I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Q (aka Q – The Winged Serpent)

tn_qBruceQ (aka Q – THE WINGED SERPENT) is writer/director Larry Cohen’s version of a giant monster movie, about a small time New York City getaway driver played by Cohen’s DeNiro, Michael Moriarty. He’s recently out of the joint, failing to get a job as a bar pianist, and gets screwed over by some mobsters during a failed diamond heist. He runs straight from the scene of the crime to a (closed, it turns out) law office high up in the Chrysler building, where he ends up having to hide from a security guard in a not-open-to-the-public area beneath the needle. There he finds a dead body and a nest with a giant egg. Huh.

The giant egg, as I’m sure one or two of you’ve figured out, belongs to the giant monster, the titular winged serpent. He’s apparently the resurrected Aztec God Quetzalcoatl (thank you Text Edit for correcting my spelling on that, that is an impressive range of knowledge you get there), but like Quincy Jones you can just call him Q. Or don’t call him anything, he’s not gonna notice, he just likes flying around eating rooftop sunbathers or skyscraper construction workers or tasty snacks like that. Being a God, he’s smart enough to do it in the early evening when the sun is low so when people look up they get blinded and miss him there.

mp_1Q may or may not be connected to a couple murders that have happened recently that seem to be modeled after Aztec human sacrifice rituals. It’s hard to say. But whatever’s up the cops oughta figure it out, ’cause they have not one, not one and a half, but two full-fledged marquee names on the case: David Carradine and Richard Roundtree. But like I said it’s more about Moriarty. He’s the less obvious hero: he’s an ex-cop but not a tough one, he’s not only a coward but he cries about being a coward, he apparently has a drinking problem and his hit his wife before. You still kinda root for him and then he turns into a dick at the end. It’s like he senses he’s becoming the hero of the movie, it gets to his head and then he fucks up and you’re kinda more on the side of the cops finally. Or at least I was. But I got a soft spot for him.

This was before he’d worked with Cohen in THE STUFF and ISLAND OF THE ALIVE. He’s even better in those, but it’s so cool that he does these b-movies and seems to pour himself into them like some of the other guys of his generation did into New York crime dramas or something. He makes this thing into an actor’s showcase, running the emotional gamut from the desperation of the two-time loser to the shame of cowardice to the cocky strut of a guy who thinks he’s forced New York City to pay him a million dollars to tell them where the monster lives. It’s kinda funny because there’s way more of a character evolution than you expect in a movie about this, but also it’s clunky at times ’cause he has to deliver dialogue (sometimes monologues) that come right out and tell you about his inner torment or how fear has held him back all his life or what have you.

Carradine doesn’t have to do any of that, but there’s a laughable part after he talks about the giant egg in breakfast terms, then you hear an off-screen officer comment that he only jokes around when he’s afraid. I can’t decide if that’s a weakness or a strength, that Cohen can’t just let it be a good one-liner and feels he has to try to turn it into a deep insight into the character. Maybe it’s both.

But Cohen is definitely an underrated director, and a great chronicler of New York City locations. He finds the best run-down buildings and graffiti to put in the background, he stages scenes with what’s gotta be real people walking around in the background, groups of kids hanging out behind the pay phone or whatever. I can’t fucking believe it but he really filmed inside the actual needle of the Chrysler building. It seemed like a really good set and then I realized that behind Moriarty you can see an opening that looks down on NYC. Then I read that yes, he filmed inside the real place, for a low budget movie produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff. Amazing.

That’s the best part is the way he shows New York from above, the Aztec God’s eye view. In the early scenes you don’t really see my man Q, but you see what is apparently what He sees, helicopter shots floating around above the rooftops watching people. They’re beautiful, fluid shots and a really novel version of the typical monster-or-slasher-watching-from-the-bushes type of horror movie technique. Then when Cohen gets back to the ground he uses smooth handheld shots that mimic the movement of the helicopter shots and keep you on edge, subconsciously still thinking about this winged serpent being above about to bite somebody’s head off.

And he has a brilliant way of depicting the aftermath of the attacks – montages of New Yorkers looking to the sky in disgust as their day is suddenly interrupted by blood dripping on them from above. It’s like being shit on by a bird except upsetting in a whole different way. And some people find bloody limbs falling to the pavement. They look up and see the sun and don’t know what the fuck is going on.

