Friday, June 17, 2016

Q, The Winged Serpent

Directed by: Larry Cohen
Screenplay by: Larry Cohen
Starring: Michael Moriarity, Candy Clark, David Carradine, Richard Roundtree
Running Time: 93 min.
Tagline: "You'll just have time to scream "Q" before it tears you apart!"

Some directors out there just aren’t built to work within something as play it safe as the Hollywood studio system. Larry Cohen, an exploitation auteur whose output includes everything from blacksploitation films like BLACK CASEAR and ORIGINAL GANGSTERS to bizarre science fiction thrillers like the long lost relative of the X-FILES, GOD TOLD ME TO, would be one of them. This isn’t a criticism, mind you, and I think the world of B-movies is better off because of it. But I bring it up because it’s pertinent to the movie we’re talking about here. Because you see, back in the early 80’s, Cohen was taking a stab at his first major studio picture, I, THE JURY with Armand Assante, an adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer, and wound up butting heads with the studio executives over the production not having enough money. Cohen worried that his reputation with the various New York businesses he had worked with on several other films before would be damaged by his inability to pay the production costs and called them up to warn them “Look, you better get paid now or you might not get paid at all.” Well, that resulted in Cohen getting the boot from I, THE JURY barely a week into filming.

But here’s the thing about Larry Cohen; he’s what you would call a resourceful type and has a knack for putting together a movie in less time than…um, insert your own overdone metaphor here. If the studios didn’t want him to make I, THE JURY, well then, he was just going to go make his own. And he did just that. Within a week, he had a script, a cast and had secured the necessary budget, in the neighborhood of a million dollars, from none other than Samuel Z. Arkoff himself. You couldn’t find a more fitting producer for the project, because Arkoff, along with his former partner-in-crime Roger Corman, had pretty much wrote the closest thing to the Ten Commandments for how to produce, film, and market low budget B-movies in the 50s through the 70s via American International Pictures. (Google “The Arkoff Formula.”) Furthermore, Arkoff had a hand in bringing movies such as THE SHE-CREATURE, IT CONQUERED THE WORLD, VIKING WOMEN AND THE SEA SERPENT, REPTILICUS and even a few selections from the GODZILLA franchise to American screens and despite the gritty Reagan-era New York setting and comparably higher level of gore, the film Cohen had in mind, a mix of police procedural and giant monster film, would fit in right at home with those movies.

I imagine that detectives Shepherd (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) have seen their share of weird shit as New York police in the early eighties but I don’t think anything they’ve run across so far prepared them for the two different corpses that drop into their laps on this day. The first was a window washer who, while using his job as an excuse to leer at a woman working in the same building, rather suddenly finds himself deprived of everything from the neck up. There doesn’t seem to be any clear sign of what decapitated the man and even more bizarre, his head is nowhere to be found! That’s one for the books by itself, but the second dead body Shepherd and Powell are called in to investigate manages to top that: a skinned corpse found in a hotel room. And the grisly strangeness of the crime doesn’t end there. When Shepherd consults an expert at the Museum of Natural History that our victim was in town to visit, he learns that the second crime is reminiscent of the manner in which the ancient Aztecs would offer up a human sacrifice by flaying them alive. The kicker? The one being sacrificed in this ritual has to offer themselves up willingly! Well, unfortunately for Shepherd and Powell, this is simply the start of it, because faster than you can say Johnny Gossamer (go watch Shane Black’s KISS, KISS, BANG, BANG if you don’t get that reference), it turns out the two cases are connected and what connects them just happens to be this big flying something that’s snatching up and devouring any New Yorker it can get its claws on.

This is where Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) enters the picture. Who is Jimmy Quinn, you may ask? A “nobody” if we’re being honest. One gets the feeling calling Jimmy a two-bit crook would be a bit generous. To his credit, though, he wants to go straight and has dreams of a career as a jazz musician, working at the same bar as his girlfriend, Joan. (Candy Clark) -- Just like to add, that this was a touch added to the script after Cohen discovered that Moriarty was himself an aspiring piano player. The song he plays for the audition is one that the actor wrote. -- Well, the audition doesn’t go to well, leaving Jimmy with only one option to procure any money; going in with a gang of mob goons on a diamond store heist. Jimmy is the squeamish type and argues that he doesn’t like guns or taking part in the actual robbery itself and will serve only as the wheelman. Unfortunately for Jimmy, his argument isn’t nearly as convincing as the one Ryan Gosling would give a couple decades and change later so he ends up right smack dab in the middle of the robbery when it goes south, holding the case full of diamonds. He doesn’t hold onto it for long, mind you, losing it after getting clipped by a cab while fleeing the scene and I’m willing to bet that the mobsters aren’t going to be too happy about that, if they believe his story at all. When his lawyer up closes up shop following Jimmy’s panicked plea for help, needless to say, Jimmy is in deep shit.

