anchor Bay that had iffy audio and a dull, flat transfer. This picture is 16:9 enhanced and is tweaked to get every possible benefit from the film's so-so original photography. The soundtrack is excellent, allowing us to finally hear Jimmy Quinn's entertaining piano audition.
The disc has an all-new audio commentary from the sharp, opinionated Larry Cohen, a cool teaser trailer and an extensive poster and still gallery. An item called 'Q Memorabilia' is a DVD-Rom feature, and this is one time I wish I could access it. The packaging and menus are very classy. The cover illustration, cool as it is, begs the big question about this picture: how did Larry Cohen expect to get audiences into theaters to see a movie about a giant dragon, in 1982?
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Q, The Winged Serpent rates: