Q The Winged Serpent. 1982. Directed & Written by Larry Cohen.
Starring Michael Moriarty, Candy Clark, David Carradine, Richard Roundtree, James Dixon, Malachy McCourt, & Mary Louise Weller. Arkoff International/Larco Productions.
Rated R. 92 minutes.
They don’t make directors like Larry Cohen anymore. From It’s Alive, Gold Told Me To, all the way to The Ambulance and his awesome “Pick Me Up” episode from Masters of Horror, his career’s been full of interesting surprises. His mark on the horror genre is indelible. People can remake his movies if they want. No matter how hard anybody tries, the Cohenesque qualities of his work won’t ever turn up like they do in the originals.
Q The Winged Serpent is a movie I’d heard about long, long ago. I was never too intent on seeing it, noticing the cover many times at the old video store in my neighbourhood and passing it off as something cheesy and foolish. There are absolutely a couple schlocky moments, most involving the creature itself. But what Cohen lacks in budget, he makes up for in writing, character, dialogue, and overall execution. Some of my favourite horror is the kind that dips in and out of other genres on its way. Cohen expertly writes such a plot in Q, using a pulpy noir-ish plotline to masquerade in front of the titular dragon-like monster, creating an impressive mix of crime and horror. All wrapped in a blanket of strange mystery.
I have to say, this is one of my favourite of Cohen’s scripts. Generally he’s an interesting writer because of the different ways he opts to take his plots, as opposed to the typical Hollywood formula people love to complain about. Sometimes he had to suffer a smaller budget than he may have wanted, that’s why he’s always been a more independent spirit in horror filmmaking. But I’d rather take something that looks a little aged if we’re going to get an interesting story with rich characters, rather than amazing effects for a pile of shit warmed over. Cohen uses the characters so well in Q. First off, David Carradine and Richard Roundtree have great chemistry together as Shepard and Powell respectively. I always love Carradine. He gets to do good work, but it’s Michael Moriarty I’m especially focused on. As are most who see and enjoy the film. He’s natural, quirky, like he actually IS Jimmy Quinn. What I’d call a casual performance. Not in any bad way, he makes the acting look easy, the way it ought to look. Quinn’s not your average criminal: doesn’t like to go inside places for robbery jobs, plays piano and sings, never carries a gun. Moriarty makes this into a genuinely fun role, his charm always near. The plot’s a big part of this due to how Cohen puts Jimmy Quinn right in the centre of everything, halving the plot between a noir-type story of a lucky (yet strikingly unlucky) criminal who takes advantage of a wild situation, and the other half a monster movie.
Shepard: “Sounded okay to me”
Quinn: “Yeah, what the fuck do you know?”
Shepard: “Yeah, what do I know?”
Everything about Cohen’s writing is thrilling in Q. The way ole Quetzalcoatl emerges to the city, disproving those who believed it a myth, is awesome fun. In the beginning there’s a scene I love when the flying serpent snatches up a sunbathing, naked woman, and it rains blood down on the streets. Random pedestrians walking the streets get hit by errant drops of blood. Later, gory bits of limbs, feet bitten off, land amongst the busy hordes of Manhattan citizens, unsuspecting of a dragon above eating others; the panic slowly erupts after people notice a foot suddenly.
There’s something hilariously genius about Cohen placing the nest in the Chrysler Building. I don’t know why it’s funny, it just is, okay?
The screenplay makes the unrealistic real. During the serpent’s journey soaring above Manhattan, eating people, Moriarty, Carradine, Roundtree and the rest make the characters interesting enough that everything happening around them has an incidental quality of feeling real, too. Honestly, Cohen’s abilities as a writer are hugely undervalued. When you look at this screenplay there’s a well balanced mix of the crime, where his characters develop, and the horror, where that nasty monster Q gets to lunch on human sacrifices. Best of all? The parallels between Quinn’s human sacrifice in order to save himself and that of the Aztecs to please their god Quetzalcoatl. Never thought of it much before, but this latest time watching I couldn’t help thinking of how needless both are, yet there’s this weird dichotomy of modern and ancient instances of sacrifice. Another neat aspect to the writing.
When you think about a few of the Q scenes, actually seeing the dragon being less than stellar during those moments, also remind yourself Cohen made this for barely over $1-million. More than that he came up with the script in less than a week, completing pre-production in that span of time; he’d been fired from another production and didn’t want to waste the hotel room he’d paid for already. That’s the ingenuity of a guy like Cohen. His filmmaking sensibilities were such that he took any opportunity possible to create one of his artistic visions. Not just that, I can guarantee part of what Cohen wanted to do was also recreate some of the movies he saw as a child, the movies which influenced him and his unique style.
Q The Winged Serpent is a fantastic independent film that exceeds expectations. In one smooth package Cohen fits a few excellent characters, including their exciting subplots, a throwback to creature features from the early days of cinema, and a dose of ancient terror with the blood to boot. I can never get enough of this one. Although it’s absolutely a nice treat for the Halloween season. Maybe a double feature – Q and Wolfen, two atypical monster movies with a brain. Regardless of how you watch it, just make sure you do. Cohen deserves more of our praise, as genre fans. He is a king.