The Bad Movie Report

Q- The Winged Serpent

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We haven't heard too much from Larry Cohen recently, it seems. With the exception of Original Gangstas (a logical project for the director of the well-regarded Black Caesar), he seems to be concentrating on writing rather than directing these days. But in the late 70's through the 80's, when he was most prolific, I regarded this fellow as something of a Great White Hope.

Cohen did the producer/director/writer thing on a series of unusual horror/SF films starting with the truly odd God Told Me To and continuing on through the somewhat annoying It's Alive III - Island of the Alive. His movies always strike the viewer as being fairly fresh approaches to old formulas - The Stuff, for instance, is Body Snatchers with Cool Whip® as the villain - but they're recognizable as formula nonetheless. Q is Cohen's Giant Monster movie.

Cohen wastes no time in getting to the - ahem - meat of the matter, starting off with a high-rise"Icky!" window washer getting his head bitten off some 75 stories above the ground. Soon after, a sunbathing woman (giving us our obligatory boob shot) is carried away by something diving out of the sun. And, oh, yes, a skinned corpse crops up in a hotel room. It's becoming a very interesting day for police detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree).

But never mind that, as we become acquainted with extremely small-time hood Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty). Jimmy's been trying to go straight with no luck, and finds himself forced out of his usual role as wheelman and into actually participating in a diamond heist. Things go wrong, Jimmy bolts with an attache case full of diamonds, and promptly loses the valise when he's hit by a cab.

Through a not-too-contrived set of circumstances, Jimmy finds himself at the top of the Moriarty ponders the Grand Slam Breakfast.Chrysler Building, where he discovers an enormous nest and an equally enormous egg. This comes in handy when the surviving members of the gang track Jimmy down and lean on him for their loot, and Jimmy helpfully leads them to the nest. As their death screams echo through the dome, Jimmy scurries away, giggling, "Eat 'em up! Eat 'em!"

So what's going on here? Well; the flying beastie that's snatching construction workers off the high iron is some species of giant bird that only crops up every so often, and Shepard becomes convinced that it was prayed back into existence by an Aztec priest and his willing sacrifices (oh, yeah, more corpses crop up with surgically removed hearts and the like). In short, the bird is Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent of Aztec legend. By the time Jimmy is finally picked up by the cops for the diamond job, Q has been spotted too many times to be ignored, and the hoodlum realizes he's sitting on a gold mine - he's the only one who knows the location of the monster's nest. "Nobody cries when-a Jaws die!  Everybody cry when my Q dies!"So, despite the protestations of his girlfriend (Candy Clark) who urges him to "do the right thing", Jimmy proceeds to blackmail the city.

The long and short of it is, Q and its egg wind up on the wrong end of the machine guns of NYPD, Jimmy has to face down a very annoyed Aztec priest, and in a bombed-out loft somewhere, there's another damned egg, anyway. The end.

The fight between Q and the NYPD is pretty good, although if you're expecting something along the scale of a Godzilla fight, you're going to be disappointed. Cohen didn't have that sort of budget, and it looks like damn near all the footage uses the real Chrysler building dome. There's a lot of shooting and swooping, and several stop-motion puppets get hurled to their deaths. All in all, kinda what you would expect of such a fight in the real world. Though I wonder what happened to the stray bullets, what with all that automatic weapons fire in downtown Manhattan....

No. 1 on list of jobs not to take in monster movies.

As ever, it's the little things that make Q. Cohen makes good use of guerrilla photography on the streets of New York (as he did in God Told Me To, insinuating a then-unknown Andy Kaufmann into the ranks of cops marching in the St. Paddy's Day Parade): blood drizzling down from above "Git yer ass out of that invisible box and help me git that sucker!"onto panicking pedestrians; a crowd standing in a crosswalk parts, revealing that they're staring at a dismembered foot. When the police finally interrupt one of the gruesome sacrificial rituals, the sacrifice (they have to be willing, remember) is so incensed he attacks the cops. And in the last act, as Powell is chasing the Aztec priest along the rooftops, he is followed closely by an undercover cop who was disguised as a street mime. A mime with a gun. Man, I love these movies.

Carradine and Roundtree are good as characters they've played umpteen times before and will probably play umpteen times more before the Millennium. It's Moriarty, as usual, who gives the standout performance as the ex-con ex-junkie who's only slightly smarter than a bag of hammers. Cohen somehow got Moriarty, a fine actor, to do three* flicks for him, including the aforementioned The Stuff and Island of the Alive. Well, bully for Cohen, say I, and Moriarty's career didn't seem to suffer. It's nice to have actual talent on these things (and yes, it must be said, Cohen's always had good actors working for him).

Q itself looks really good, thanks to Dave Allen, Randy Cook, and Peter Kuran. I suppose it's "I think Q Boo's just a big chicken!"sacrilege for me to say so, and I've fought this for a long time, but.... I've always thought Dave Allen's stop-motion animation looked better than Ray Harryhausen's. There. I've said it. (Well, except for 20 Million Miles to Earth, but that was damn fine animation) Memory had informed me that Q looked a lot like the Ugly Bird in The Legend of Hillbilly John, but memory was, fortunately, wrong. In some ways, it looks like a giant flying hot dog, but the animation is so fluid that you forget that right away.

If there is a fatal flaw in Q, it's a flaw that's inherent in Cohen's other flicks; they are, quite simply, what they are. After you've watched it once, you have experienced the whole enchilada, all the surprises, twist and nuances, and enjoyable as they may have been the first time through, you feel no need to see it again. Cohen's movies do not reward a second viewing. But that's not too tragic, in a field where most of its competition does not reward a first viewing.

In the notes on the Anchor Bay Entertainment Collector's Edition, Larry Cohen writes, "Quentin Tarantino gleefully told me that two different European critics wrote that Reservoir Dogs was Q without the bird." That was a rather spooky feeling, upon my first viewing in almost 10 years - the robbers meeting at a restaurant, the diamond heist gone hopelessly bad - so nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah to everybody who's been bitching that Tarantino ripped off City on Fire. He obviously ripped off Q. (Reservoir Dogs with a monster....hmmm..... dammit, somebody get me a Budget!)

Unless there's something I'm forgetting, Q was the last attempt at an American Giant Monster Movie until King Kong Lives or (urk) Zakorr the Invader (We don't talk about the Jurassic Parks or Tri-Star Godzilla around here). As such, it deserves some recognition and respect - especially since, unlike those worthies, it turned out to be pretty good.


Reservoir Dogs with a hungry monster? What are you waiting for?

- September 20, 1998