It’s only when it actually starts showing Q that the movie gets goofy, because it’s done with poor-man’s-Ray-Harryhausen stop motion. And I love that shit, it’s charming, but it doesn’t really mesh with the down-and-dirty New York indie feel of the rest of it. It’s like putting shots from KING KONG into BLACK CAESAR. That’s not to say I don’t dig it, but just that it holds me back from taking this more seriously as a horror movie. It’s great but the parts you laugh at most are the parts that you’d want to be scary. There are definitely cool-looking shots, but the love I have for the shot where a Mr. Bill-esque clay Richard Roundtree (spoiler) gets thrown to his death is not in my opinion the reaction that the filmatists intended.

But it doesn’t really matter. The magic of Cohen’s best movies is a kind of combination of tightness and looseness. He’s an endless well of high concept gimmicks, and he writes screenplays with solid structures. But since he’s working on these low budgets there’s always some sort of on-the-fly accidents and improvisations that get in there and add flavor. Or there’s just little bits of flair to the characters that give the movie personality, like the girl at the swimming pool who makes a dude watch her do push-ups, or the construction worker that steal a guy’s sandwich not realizing that he has just been eaten. One  part I love in this movie, I couldn’t really explain why, is the undercover cop disguised as a mime. Not so much the mime makeup, but the awesome AMADEUS promo t-shirt he’s wearing.

As is my tradition I listened to part of but not all of the commentary on the DVD (Bill MANIAC Lustig talking to Cohen about the movie). They point out how you could never do helicopter shots like that post 9-11 – another reason to add real low on the long list of reasons to hate those asshole terrorists. Cohen has some funny comments about how what was then considered bad camerawork now looks really high class because it’s so clear and planned out compared to the standard fakumentary style of today. He also tells a story about how Bruce Willis almost could’ve played the Carradine role.

Glad I finally saw this one. I’m not sure I’m converting to the Q religion yet because I’m not into skinning people, but I’m trying to have an open mind and I’m glad to know a little bit more about their culture. If they want to build a temple next to the Chrysler building I think I’m okay with it.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Monday, October 31st, 2011 at 12:25 pm and is filed under Horror, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

18 Responses to “Q (aka Q – The Winged Serpent)”

  1. nabroleon dynamite

    October 31st, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    Somebody is…

  2. So wait, from the poster there was an alternate title of AMERICAN MONSTER for a movie about an Aztec god? I guess they meant the greater North American continent? Like if AMERICAN BEAUTY took place in Toronto? Or AMERICAN PSYCHO in Mexico City? Which makes me wonder: Why did this Q monster decide to relocate to New York? It seems like the kind of thing that would not want to hang out in a city. At least not in his first feature film installment. But it sounds like it was a plus for this movie to have blood dripping down on pedestrians etc., so it deserves credit for mixing it up.

  3. I fucking love this movie. It’s one of the great New York horror movies. It just feels sweaty and offhand and over it the way only New Yorkers can be. “What’s that? A flying Aztec snake god? We’re getting OT for this, right?” The cop stuff feels low-key and lived-in like excerpts from THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 or something, and then you got this goofy monster plot throw on top that nobody in the movie knows what to do with. I also think Moriarty probably gives the best performance ever given in a movie this goofy. I love the little scat piano number he improvs at the beginning. There’s more life in that one scene than a hundred lesser horror flicks put together. The amazing thing about this movie is that it was thrown together at the last second. Cohen had another movie lined up, but it fell through for some reason. He still had a budget and a shooting schedule and a crew for the following week, though, so he called up Carradine and asked him if he wanted to be in a movie. Carradine asked what it was about. Cohen said don’t worry about it. Carradine said okay. Then he shows up and Moriarty starts scatting and bebopping all over the place, and he just goes with it. That’s why his character looks so lost all the time–he really had no idea what was going on most of the time.

    I think I’m gonna watch it again.

  4. years ago I used to watch this movie a lot when it would play on the movie channels, I found it strangely fascinating, it’s such a creative premise for a B-movie, I mean the name Quetzalcoatl just LOOKS cool

    I know this kind of talk is anathema around here, but I couldn’t help but picture a remake, one where Quetzalcoatl, instead of living inside the top of the Chrysler building, lives inside of a fictional New York skyscraper that’s top looks like an Aztec pyramid, is that a cool idea or am I idiot?

