The first thing you notice about Q: THE WINGED SERPENT is the music. The opening credits play over the score by Robert O. Ragland, an eerie wail that sounds like a spookhouse version of Morricone’s score for ORCA: THE KILLER WHALE. Now that was a ‘seventies movie. Q is not. The year of Q is 1982. But this does not feel like an ‘eighties movie. From the score, to the presence of archetypal ‘seventies stars David Carradine and Richard Roundtree, to the stop-motion animation on the title’s beast, and everything on down, this movie feels like it just as easily could have come from 1972 as 1982.
Even considered in its own moment, let alone in 2015, it feels like an artifact of an earlier time released into the world late. It’s a Winger album in the grunge era. It feels chronologically displaced. And that may be thematically appropriate, for a film focusing around an ancient Aztec flying serpent wreaking havoc upon the skyline of New York City. And God bless it, because that’s not a thing anyone saw before or since.
Like JAWS, a monster movie from 1975 that’s sort of timeless, the monster in Q attacks early and viciously. Unlike JAWS, there’s an element of comedy and they-sort-of-asked-for-it mischief. The very first victim is a muttering window-washer who had been leering at a businesswoman inside who did not exactly enjoy the attention. The next victim is a topless sunbather, not too far afield from the skinny-dipper in JAWS — you may wish the monster had gone from the peeping Tom watching her from the next building over instead, but that’s life in the big city; unfair sometimes. Unlike JAWS, you get a brief glimpse of the monster early — it’s on the poster after all, why hide it? — and no offense to the charmingly creaky effects work by Randall William Cook and David Allen, but that monster is not overly impressive in action. But that’s not really what the movie is about anyway.
Q is a Larry Cohen movie, and as a writer and as a director, Larry Cohen gets his kicks as much from vividly-defined character details and moments as he does the exploitation elements of so many of his many inimitable films. In that way, the case needs to be made that Larry Cohen, when he works there, is one of the quintessential New York directors — more playful than Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese, more serious-minded than Frank Henenlotter, less self-involved than Woody Allen, less heavy-handed than Spike Lee. (Which is not to knock any of those besides maybe Woody — it’s just to demonstrate how vital Larry Cohen’s films are.)
Q, then, is quintessential Larry Cohen. Few filmmakers are as entertained by the panoply of a city — in Q, before and after a construction worker on a skyscraper has his head bitten off by a flying serpent, there is plenty of comic business about his fellow construction workers have a habit of stealing and enjoying his lunch. And in a movie that features the more conventionally heroic David Carradine and Richard Roundtree, as cops investigating a string of murders where the victims have been ceremonially skinned (which of course connects to the aforementioned Aztec beast), the movie’s protagonist is actually Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty), a nervous, fidgety, balding jazz-pianist wannabe who gets involved with mob thugs on a jewelry heist and in the process inadvertently discovers the creature’s lair at the top of the Chrysler Building. The scene where Jimmy, anxiously scat-singing while running from his former cohorts, lures a pair of mobsters up to the serpent’s den knowing full well what will happen to them, is one of the film’s weird-o highlights.
What’s so lovable about Q as a film and Larry Cohen’s style in making it is that any one of the peripheral players — the bikini babes stretching out on the rooftops, a random lowlife being interrogated in a police squadroom, a street mime calling in with a hot tip — could have been called up to be the center of the story. At least the mime gets to ride in a squad car and pack a pistol alongside Richard Roundtree! Overall, Q is a working demonstration of the “no small parts” adage. Everyone with or without a speaking role in Q gets a moment to register. The film’s approach is beyond democratic; it’s as legitimately fascinated with human beings as it is the ancient lizard monster on the striking painted poster (by fantasy artist Boris Vallejo).
Carradine and Roundtree are the natural choice for the heroic leads, with a predictably funky chemistry between their two styles. Carradine is the more relaxed, philosophical type who doodles flying lizards in meetings with the police commissioner and who buys into the supernatural element of the crimes early on, while Roundtree is the profane bullshit-debunker who just wants to get the case solved. One characteristic exchange: Carradine opines of the murderous monster, “This thing has been prayed back into existence.” Roundtree doesn’t want to hear that shit, so Carradine sighs, “Read the fucking report.”
But Larry Cohen chooses to center the film around Michael Moriarty’s character, a loser, a purposely whiny, frustrating, cowardly sort who drops occasional racial slurs and who tries to blackmail his way out of paying taxes once he turns out to be the only one who knows where to find the monster. Instead of throwing him in jail and heading out guns-blazing, Carradine and Roundtree have to defer to this guy before they can go get the bad guys. Any other monster movie would give this creep three lines and feed him to the dragon. Here he’s the one with the arc — and it doesn’t seem like he changes much. It’s essential to the scrappy appeal of Q that it defiantly does almost nothing the conventional way.
Q isn’t a particularly beautifully-shot film, but it does have some unforgettable images and incidents to throw at its audience: Blood raining from the sky onto New York’s pedestrians and commuters in crowded intersections after the monster takes a victim, a giant claw grabbing a swimmer out of a rooftop pool as if plucking a live lobster out of a tank, the assembled NYPD storming the Chrysler Building in order to find and kill Quetzalcoatl, David Carradine machine-gunning dinosaur eggs, SHAFT fighting a dragon. This is picture-proof a movie doesn’t need formula script-structure or state-of-the-art technology. What really counts is character, an ingenious idea and a creative approach. And, in a pinch, Shaft fighting a dragon.
Need more Q in your life? Here’s a terrific oral history! (It also played last night in Los Angeles, but your humble narrator fell asleep early. On the floor. Long story.)
And buy the Q Blu-Ray from Scream Factory here:
— JON ABRAMS (@jonnyabomb).
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