One thing does go Jimmy’s way, though he doesn’t quite realize it yet. His lawyer’s offices happen to be in the Chrysler Building, you see, and Jimmy’s attempt to get into it gets him chased by security. It’s there in the maintenance area at the very, very top of the skyscraper, hiding from a guard, where Jimmy stumbles across the nest of whatever it is that’s been attacking people. The creature isn’t home when Jimmy finds it but a giant egg it laid is and the corpses of several people it’s been snacking on. That’s enough, though, to tell Jimmy that he’s better off any where but here and he amscrays. That nest comes in handy for Jimmy, however, when the mafia goons come calling at his girlfriend’s apartment later on. When they finally corner Jimmy, he gets the idea to lure them to the nest so that whatever has made itself at home can take care of his personal problem for him and that’s just what happens. It is also isn’t too long before Jimmy makes the connection between the attacks and the nest he discovered and he realizes that he’s in possession of information that the authorities would really like to get their hands on. From there all three separate plotlines join up, as Shepherd discovers that not only are the attacks being carried out by some sort of prehistoric monster, not only is there are an Aztec death cult running loose in New York that reveres this beastie as the god Quetzalcoatl – though you’d think they of all people would know that ole Quetzie was one of the Aztec gods who wasn’t big on human sacrifice – but he if wants to stop this insanity, he’s going to have to wrangle with a low life who’s willing to hold the city hostage if it means he’s can weasel some serious money and an official pardon out of it.

I know everyone says “they don’t make ‘em like this any more” about any old movie but seriously, they really don’t make ‘em like this any more. As I said earlier, even when released, (Guh, over thirty years ago!) Q was a bit of a throwback to an earlier era of monster movie making. The early eighties were the hey day of the slasher film and if monsters rampaged through anything back then, it was usually through spaceships or sewers, something of considerably smaller scale than the Big Apple, so a movie which featured a claymation beastie snatching sunbathers off of New York roofs was going to stick out somewhat. Then there’s New York itself. Like many of Cohen’s movies, such as the aforementioned GOD TOLD ME TO and the MANIAC COP trilogy he wrote and produced, Q is a snapshot of a city that doesn’t exist any more, the New York of the seventies and eighties; grimy, crowded, and covered in graffiti but feeling alive in a way that few places do. This is one of those movies where the city itself is as much a character as anyone in it. Part of the reason for this is that Cohen shot a lot of the film documentary style right there in the streets and alleyways of the city, often improvising scenes on the day and grabbing who or whatever was nearby that he could get some use out of. Those baskets hanging off the side of the Chrysler Building that the police use to shoot at Q during the film’s climax? They were already there, being used by electricians to install lights. Most of the “police” you see in that scene were the steeplejacks that were working up there when Cohen showed up. It’s movie-making without a net and unfortunately, I doubt you could get away with shooting a film this way in the New York of today. A production of a scale this small certainly wouldn’t be able to use the Chrysler building as its major set piece and that would be a shame. I mean, where else in New York would a giant bird-god want to make itself home at?

A fairly ridiculous premise, low budget and short shooting schedule, with a lot of scenes made up as they went along, starring actors that didn’t even know the sort of movie they were in until they showed up on set and were handed the script. – David Carradine was an army buddy of Cohen’s who agreed to do Q as a favor – and a special effects team that had to integrate their stop motion monster into footage that wasn’t shot to accommodate that. All in all, it sounds like a recipe for utter schlock and to be honest, Q, THE WINGED SERPENT is schlock but its schlock of a very entertaining and smartly written sort. Oh sure, it has some plot absurdities to it. Nobody thinks to call the military in, somehow our monster can snatch people up and there be no witnesses, and it’s never explained how Q can reproduce without a mate. (Though Tim has interesting take on that.) But it gets things right where it counts. Cohen knows how to make even minor characters feel distinctive, giving them their own little stories -- like a construction worker whose lunch keeps getting stolen -- so that they feel like actual people with lives instead of just cannon fodder there to get gobbled up by an airplane sized death-turkey. The movie also contains a number of witty little touches: whether it’s the monster coming to rest on a pyramid like building in its death throes or that whole requirement of the sacrifice having to be a willing one saving Jimmy’s bacon when the cult leader comes after him. There’s humor here and a lot of its pretty funny, occasionally dark (like some suggesting that the monster’s here because New York’s “known for its good eating”) but thankfully no matter how goofy it gets, with kite jump scares and scenes of a cop undercover as a mime, Cohen never plays things less than one-hundred percent straight. He knows not to talk down to his audience but invite them along.

