|Q - The Winged Serpent|
|Written by Bill Warren|
|Saturday, 23 August 2003|
Larry Cohen is one of the most interesting, if eccentric, filmmakers working in his chosen fields (SF/horror & crime, mostly); though he has been less active -- or interesting -- in recent years, he's left a body of work that will entertain and amuse people for years. He's only a mediocre director; his camera angles are clunky, his editing is often confusing, and his habit of filling out existing films with quickly-grabbed extra footage makes the films look alternately pretty slick and pretty crude. But his ideas have led to his being a major cult favorite among American moviegoers.
"Q" is often called "Q -- The Winged Serpent," even though the title on screen is just the one proud letter formed by the red twisted body of a serpent. It's one of Cohen's best movies, a crazy combination of monster movie, crime thriller, satire and murder mystery. It stars David Carradine and Michael Moriarty, who work in very different styles, but who somehow mesh so well here that one of the best scenes is just the two of them arguing in a coffee shop.
As the movie opens, a flirtatious window-washer is decapitated by some screaming thing that drops out of the sky. NYPD detective Carradine and his partner Richard Roundtree are puzzled by the fact that while the body was still hanging there in its harness, high up on a skyscraper, the head is nowhere to be found. Almost simultaneously, Carradine also investigates a strange death -- a body has been found in a hotel room, completely stripped of skin.
Meanwhile, two-bit crook Moriarty is teaming up with some thugs to hold up a jewelry store. He loftily tells them he's "strictly a wheelman -- I don't go inside." Later, he wanders into the bar where his girlfriend Candy Clark works, and, surprisingly, plays some pretty good jazz piano while scat-singing. Carradine happens to be there too (an odd coincidence that leads nowhere), and likes the scruffy, egocentric crook and his music.
Meanwhile, that strange monster in the sky continues to swoop down from time to time, carrying off shrieking New Yorkers and pelting onlookers with the blood of its prey.
When the jewel robbery goes very wrong, Moriarty sneaks into the Chrysler Building just for a place to hide, and -- bizarrely -- climbs all the way up into the art deco pointy top of the famous building. There he finds a very large egg and some skeletons, mostly stripped of flesh. He doesn't know what to do with this information, but he'll think of something.
And soon enough, he does, feeding hitmen to the monster, then, when he's arrested, holding New York city for ransom -- he'll reveal the hiding place of the monster in exchange for his freedom and a suitcase full of money.
Naturally, there are further complications.
At first, Cohen thought he could make "Q" without ever showing the monster (despite Carradine's final line, "...just your good, old-fashioned monster"), so the effects team of David Allen, Randy Cook and Peter Kuran had to add the stop-motion puppet to existing footage, which wasn't easy. The strain occasionally shows, as in the scene in which the flying reptile drops Richard Roundtree: you can see the critter reflected in the glass behind it. But mostly, the effects, though scant, are fine; even when they're not, they're on a par with the rather ragged look of the rest of the movie.
Cohen had fun with the name of the monster. Carradine learns early on that it might be the living incarnation of the Aztec god Quetzelcoatl, the Feathered Serpent; the skinned and other bodies were sacrifices to that particular diety. Moriarty's character is named Quinn, another Q, and briefly he has ambitions as predatory as that of the flying monster. Cohen even throws in a reference to Cue magazine.
"Q" is probably Cohen's most balanced mix of humor and horror; "It's Alive" (about a killer baby) is very much on the horror side, while "The Stuff" (about carnivorous dessert) was too comic. With "Q" the horror is realistic enough to convince us that the monster and the movie mean business, while the humor is used to flavor the characters and to dilute the gruesomeness a little.
Michael Moriarty is an eccentric, highly stylized actor; sometimes, he works in a very realistic mode, as he did as D.A. Ben Stone on "Law and Order." But in the several films he made with Larry Cohen, he's loopy, colorful and vivid, never more so than in "Q," in which he's playing a character who himself is loopy, colorful and vivid. Jimmy Quinn is a cheap little crook who can't understand why he's not richer than he is, but who's never had the courage to pursue anything other than crime. Moriarty loves this character, and because the actor is having such a grand time, we end up liking him, too.
Carradine, by contrast, is an underplayer, radically different from Moriarty, but instead of clashing, their styles mesh, and their scenes together are flavorful and fun -- which pretty much describes the entire movie.
Cohen has a hard time integrating the Aztec-sacrifice plot with the Jimmy-Quinn-extortion plot; the bridge is the flying monster, of course, but they play like such completely different plot threads that when they finally do come together, it seems artificial, contrived, forced. Cohen loves to go for effect, impact, even when it's illogical; this often hampers his movies in terms of realism, but makes them surprising and lively to watch.
The DVD from Anchor Bay has no extras other than plentiful (and amusingly-titled) chapter stops, but it's from a sharp print. If you have a taste for eccentric but mainstream movies, "Q" could turn out to be a minor favorite.