(1982) Written and directed by Larry Cohen; Starring: Michael Moriarty, Candy Clark, Richard Roundtree and David Carradine; Available on DVD
“I think the Chrysler Building is a lot more attractive than the Empire State Building, by far. And I thought that the Chrysler Building deserved to have recognition. King Kong has immortalized the Empire State Building. I thought this building deserves to have its own movie.” – Larry Cohen (from 2003 DVD commentary)
If Ray Harryhausen had worked for Roger Corman, the result might have been something like Q: The Winged Serpent, a delightfully schlocky throwback to an earlier era of filmmaking. The film was conceived out of adversity, when writer/director Larry Cohen was fired from directing the Mickey Spillane potboiler I, The Jury. Within a week of leaving the project, Cohen bounced back with his own production, with assistance from former American International mogul Samuel Z. Arkoff. Filmed for a meager $1.2 million, Q features some fun special effects and an impressive cast.
Reflecting the director’s guerilla filmmaking style, Q was shot on location on the streets of New York City,* often without authorization. Although Cohen and his crew were permitted to film inside the Chrysler Building,** they were never cleared to film in the maintenance area at the top, where the title creature made its home. In the climactic scene, which riffs on King Kong, the crew fired machines guns filled with blanks, causing quite a stir for the city’s residents. Filming wrapped in just 18 days, typical for a Cohen production.
* Fun fact: Cohen stated he was inspired to write the screenplay by observing NYC’s varied architecture, which reminded him of “great religious edifices” that might be worthy of attracting some ancient god.
** Cohen takes every opportunity to exploit the beautiful art deco designs of the Chrysler Building, inside and out.
The citizens of New York are being picked off one by one by an enormous flying creature (seen only in brief flashes) with a taste for human heads. Cohen wisely chose to keep the monster’s onscreen appearances to a minimum,* for most of the movie’s duration, allowing the viewers’ minds to fill in the blanks, and building suspense in the process. While the special effects by David Allen, Randall William Cook and Peter Kuran aren’t quite up to Harryhausen’s standards, they serve their purpose, and compliment the film’s low budget vibe.
* Cohen observed, “…the more you show, the less interesting it becomes.”
Michael Moriarty (in his first collaboration with Cohen) plays part-time hood and full-time loser Jimmy Quinn, who can’t seem to hold a job or control his temper. Initially hired as the wheel man on a diamond heist, he’s drawn in deeper when his accomplices insist that he share the risk and carry a gun. Somehow, Jimmy ends up with the jewels, but loses them while evading the cops. While hiding inside the roof of the Chrysler Building, he discovers the roosting place for the beast, along with an enormous egg. When the cops apprehend him, he uses the creature’s location as a bargaining chip, but demands $1 million and a full pardon in return. Moriarty imbues his character with humor and pathos, making what could have been a throwaway role something truly memorable (although I probably could have done without his scat singing). Similar to Elisha Cook, Jr’s character in The Killing, they’re small fish in a big pond, tired of being kicked around by life.
Q features some fine supporting performances as well, including Candy Clark as Jimmy’s long-suffering girlfriend Joan. She’s probably better than he deserves, putting up with his rants and mood swings, but even she has limits. David Carradine and Richard Roundtree play Shepard and Powell, police on the trail of a serial killer, who’s carrying out ancient Mayan rituals to appease the Mayan god Quetzalcoatl. Only Shepard (David Carradine) seems to see a connection between the killer, the mythical beast, and the giant bird that’s terrorizing the city.
Q: The Winged Serpent harkens back to a time when all you needed was a little ingenuity and a big creature to entertain audiences. Cohen deftly mixes lowbrow entertainment with highbrow performances, for his post-modern monster flick, proving you don’t need a huge budget to get big thrills. Q never aspires to be great cinema, but embraces its B-movie roots. As a bonus, the film features more depth to its characters than you would normally expect. It’s one of Cohen’s best efforts, and an unsung gem from 1982. In a year distinguished by many exceptional genre films, Q manages to hold its own against its higher profile contemporaries.