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Q - The Winged Serpent (1982)
Writer, producer and director: Larry Cohen
review by Tony Lee
After a decade of episodic TV scriptwriting (including the creation of Quinn Martin production, The Invaders) Larry Cohen already knew genre conventions inside out. Since breaking into low budget indie films over 30 years ago, Cohen has frequently delivered exceptional sci-fi horrors that turn familiar stuff - like traditional monster movies - into something wholly different from what's usually expected of exploitation cinema. As critic Peter Nicholls wrote: "the viewer is first asked to swallow a grotesquely fantastic central image, and then finds to his astonishment that the central drama of the film lies with the human characters." (Fantastic Cinema: An Illustrated Survey, 1984.) Cohen is a guerrilla filmmaker, and this maverick approach to scary thrillers has served him well, ever since his feature debut as director with It's Alive (1973).
Q - The Winged Serpent is about a gigantic flying reptile (a dragon of sorts), which attacks and kills people on New York rooftops. Is this beast actually the living form of Quetzalcoatl, an ancient god worshipped by the Aztecs? The movie also concerns ex-junkie, failed jazz pianist, and petty thief Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty, giving his finest ever performance), who is squeamish about being armed ("They don't sell guns with nerve... You gotta use your own."), as the getaway driver during the robbery of a jewellery shop, but not above sacrificing a couple of his thuggish partners-in-crime to the man-eating creature, when he discovers its hidden lair atop the landmark 88-storey Chrysler Building. As a terrifying menace to the whole city, media outrage follows official proof that this airborne predator actually exists and, to prevent further tragedies, New York's authorities must eventually come to terms with Quinn's ransom demands ("I'm just asking for a Nixon-like pardon."), before he will reveal where 'Quetzalcoatl' lives.
With dependable veteran David Carradine and blaxploitation king Richard Roundtree on hand, as a pair of NYPD detectives, and Candy Clark (The Man Who Fell To Earth) playing Quinn's girlfriend, Joanie, this film benefits from an excellent main cast, each bringing star qualities to their varied roles. The cops, Shepard and Powell, are initially baffled by a series of decapitations, and how they might be linked to a spate of gory murders (apparently willing victims sacrificed to the Mexican god!), while the much put-upon Joanie attempts to become the eccentric, self-obsessed Quinn's moral compass and nagging conscience, when he struggles to rise from small time crook to big shot, and wannabe 'made man', by blackmailing City Hall officials. Subversive schlock cinema rarely works so perfectly and on so many creative levels as this. Q - The Winged Serpent is an effective homage to numerous postwar creature-features, and equally successful as an immensely enjoyable, innovative, contemporary shocker, blessed with ambiguous supernatural elements of urban myth and tribal divinity. David Allen provided the stop-motion animation, and most of these colourful sequences look surprisingly convincing, even in today's world of seamless CGI visuals. The 'winged serpent' itself was designed by Randall William Cook, who also worked on John Carpenter's The Thing, and went on to become an effects' supervisor for The Lord Of The Rings trilogy. In fact, the production is composed of established or burgeoning talents on both sides of the camera, and this ambitious film benefits from their technical know-how and creative vigour.
Although the narrative has minor lapses in story logic (a few intensely dramatic scenes were too hastily prepared for the director to get sufficient coverage), and the constraints of an extremely tight budget (of only $1.1 million) results in slightly uneven pacing, the final judgement must be that, with limited resources, Cohen has shaped one of the film world's seven wonders here. With its mix of heightened documentary realism and scenes of stylised farce, Q - The Winged Serpent maintains an intriguingly edgy tone of black comedy and social satire, from its ghastly-surprise opening to the obligatory twist ending. With its frightening image of a bloodthirsty monster that dominates the Manhattan skyline, much wittily razor-sharp dialogue (sometimes improvised by the formidably capable Moriarty), and a fascinating bunch of supporting characters, this is a film of diverse themes and amazing scope, and Entertainment Weekly quite rightly hailed it as "One of the greatest horror movies ever made." If nothing else, Cohen's The Winged Serpent does for the Chrysler Building what the original King Kong did for the Empire State skyscraper, and Q is a far superior adventure to Hollywood's ill-conceived Godzilla remake.
Fully restored and digitally re-mastered from the original film negative for this DVD release, Q - The Winged Serpent has never looked or sounded better, presented in anamorphic widescreen (aspect ratio 1.85:1) with Dolby stereo 2.0 and surround 5.1 or DTS audio tracks. The disc includes an audio commentary by Cohen who explains his usage of "backyard blue-screen" and provides some hugely entertaining anecdotes, text biographies of the stars and director (the centrepiece is Dennis Daniel's article on Cohen, Low Budget Renaissance Man), a gallery of posters and stills, film notes, two trailers, and DVD-ROM content featuring Q memorabilia.
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