Like The Stuff, Larry Cohen’s 1982 film Q has some interesting technical aspects that make it rise above, however slightly, most low-grade horror films, but is equally muddled when it comes to things like “telling a coherent story” or “having characters act in recognizably human ways.” In theory it’s a straight-forward monster movie, but the bulk of the film is focused on the travails of a petty criminal, played by Michael Moriarty, and his attempts to exploit the monster’s existence for his own benefit. Mixing a crime movie with a monster movie is a novel idea, but its an idea that requires more than the occasional glimpse of the monster to really make it a presence in the moive. Cohen is more interested in the small-timer. It makes for a frustrating film, because Moriarty’s character is so whiny and obnoxious that he’s almost impossible to feel any sympathy for, and he continually acts in a way that defies any rational explanation.

Of course, rationality isn’t exactly a strong point in this movie. The bulk of the film that isn’t about Moriarty acting like a weasel focuses on David Carradine as an NYPD detective working with Richard Roundtree to solve a series of ritualistic murders. Carradine somehow goes from murders to people disappearing from rooftops to ancient Aztec god somehow reborn in New York City. It’s an absolutely appalling leap of logic based on absolutely no evidence, but of course it’s precisely and perfectly correct, because otherwise we wouldn’t have a film. It’s the same sort of “read the script” level of deduction that makes The X-Files so frustrating; the hero is right because he is the hero and must be right. And in this particular case, a skeptical character would have worked just as well, because the whole ritual killings thing is never really developed, other than as a way to toss out an explanation as to why there is a giant flying lizard eating New Yorkers. It’s only an explanation for the benefit of those viewers who need an explanation in a monster movie.

Q itself is sort of charming. It’s a stop-motion monster, super-imposed over live footage of actors or New York, very much in the tradition of Ray Harryhausen-style creatures. Should the unthinkable happen, and Q gets remade, the creature would be just another in a long line of forgettable CGI creatures. The physical reality of the stop-motion creature gives it a visual appeal. And, to be fair to Cohen, visually the film is quite interesting. Cohen works the motif of birds or winged creatures into shot after shot after shot. It’s a symbolism overload, frankly, for what’s basically just a monster movie with a little bit of gore and boobs, aimed quite squarely at the teenage horror crowd. And the film is filled with aerial POV shots, giving us a Q-eyed view of the city and its inhabitants. POV shots are a horror staple, but they work quite well here, as the speed and height at which they’re taken make the apparent undetectability of Q more plausible.

Those visual themes play out in the way that Cohen uses New York architecture as well. The steeples of New York’s art deco buildings bear more than a passing resemblance to ancient Mexico’s Aztec temples, though the link is never made explicit by any of the characters. In any case, the stylized nature of the buildings gives them a temple-like appearance, and putting Q into those contexts seems like a natural fit, especially during the climactic battle between Q and the NYPD on top of Q’s lair in the Chrysler building. That link between the supernatural and the unique architecture of New York is explored more directly in Ghostbusters two years later, but Cohen seems to have at least anticipated the idea.

2 Responses to “Decade of Schlock: Q: The Winged Serpent”
  1. LaRue says:

    I cannot believe that I never saw this movie back in my younger days. Sounds like a winner, as far as good schlocky stuff goes. And having Carradine and Roundtree in the cast can’t hurt anything.

    On the subject of 80’s schlocky fun, have you seen “Blood Diner”? That thing is amazing.

  2. John says:

    For me, the most memorable thing about this movie was Roger Ebert’s review of it, in which he related a conversation between Rex Reed and Q’s producer, Sam Arkoff.

    Reed: Sam! I just saw THE WINGED SERPENT! What a surprise! All that dreck–and right in the middle of it, a great Method performance by Michael Moriarty!

    Arkoff: The dreck was my idea.

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