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Q: The Winged Serpent

Shout Factory // R // August 27, 2013
List Price: $19.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted August 13, 2013 | E-mail the Author
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"Just your good old fashioned monster."

A perpetual failure of a wheelman (Michael Moriarty) loses a fortune in diamonds and winds up in the crosshairs of murderous thugs. Stumbling upon something resembling power for the first time in his life, the guy slaughters his enemies and extorts a cool million from the city of New York. That's a movie right there. A detective (David Carradine) investigates a series of grisly murders -- disemboweled corpses and flayed skin -- that he gradually comes to learn are part of Aztec sacrificial rites. Again, that's the sort of plot that could carry a flick on its own too. Larry Cohen gives it to you all in one movie. So, yeah, there's a lot going on in Q: The Winged Serpent, and I haven't even gotten to the part about the colossal, man-eating, feathered serpent-god that's holed up in the Chrysler Building yet.

Q: The Winged Serpent is Larry Cohen's blood-spattered Valentine to vintage creature features. It's the third act of King Kong careening head-on into a gritty New York crime drama. It's...well, every bit as amazing as I'm making it sound too. This is an astonishingly ambitious production, and its extensive location photography, instantly recognizable cast, and the scale of its special effects eclipse anything you'd dream possible from a million dollar budget, even grading on a 1982 curve. The creature design behind Quetzalcoatl still holds up more than thirty years later, and I'm a sucker for this sort of stop motion animation, even if the lean budget doesn't allow for all that much of it. Heaping on a decent amount of splatter and a little shameless nudity, Q: The Winged Serpent ticks off all the right exploitation checkboxes: blood, beasts, and breasts.

Even though you don't see much of Q -- the first revealing look doesn't come until the movie's half over, no matter how much of a body count he'd racked up to that point -- there's so much else going on that it
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really doesn't matter. Michael Moriarty readily carries the movie on his shoulders and acts the hell out of the lead role. We're talking about an actor who has a mantle overflowing with Emmys and Golden Globes, but Q: The Winged Serpent still ranks among his very best performances: a hapless schlub all too aware of what a fuck-up he is, a failure who makes an honest effort at going straight, and a raging prick whose somewhat shaky swagger reveals how weak he is even when he finally has true power in his grasp. Q: The Winged Serpent is a little sluggishly paced at the outset, but once Moriarty's character is firmly established, the movie screams along for the duration. There aren't a lot of movies where I'd say that I was okay not seeing the dragon with the ninety foot wingspan for a while.

There's not a whole lot else out there like Q: The Winged Serpent. Unlike the creature features of the '50s, there aren't any hard-nosed scientists, chest-pounding military men, precocious tots, or doe-eyed romances starting to blossom. Larry Cohen does a brilliant job grounding the fantastic into reality. I love how he inverts the positions of power in a climax inspired by King Kong; which forces are tethered to the towering skyscraper and who's attacking from the skies. There's absolutely nothing "so bad it's good" about Q: The Winged Serpent, infusing its characters with surprising dimensionality and free of any cringe-worthy dialogue or hackneyed plot points. I was kind of surprised to hear in Cohen's commentary how much of the dialogue was improvised; it's so sharply written that I assumed it had to have been scripted. Even when the seams show -- the unconvincing closeups of beaks and talons, the blue screen footage of cops plummeting to their deaths -- it's endearing rather than eye-rollingly cornball. Q: The Winged Serpent is a hell of a monster flick, and it's such a thrill to finally have this longtime favorite on Blu-ray. Recommended.

I missed out on Blue Underground's DVD re-release, so the most recent copy of Q: The Winged Serpent I had before this was my musty, old Anchor Bay DVD from all the way back in 2001. Putting that ancient, non-anamorphic DVD alongside this shiny, new Blu-ray disc, there's really no comparison. Taken on its own, though...? Well, that's a different story.

In part because of the drab colors that are generally in play, Q: The Winged Serpent looks ten years older than it actually is. The image is very soft as well. There's enough of a leap in detail and clarity for me to recognize this as high definition, but I can't say I'm impressed, even taking its age and modest budget into account. I don't know if lower generation materials just weren't available, but this Blu-ray disc does have kind of a dupe-y look to it, and the grain structure is all wrong. The granules aren't clear and distinct; it's all just sort of a mush, and the AVC encode struggles with it. Is this the way the movie's always looked? Were the best elements not available? Is this just a really old transfer? I'm not sure, but I'd definitely suggest marching in with the right expectations.

Below are a few screengrabs to show what I mean:
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To play fair, here's an example where the definition and detail outstrip anything that a DVD is capable of delivering:

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Q: The Winged Serpent swoops onto a single layer Blu-ray disc at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1.

Q: The Winged Serpent scores a passable lossless soundtrack. Screams and more loudly shouted lines suffer from moderate clipping. Even some of the dialogue delivered at a more traditional volume is plagued by a slight flicker of distortion. With the limited budget on hand, I guess ADR wasn't much of an option back then, and some of the dialogue recorded on the set sounds distant and hollow. Frequency response is expectedly limited, so don't cross your fingers for shimmering highs and foundation-rattling lows either. It's an okay effort.

24 bit. Two-channel mono. DTS-HD Master Audio. A commentary track aside, there are no other audio options. No dubs, no subtitles, no multichannel remixes: no nothin'. There's not even a 'Setup' submenu.

I'll admit to being kind of surprised that this is a straightahead Shout Factory release rather than part of their Scream Factory line.
  • Audio Commentary: The only extra of any note on this disc is a newly-recorded commentary track by writer/director/producer Larry Cohen. Referencing more recent events such as the release of the Korean
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    film The Host that's indebted to Q and the passing of David Carradine, this shouldn't be mistaken for the track on the 2003 Blue Underground DVD. Cohen always gives great commentary, and Q doesn't disappoint. He tackles just about everything, from casting, distribution, his improvisational style of filmmaking, toiling in the low-budget trenches, and the critical and commercial reception to the movie. Those sorts of notes are always welcome, but where Cohen sets himself apart from everyone else is his gift as a storyteller, and...geez, does he deliver here: early audiences thinking they were going to catch a sneak peek at Close Encounters of the Third Kind instead, getting ripped off by that 1998 Godzilla redux that no one, anywhere, likes, trying and failing to startle New Yorkers with all this machine gun fire blasting away overhead, and how Q's call sheets almost had Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy on 'em. It's definitely worth setting aside an hour and a half to give this a spin.

  • Promotional Material (3 min.; SD): A thirty second teaser is followed by an abysmal looking theatrical trailer. The 4x3 full-length trailer looks like it went from VHS to YouTube in 2005, suffering from some pretty extreme artifacting.

The interior cover showcases several pieces of poster art, including a Spanish one-sheet.

The Final Word
Q: The Winged Serpent is one of the last great creature features, and I was more excited tearing the shrinkwrap off this Blu-ray disc than I've been for just about anything else that's wound up in my mailbox this year. A better presentation and a few additional extras would've scored a much more enthusiastic recommendation, but with this Blu-ray disc making the rounds for $14 online, its budget sticker price does ease that sting a bit. Not the definitive release I would've liked to have seen but still very much Recommended.
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