    Vern, are gonna review Cohen’s GOD TOLD ME TO at some point? it’s not a very good movie, but the premise is chilling and quite ahead of it’s time

  5. I don’t know, Griff, I think the Chrysler Building is crucial because it’s the architectural exemplar of New Yorker hucksterism and braggadocio. When it was being built, it was in a race with the Empire State Building to see which one would be taller. They were neck and neck for most of the time, and then one day the Chrysler Building’s gleaming silver spire was unveiled. It was like they’d added 20 floors out of nowhere. Little did anyone realize that the spire was hollow. It’s got windows and lights like there are rooms back there, but it’s just a shell with a spiral staircase in it, as the movie shows. The Empire State Building ended up kicking the Chrysler Building’s ass, but I’ll always like the Chrysler Building more for having the nuts to go for broke with the biggest lie it could think of. Sort of like Michael Moriarty in this movie.

  6. that’s all true Mr. Majestyk, but you also can’t deny the idea of an Aztec temple on top of a New York skyscraper with Aztec cultists performing rituals on it every night isn’t cool too (it also sounds Ghostbusters esque now that I think about it)

  7. I can see it. The inevitable remake will probably be shot in Vancouver for tax purposes anyway.

  8. Griff: It also sounds a little like that old cartoon show GARGOYLES, where an evil millionaire built a castle on top of his skyscraper, to awake some Gargoyles.

  9. Roger Ebert reported my favorite anecdote about this movie in his review many many years ago. Q played at a New York film festival, and Samuel Z. Arkoff was milling about the lobby after the screening when Rex Reed ran up to him:

    REX REED: Sam! I just saw Q – THE WINGED SERPENT, and I couldn’t believe my eyes! All that dreck, and in the middle of it all, a terrific Method performance by Michael Moriarty!
    SAM ARKOFF: The dreck was my idea.

  10. Yeah this movie is fantastic. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but the scene where Carradine shoots the bad guy cult member to save Moriarty, and he keeps getting back up (even after a head shot! I believe) is one of the funniest scenes ever, and the nonchalant one-liner and followup to it is classic.

  11. A small correction to Mr. Majestyk’s my-building-is-bigger-than-yours tale: The structure the Chrysler Building was in competition with for tallest in the world was not the Empire State Building; it was the Manhattan Company Building at 40 Wall Street. The Empire State Building was completed about a year after the Chrysler Building.

  12. There’s a video on YouTube somewhere, involving CNN footage of the Towers on 9/11, after the first one has fallen (I think–been a while since I’ve seen it) and the crew is focusing on the second one.

    A winged something or other flaps leisurely across the face of the remaining tower, below the burning line. It looks like a bird, but it’s only when pausing the video and checking the proportions against its shadow or reflection in the mirror that the scale must be enormous: at least two window-heights.

    If it’s a fake, it’s a rather unassuming fake. But either way when I saw it a few years ago I thought: Q! {g}

    (And I haven’t even seen the movie.)

  13. Okay, out of curiosity I managed to find it again. It’s pretty obviously a fake, although I don’t have a clear idea why anyone would do it–but the main evidence is that the supposedly sequential photos (both towers, one right after impact) show exactly no change between them, not only in the lack of smoke movement, but in the lack of fireball movement.

    Desperate insane people I guess. Or a conspiracy. {g}

  14. I’m glad this is one tragedy that can’t be pinned on poor, misunderstood Q.

  15. Too bad about that, because Mexico would have been way easier to invade.

  16. Which, on a completely different topic, brings us to what I hope to be the sequel plot of Red Dead Redemption. {g}

    (The game ends at the start of WW1; and one of the reasons America joined the war a few years later was because we received some solid intelligence that Germany was agitating Mexico for an invasion of the US to reclaim some of their lost territory, so as to distract us from coming in on the side of Britain and France. Since the game is set on what amounts to the river border between Texas and Mexico, the plot almost writes itself.)

  17. C’mon guys, no mention of the greatest, corniest poster tag line ever? “It’s name is Quetzalcoatl…just call it “Q”…that’s all you’ll have time to say before it tears you apart!”

  18. New trailer from the good folks at Cinefamily for next week’s special screening:

    https://vimeo.com/129714952

    Gives away a little too much of the movie in my opinion but it’s a nice taste of Q: FLYING NYC CRIME METAPHOR for those who don’t have access or desire to watch the full film.

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