It helps a lot that Cohen has the cast that he has to work with, and the stand out performance among all of them is unquestionably Michael Moriarty as Jimmy Quinn. Moriarty was an actor who had a few film credits under his belt, including co-starring in BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY with Robert DeNiro, but mostly thrived on television and stage, winning several Tony and Emmy Awards. (He would be one of the main cast in the early seasons of a little show called LAW & ORDER, too.) He was a largely improvisational actor, and since Cohen was a largely improvisational director, it’s no surprise that two enjoyed working together immensely. According to the commentary track, Cohen would come up with and shout lines for Moriarty to say while they were shooting scenes and Moriarty would slip them in without missing a beat. Q would be their first collaboration together and the two would work again on THE STUFF, IT’S ALIVE III: ISLAND OF THE ALIVE, RETURN TO SALEM’S LOT and Cohen’s MASTERS OF HORROR episode “Pick Me Up.” There’s a rather infamous anecdote involving Rex Reed meeting Cohen after a screening and exclaiming “All that dreck…and right in the middle a great Method performance by Michael Moriarty!” Cohen responded with “That dreck was my idea.” It’s easy to see why Moriarty leaves such an impression though, with the way he manages to instill Jimmy Quinn with such nervous, fast talking, unable to sit still or slow down manic energy. (Anybody who’s been around drug addicts much will see a lot that’s familiar.) Let’s be honest here, Jimmy Quinn isn’t remotely what you’d call a decent person, especially once his negotiations with the city give him carte blanche to act like a real asshole, but dang if Moriarty doesn’t make him mesmerizing and even make you want to root for him a little. In a weird way, Jimmy Quinn is the heart of the movie and if you took out everything around him, leaving only his relationships with his girlfriend and Detective Shepherd, you’d still have a pretty good flick on your hands. I’m not exaggerating when I say the scene with him and Carradine in the coffee shop is the most entertaining “cop and crook have coffee” scene this side of HEAT. Quinn’s suggestion of how they should catch Q and Carradine’s disbelieving and sarcastic reaction to it crack me up every time. The rest of the cast acquits themselves well, though it is a shame that Richard Roundtree is given so little to do.

Fittingly, Q, THE WINGED SERPENT opened the same week and almost right up the block from where I, THE JURY finally opened and proceeded to outdo the much bigger budgeted movie in terms of both box office and critical reception. I’m not saying I believe in karma but if I did… And if you want my opinion, I feel pretty sorry for whatever dimension in the old multiverse where Cohen’s I, THE JURY went off without a hitch and were deprived of this little gem as a result.

Hey, speaking of how things could have been different, here’s a little bit of trivia that might blow your mind. When casting the film, Cohen had strongly considered two other people for the roles of Shepherd and Jimmy Quinn; one a struggling actor working as a bartender that had auditioned for I, THE JURY, the other a comedian who Cohen had caught at an improv-comedy show. However, Cohen was shot down because the distributors wanted actors that would be more recognizable, making it easier to sell the film to foreign markets. So, next time you settle down to watch Q, play a game of “what could have been” and try to image how this flick would have played starring Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy!

This review is part of NATURE'S FURY, a blog-a-thon hosted by Cinematic Catharsis for the weekend of June 18th through the 20th and dedicated to those movies where Mother Nature really, really has it in for you. Click on the image below to see the what the other blogs taking part have to contribute...


  1. Great post. This is my favorite Larry Cohen movie and Michael Moriarty is amazing here. I always was fascinated by his movies and what he was able to pull off with the budgets he was working with. Cool stuff !

  2. Great post. This is my favorite Larry Cohen movie and Michael Moriarty is amazing here. I always was fascinated by his movies and what he was able to pull off with the budgets he was working with. Cool stuff !

  3. Excellent post, Bill! Q is an underrated gem that seems to have faded into obscurity over the last several years, but it deserves a revival. Thanks for taking part in the Nature's Fury blogathon!

  4. Whoa! Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy in this film? I've never seen this film, even so the thought is intriguing.

    Absolutely loved your review.

  5. That's a very rich vein of WhatIfs you've mined there. I had no idea Cohen had been within gripping distance of I The Jury-- I don't think he would have done any better with it, and the world is infinitely richer with Q in it. That all this came about because Cohen was being a champion of honesty makes it all the better.