Q (also known as Q: The Winged Serpent) is a very underrated and underexposed horror movie. Written, produced, and directed by Larry Cohen, the film is an entertaining blend of action, thrills, and old-school horror. This is a “Creature Feature” with a lot more bite.
The film opens with a window cleaner on the side of a New York high-rise building, as he ogles over a woman in her office, suddenly he’s decapitated. Cops Shepard and Powell (played by David Carradine and Richard Roundtree respectively) are assigned to the case. Meanwhile, somewhere across town, a gang is planning a heist. Michael Moriarty plays “the wheel man” Jimmy Quinn, a feeble and somewhat timid con who argues unsuccessfully about his “cut” with the other men. Incidentally, Michael Moriarty I’m convinced has influenced Kevin Spacey’s earlier work such as Usual Suspects and Se7en, in fact his persona, gait, and even his voice in this movie is uncannily similar to Verbal Kint from The Usual Suspects, but I digress.
Like many other Larry Cohen films, Q The Winged Serpent contains scenes with real people in the background (the first outdoor crime scene with Roundtree and Carradine for instance). Enlisting the help of everyday people is one of Larry’s talents and seeing non-actors act creates a sense of “realness” with a live-theatre or documentary feel to his films. This is done to better effect in God Told Me To but it works very well in Q too. This film also moves around different locations in and around Manhattan which creates a plot that affects the entire city giving the picture a sense of scope which isn’t usually the case with B-Movies.
Back to the plot, somewhere in New York a skinned body is found in an apartment, it is flayed, possibly as a sacrifice. Somewhere else, a peeping tom watches a topless woman sunbathe and he inadvertently witnesses her being taken away by a giant flying creature. People in the streets are then showered with drips of blood (with some more great amateur acting). Carradine’s character speaks to an expert on the subject, a curator in a museum. He tells Detective Shepard of human sacrifices and how the Aztecs used to flay human skin, with the high priest wearing the skin along with feathers and a beak. These ancient peoples worshipped a god named Quetzalcoatl, The Feathered Flying Serpent. He tells Shepard that “Blood must be given willingly for the god to appreciate it” as part of a ritual. Maybe Q has been prayed into existence by the wave of ritual sacrifices in New York?
Back to the jewellery store heist, only Jimmy Quinn gets away with the loot, a briefcase filled with jewels. But, since he’s left his car keys in the jewellers he’s just robbed, he walks out amidst the city and loses his briefcase when he’s struck by a vehicle (amidst yet more real people in the street). He hides out in the Chrysler Building making his way up to the top floor, he looks out on the Manhattan skyline saying “I’m almost afraid of everything but I’m not afraid of heights”. In a derelict space he finds a massive nest and a giant egg surrounded by human skeletons. Is this the lair of the monster that’s been killing people on rooftops?
When the rest of the gang come for their ill-gotten gains, Quinn tries to explain to them that he’s lost the briefcase. They don’t believe him, they say they’ll kill him if he doesn’t come up with the jewels, but Jimmy doesn’t have them so he concocts a plan to lead the members of the gang to the serpent’s nest. He tells them that he’s hidden the jewels up in the roof, the only way he can get these guys off his back is if they’re killed but he wants the serpent to do his dirty work. The plan works, Q kills both men as they wander up a rickety ladder to find the jewels. “Eat ’em!” Quinn yells as his revenge by proxy is complete.
Across the city more people are devoured by the serpent; a few construction workers, some more sunbathers with Q snatching a man straight out of a rooftop swimming pool, a severed leg is found on the street. Q or Quetzalcoatl the winged serpent is causing widespread panic in New York but the city doesn’t know the whereabouts of the creature, only one man does, and that’s Jimmy Quinn. Realising that he has the upper hand, Quinn asks the Police Commissioner and the city for a million dollars, a pardon, rights to the photographs of the creature, not to mention the film rights, all in exchange for the location of the serpent’s whereabouts. They accept and he leads a group of armed policemen up the Chrysler Building.
There’s some great lines in this film, an expert on Aztec history says; “What else is God but an invisible force that we fear?” he makes a good point about the nature of a god and humanity’s place in the hierarchy of beings. He adds “For centuries we’ve tried to make it into our image, give God two legs, a pair of hands, lips, eyes, perhaps it’s only our vanity” and this to me makes a fantastic point about how humans perceive a god: why would we assume god is humanoid? According to the expert, winged serpents are part of China, Egypt, and South America’s history, maybe these creatures actually existed and now they’re extinct… or are they?
Q: The Winged Serpent may be slow in places but Cohen is all the while building suspense and mood. The movie has a brilliant atmosphere; the slightly seedy yet blisteringly hot 80s New York, heavy traffic, car horns and squeaky brakes, hoards of people and concrete sidewalks, back when New York really felt like New York. The 70s and 80s were most definitely the city’s filmic heyday.
This is a low-budget B-Movie that looks much better than it would in anybody else’s hands, yes there’s a cheap stop-motion creature but there’s also some pretty decent effects especially when people’s skin are cut or where someone’s chest is pierced by a dagger for the sacrificial ritual. There’s also the shaky camera work adding a sense of urgency way before Paul Greengrass overused the aesthetic (until it became an annoying aspect of 00s action movies).
The sometimes hectic, kinetic helicopter shots give the viewer a bird’s eye view from the monster’s perspective. Larry Cohen also uses this opportunity to show the tops of buildings, some of which feature pyramids. Aptly, a stepped pyramid is where Q finally dies, a poetic end for an Aztec god. The final police rooftop shoot-out with the serpent has glimpses of King Kong but the film has many other elements including action, crime, and mystery components which make Q a very different beast when compared to other “creature features”.
Q: The Winged Serpent may seem dated today but it still possesses ambition, not to mention a distinctive plot and great direction, there’s also some fantastic acting from Michael Moriarty (The Stuff). Back in the 80s when I first watched it, this film was part of a fantastic culture of low-budget American horror movies that you used to rent from video stores for late-night viewing (along with the likes of Night Of The Comet, Chopping Mall, They Live etc.). These films may have been cheap B-Movies but many had a slick look, many were unique in their plot, and most important of all; they were extremely entertaining.
Q: The Winged Serpent is not a perfect movie but it’s definitely different. What it lacks in budget it makes up for with tone and overall charm which Larry Cohen always brings to his projects. This film is both original and enjoyable which is a rare thing in cinema and even rarer in the horror genre. Like most of his other work, this is something that Cohen does well; a low-budget horror set in the streets of New York with the right amount of thrills and scares. Who else would tell the story of a piano-playing, ex-junkie, who robs a jewellery store and then comes across a mythic serpent’s egg in one of New York’s most famous landmarks? People are sacrificing themselves to an ancient Aztec god who flies around Manhattan scooping up people from rooftops, meanwhile the bloke from Shaft and the dude from Kung Fu are investigating the goings on. I mean how unique is that as a plot?
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