Larry Cohen's Q: The Winged Serpent
Returns to New York
August 17, 2003 | Genre films are often seen as disposable, made to be seen, terrified by, and forgotten. But one genre director who's films seem to stick in the mind is Larry Cohen. No less an authority than Mr. CineSchlock-O-Rama himself G. Noel Gross has proclaimed Cohen "the genuine article."
Born in New York City, Cohen began his career writing for television. After moving into feature films he ran up an extremely impressive list of films as writer and director, films like the legendary blaxploitation flicks Black Caesar and Hell Comes to Harlem, the It's Alive horror trilogy, and the junk food-gone-wild classic The Stuff, not to mention writing the Maniac Cop series. And he hasn't slowed down, bringing his genre sensibility to the recent Hollywood release Phone Booth. Luckily for movie fans of all stripes three of Larry Cohen's most memorable films are being released on DVD by upstart genre distributor Blue Underground: Bone, God Told Me To and one of Cinema Gotham's favorite hometown films, Q: The Winged Serpent.
Q tells the story of a giant demon that takes up residence in the needle of New York's art deco Chrysler Building, one of the greatest masterpieces of the race to build the world's tallest building. The cast contains some of the finest genre actors, including David "Kung Fu" Carradine and Richard "Shaft" Roundtree. The film's most memorable performance, however, is given by Michael Moriarty as a sketchy rat who stumbles on Q's nest while looking for a place to hide following a botched robbery. Moriarty really is a stand-out with his complex, twitchy performance that constantly bounces between funny and serious.
Q: The Winged Serpent will be screening at NYC's Pioneer Theater on August 25th with Larry Cohen in attendance. Cinema Gotham took the opportunity to chat with the director about the film. [NOTE: We just heard that Larry is ill and may NOT make it to the screening. Call the Pioneer Theater to double-check - (212) 254-3300. But it's still worth it to go see the film.]
LC: Yeah, I thought it's just kind of fun to take the fantastic and put it into the midst of the city in all its grittiness and all its reality. It makes the creature and the monster story more believable because it's set against such realistic backdrops. I always love New York and try to work there as often as possible because it's the greatest city to shoot in and has the most fantastic backlot. The whole city is a great backlot.
CG: You definitely use the city a lot in the film in a vertical sense.
LC: Oh yeah, we got some great aerial photography, flying in and out of the skyscrapers. I thought I was crazy going up there and doing that but I did it. And it was quite a kick. I guess I'd never do it again but in the context of doing the movie, flying between the buildings... We almost flew between the twin towers. We got pretty close and then we kind of just zoomed the camera in through the rest of it after we got as close as they'd let us go. But it's got great shots of the whole city and I guess some of the best aerial photography ever done.
LC: Well, that's what they kind of look like. If you came across these things as artifacts of some past civilization and didn't know what they were you'd say "Oh, this must be some religious temple or shrine they built. These great spires going into the sky with hieroglyphics on them and images of birds..." It's just something very, very strange and mystical. I've always thought the Chrysler Building was the most interesting building in the city and that it deserved to have its own monster.
LC: King Kong had the Empire State Building...
CG: He got two attempts - that and the World Trade Center.
LC: The World Trade Center [version of King Kong] was rather unsuccessful. But I wanted to give the Chrysler Building their big chance and I think we made a very good movie up there.
CG: Any sense from the Chrysler Building people over the years what they think of the movie?
LC: Never a word. They knew we were shooting a movie up there but they didn't know exactly what the story was and they didn't know how high we were gonna climb up in the needle. At first we were only supposed to shoot on the top floor and gradually we began escalating and climbing the ladders getting higher and higher.
LC: Truthfully we had to [shoot it all on location.] We had no money to build it. We had to shoot it up there or forget about it and of course nothing can equal the quality of the photography of shooting something in its real locale. But it was an arduous task climbing up there with the entire crew and cast and then hauling the equipment and lights and props and sundry other things, machine guns, up to the top of the building and there was no way up except one little ladder, one rickety ladder that everyone had to climb and then the rest would be taken up on ropes.
CG: As much as it's a monster movie, there's no lack of human element. All the characters are interesting but the Moriarty character is really great.
LC: Well, it was a great performance he gave and it was a perfect combination of character and actor to bring up something very fresh and new in that kind of movie, I think in that kind of genre and probably I think the best performance ever given in a monster movie. That ain't saying much because in most of the monster movies the performances are pretty wooden and the casting is usually pretty flat. In some of the better ones like the original Thing, the Howard Hawks version, you have some pretty good acting, but it's an ensemble piece and there's nothing that even approaches Moriarty's level of characterization that you see in this film.
LC: Dr. Pretorius was very good in Bride of Frankenstein. And of course Karloff himself. That was one of the great performances on the screen. And Lugosi, I would say, also in the original Dracula. But they were more or less, I would say, one note performances. The characters were what they were. They didn't go very far. But Moriarty's part just keeps running the gamut of emotions and ranging from drama to comedy to outrage back to comedy again. It's really a very, very challenging role and he did a great job. He's won just about every major award except the Oscar.
CG: There's plenty of time.
LC: Yeah there's still time. He certainly deserved a nomination for Q.
CG: We talked a little bit about classic horror movies and you sort of get a Ray Harryhausen feel in Q.
CG: It really is one of the craziest looking movie monsters. And it really looks great on the new DVD.
LC: I hope it finds more people on the DVD. They made a very good transfer [on Q] and the other pictures, God Told Me To and particularly on Bone were beautifully transferred. You can't help but think that these are exceptional pictures.
CG: I double-featured Q and God Told Me To but I haven't seen Bone yet.
LC: Bone is one of those ones where you'll say that Yaphet Kotto gives one of the best performances of his career and probably one of the best you'll ever see in a movie. This is the highlight of his career. He says so himself. I love it when the actors come back to me and say, "This is the favorite part I ever played in my career." It's a big compliment since they work a lot and to be able to come back and say that this is their favorite role, well, that's exceptional. So maybe I'm a pretty good director if I'm getting these kind of performances from these kind of people.
LC: It's certainly a very daring movie, outrageous and daring and certainly way ahead of its time if you realize it's thirty years old. How we could have gotten away with making a picture as incendiary as that... But we did. This was before people were making independent movies. There was me and John Cassavetes and Terry and Denis Sanders, who have long since been forgotten, and maybe a few other people making pictures but you can count them on the fingers of one hand. And now of course you must have at least a thousand independent filmmakers all the time turning out product, most of which never gets played. But we were trying to do something no one else was doing at the time and I think to a major extent we did achieve what we set out to do. And these pictures have survived. They've outlived a lot of major productions that have been forgotten. These films are finding new audiences all the time. They hold up better than most of the pictures that were made in the period in which they were produced.
Make sure to check out Q at the Pioneer theater on August 25th.
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