Jimmy Quinn is a piece of shit. He is a small time crook too cowardly for the big score and he doesn’t have the stones to go straight. When Quinn gets nervous he looks like a lacquered dog turd plopped at the curb, surrounded by mounds of rotting garbage. After all, this is the New York City of 1982, folks. It wasn’t the spit shined amusement park it is today. It was a glorious dump–a breeding ground for all manner of cretins, criminals and cast-offs. The city resembled a festering Petri dish for pornographers, pimps and palookas. Yeah, we all miss it. It was a wonderland where someone like Quinn could scrape out a living and dream of the easy way to a fortune. A guy can find some crazy shit climbing around under the spire of the Chrysler Building. Maybe he will get lucky and find a way to blackmail the city for a million dollars. Again, this is 1982.
Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent is an entertaining monster movie. Made in 1982, it is a throwback to the B-movies that were made thirty or forty years before that. Q is the kind of flick you may have watched with your father on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Maybe you’re playing with your Godzilla toy on the floor, anxiously awaiting the next guy to get his head bitten off, and the old man is half asleep on the couch. He has one hand wrapped around a Budweiser can and the other is down his pants as he drifts back to the days when he felt his first breast. This would have been before he made the mistake of marrying your mother, having you and ruining his chances of playing third base for the New York Mets. A bum knee and lack of talent will do that to you. The watery look in his sleepy eyes tells you he wishes he was that construction worker snatched off the roof by that giant, snot colored bird with the thirty foot wingspan.
Q is blessed with sharp, witty dialogue and good performances from a group of familiar faces, who just never seemed to reach super stardom, or who had fallen out of the spotlight for awhile. The story (and there really is one here) involves the police investigating a bunch of mysterious deaths of people on rooftops, as well as a bunch of gruesome, sacrificial type murders in the dark corners of abandoned warehouses. Listening to Detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) use gallows humor to lament the case as they stand next to a waterlogged body with the heart cut out, or watch a headless corpse get wheeled out in a body bag is a real treat. It is also a testament to Larry Cohen’s effective and efficient screenplay. The audience is interested even when we don’t see the monster or witness drops of blood and body parts splashing onto the streets from high above the city.
Enter born loser, Jimmy Quinn, played by an excellent Michael Moriarty. He’s a bundle of nerves who is a decent piano player, but an even better wheel man for some lowlife jewel thieves. His benevolent girlfriend (Candy Clark) tries to get him to go straight, but he just screams at her and tells her to fetch him a drink. According to her, Quinn isn’t above smacking her around either. A real gentleman, this fucking guy is. The skilled Moriarty makes him loathsome and pitiable all at the same time, the kind of skell he would be prosecuting on the early years of Law and Order. It is fun to watch the way in which Cohen–usually a clever genre writer–makes Quinn the focal point of the movie.
The serpent, Q, is an ancient Aztec god. It’s full name is the laborious to pronounce Quetzalcoatl. This ten dollar name seems more fitting for some luxurious Mexican airline, or tasty seafood dish. The screenplay gets some smiles out of David Carradine’s character trying to pronounce it as he confers with Aztec experts on scenic university campuses and in stuffy museums. Herein lies an interesting question.
Can you kill something if you can’t pronounce it’s name?
The performances by the main cast members are uniformly good. Along with Cohen’s screenplay, they all give us more than your normal B-movie (that isn’t a backhanded compliment because most B-movies are better than the crap we get from major studio releases, both thirty years ago and today). Carradine, sometimes so stoic and tacit in his roles, seems to be having a real blast in this without winking to the audience. Roundtree is his usual intimidating self. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get to kick any real ass in this. Although, he does get to taunt and smack Quinn around in a police station, so that is fun to watch. Moriarty is excellent in this movie. Watching him get drunk with the power his knowledge gives him makes the audience really despise him when before we had some sympathy for him and his situation. It really is a nuanced performance and Cohen gives him a great arc. If his character would have been in a straight drama it would have garnered more attention than it got.
The cinematography by Fred Murphy is astounding in this. He makes us feel entombed in claustrophobic places and has us soaring high above Manhattan in other instances. Robert O. Ragland’s fun score underscores the aerial photography and almost sounds like dark circus music to terrify those of us with a fear of heights, or monsters that can rip you apart with sharp claws.
Given the shoestring budgets that Larry Cohen usually worked with on his directorial adventures, the monster in Q is a great piece of stop-motion magic created by a team that featured David Allen. It gets the job done and adds to that nostalgic feeling that you are watching some 1950s sci-fi movie that had Ray Harryhausen doing the creature effects. Cohen wisely limits showing the winged serpent in full view until the ten minute showdown between it and a small army of cops who are holed up in the top of the Chrysler Building. Watching the beast swoop down on the spire, dodging machine gun fire laced with tracers, and chomp down on unlucky police officer is what these types of movies are all about.
If you have 90 minutes to kill, pop in Q and pretend you’re a kid again. It’s a fun ride.