Fred J. Scollay
Horror Drama Thriller
Trivia Writer/director 'Larry Cohen', according to interviews, once looked at the Chrysler Building and said, "That'd be the coolest place to have a nest." This single thought was the idea which began the creation of this movie.
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Q - The Winged Serpent (1982)
10th Aug 04
An ancient winged serpent eats New Yorkers while petty thief Moriarty helps cop Carradine hunt down the serpent's nest.
Some films are in a league of their own. Q – The Winged Serpent is one of those films. We have a great cast as well as a great story along with highly impressive visuals and let us not forget the huge ancient Aztec God winged serpent-type thing which picks folk off New York rooftops and carries them to his nest based in the steeple of the Chrysler Building.
Petty thief Jimmy Quinn (Moriarty) knows where the nest is located and points David Carradine in the right direction. He’s not doing this for free of course, and asks that in return for the information he is acquitted from all charges (a “Nixon Pardon”, if you please), owns the rites to all photographs, articles, books about the story, and $1000,000 – tax free. You see, JQ has never been a “somebody” before. He stumbles across a once in a lifetime opportunity to be this ‘somebody’ and he’s going to milk it for all its worth. And boy, is he loving it. Just don’t ask this fidgety, nervous little guy to go anywhere near the nest – its strictly a case of “I point, you go!”
Michael Moriarty has never given a performance like he did in Q. Jimmy Quinn’s character exudes electricity every step of the way. No other performer can match him here, except perhaps for Q, though I’ll get onto that in due course. JQ is a failed pianist who cannot get any work due to his somewhat idiosyncratic style of playing, and so he is forced to remain in the world of crime. Some could easily argue that he is simply OTT in his joviality, but just watch that guy go! He looks like he’s been on a strict diet of strong coffee and / or high-grade amphetamines for a month before shooting. That would certainly explain why he has what must be the biggest under-arm sweat patches in film history in a certain early scene.
He‘s got a jive-ass walk, like a black 70’s pimp in a white man suit. He’s a man falling apart – an ex-junkie who may relapse at any point, and a big crybaby. He really comes into his element when he has the upper hand with the police. He has the information they want so badly, and he’s taking his time in handing it over.
His rapport with Sgt. Powell (Richard Roundtree in a great turn) is so entertaining. Powell cannot tolerate JQ at all. His patience is wearing thin, but when JQ realises that he knows something the police desperately want to know, he really rubs the salt into Powell’s already volatile patience quota. JQ: “Kiss my ass! In public! On the Johnny Carson Show!” It must have felt great for Moriarty to say that line to Shaft.
Q stands for Quetzalcoatl (‘Just call it Q...that's all you'll have time to say before it tears you apart’ says the tagline). People couldn’t be faulted for feeling slightly short-changed when it came to the serpent of the title. We are privileged only to catch various glimpses of it for most of the duration, as it swoops down upon its unsuspecting victims to either simply decapitate or to carry them away for serpent brunch. What we have here is a case of stop motion animation which we don’t get to fully appreciate until the final battle of cops (with machine guns) versus Q, atop the Chrysler Building – a scene which has heavy echoes of King Kong.
Pummelled with bullets, the giant serpent falls onto the streets of Manhattan. This is really quite something to behold and in this reviewer’s humble opinion, well worth the wait. Especially when you consider that Cohen was shooting everything unscripted, and only he knew where Q was going to appear in every scene. The crew just had to take his word for it and trust him that he knew exactly what he was doing. What we do get more often are silhouettes of Q flying past the skyscrapers of NYC – these work nicely and were probably quite cost-effective for Cohen to show the scope of this ever-growing winged beast, as well as imbuing the film with an outstanding sense of location.
Another device used is the old ‘blood dripping on New Yorkers going about their daily business’ ploy. After being treated to a close-up shot of a lady sunbather atop a building, rubbing sun cream into her milkers, she is romantically whisked away by the amorous Q who lets her blood drop onto the NY streets, feeding the city with cause for understandable panic.
Larry Cohen threw this mini-masterpiece together in a mere 18 days after he was sacked from directing I am Jury. Shot with a very small crew, Q is pure guerrilla filmmaking at its best. The crew did an amazing job considering the lack of script and having to work on a day-to-day basis with Cohen. No extras were used – all those people on the NY streets are bona fide New Yorkers – hence their bemused staring. Cohen was keen to capture as much authentic panic as he possibly could; it is tactics like this that help shape a standard B feature into a cult classic with big wings and a taste for human flesh.
I really haven’t given much plot detail away here, although it is fair to say that the story will take you on more twists and turns than you bargained for, all aided and moved along by an incredibly funny, clever and witty script, much of which was improvised on set. If you’re expecting something scary, atmospheric and deep, you’ll be disappointed. On the other hand if you like flying clay monsters, wise-talking cowardly crooks, bullying policemen (provided by a Shaft / Kung-Fu team!), gore, gratuitous breasts, and something that is pure New York, then look no further.
Versions The original theatrical print (as well as the HBO and Cinemax airing, and the syndicated TV print) ends with the shot of the new egg hatching and the camera zooming inside to black before showing a title card stating that Michael Moriarty's character sued the city and got $1 million tax-free, yet all videos and DVDs of this film are missing this.