Q - The Winged Serpent (1982)

Author: Brett Gallman
Submitted by: Brett Gallman   Date : 2013-08-19 20:43

Written and Directed by: Larry Cohen
Starring: Michael Moriarty, David Carradine, and Richard Roundtree

Reviewed by: Brett Gallman

ďEat 'em! Eat 'em! Crunch crunch!"

Given the resurgence of Kaiju and giant monster flicks this past summer, it seems appropriate that Shout Factory has polished up and unleashed one of the most bizarre takes on the genre in Larry Cohenís Q. Arriving about thirty years after the nuclear-soaked 50s gave birth to giant beasts, Q feels exactly like you might expect: itís a uniquely American kaiju (a contradiction, sure, but humor me) that drags the genre into the 80s and doesnít bother to dust any of the 60s and 70s residue it accumulated along the way, particularly the occult leanings and the grindhouse grit and sleaze. And with Cohenís at the helm, itís also thoroughly weird and slightly subversiveóindeed, there has never been a giant monster to grace the screen quite like Quetzalcoatl.

Like many of his fellow behemoths, Q makes an appearance early on in the film; however, few of have made such a splattery one, as the winged serpent swiftly decapitates a window washer working on a NYC skyscraper. The bizarre occurrence naturally attracts the attention of detectives Shepard and Powell (David Carradine and Richard Roundtree), especially since the head itself is nowhere to be found (though Powell dryly observes that itís probably disintegrated since itíd be akin to dropping a cantaloupe from a skyscraper). Shepard and Powell are already investigating a spate of equally bizarre ritual sacrifices that have turned up flayed corpses, and the two cases eventually intersect once Shepard stumbles upon the mythology of Quetzalcoatl, an ancient Aztec goddess thatís apparently been resurrected by a cult operating in the city.

But, again, this is Cohen, so it gets even quirkier: despite Shepard and Powellís diligence, they donít completely crack the case. Instead, small-time crook (and aspiring jazz pianist) Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) botches a jewel heist and seeks refuge at the top of the Chrysler Building, where Q has made its gore-soaked nest. The result is perhaps a giant monster movie unlike any other, as it plays more like a police procedural that just happens to have a giant female lizard terrorizing New York City by devouring its inhabitants. Cohenís involvement inherently triggers a slightly satirical slant, though itís not as obvious or well-formed as the musings found in God Told Me To, Itís Alive, and The Stuff. Here, he seems mostly concerned with foregrounding the absurdity of modern life against a truly fantastical background. Even when confronted with a strange beast like Q, Jimmy Quinn is only concerned with how he can make a buck off of his discovery (perhaps a not-so-subtle jab at how monsters often become co-opted by commerce, a long-time preoccupation since King Kong).

Save for its employment of the tried-and-true monster movie approach of revealing its creature in piecemeal fashion (Quetzalcoatl is a collection of claws, wings, shadows, and a tail until the climactic reveal), Q hardly follows the typical template. Itís just so damn peculiar and full of strange idiosyncrasies that set it perpetually offbeat; the mashing up of seemingly disparate genres is responsible for a lot of this, though one could make the case that the combination of ancient rituals and giant monsters doubling as gods evokes Mothra. Tohoís peaceful avenger stands in stark contrast to Q, though, as the film owes much more to contemporary schlock and occult paranoia. Where the inhabitants of Infant Island simply desired a peaceful existence, the Aztec cult here (curiously represented by exactly one member) is much more insidious; not only do they leave their own trail of corpses, but they can mysteriously compel their victims to voluntarily submit to their sacrifices (one guy even flies all the way across the country to comply).

At the center of the chaos is Moriartyís inexplicably odd performance as Quinn, the guy who weirdly unlocks everything by chance yet doesnít actually do much else once he finds Qís nest (in one of the filmís more entertaining bits, he does get his fellow crooks off his back by promising some diamonds, only to lead them right to the serpentís den). A more morally righteous film might have explored this as an avenue of redemption with the old crook-with-a-heart-of-gold, but Cohen resists this, preferring instead to deliver something that isnít just indifferentóitís downright contemptuous, as Moriarty gleefully embraces Quinnís total disregard for decency. Despite his criminal status, heís a totally pathetic putzóimagine imagine one of Cagneyís insecure gangsters with an even weirder inferiority complex. We watch him evolve from a well-meaning wannabe musician to a desperate crook who broadcasts his anxieties with monologues and deranged exchanges with his wife.

When he has the opportunity to do a public service, he instead opts to blackmail the city into a million dollars, an act that serves as another unsubtle critique at the modern milieu of capitalism (nevermind that Q has taken up residence in a temple of excess and gaudiness, and dispatches itself from this position to literally feast on society). Itís also probably not a coincidence that Quinn and Quetzalcoatlís names share the titular letter. Without the subtitle that makes it obvious, one has to wonder if this isnít a hint that Q can refer to either since both are monsters belonging to different species (admittedly, Quinn seems too impish to be considered truly monstrous). Cohen engages this in a strange manner, though; for all of Quinnís calculations and mechanizations, heís remarkably absent once the film becomes a big monster movie, complete with the bullet-riddled climax that features NYCís finest pumping rounds into the creature while Quinn hangs out with the cult leader. Strange bedfellows, but it perhaps reinforces that these two puppet masters are the true beasts indeed.

Q is sort of shaggy in that regards and a few others; structurally, it just sort of sprawls and even feels more like a slasher by way of a monster movie whenever Cohen inserts a scene that features Q devouring citizens, most of whom are pretty colorful fodder. Like other Cohen films, itís a rough and tumble production thatís soaked in urban grit and a shoestring aesthetic. Thereís something very authentic about it that noticeably clashes with Q itself, who is brought to life via stop motion animation. Even when shrouding her, Cohen creates a palatable presence for Q with some great aerial shots that hover above the NYC skyline to give viewers a vertigous serpentís eye view to substitute for the typical romping and stomping through miniatures. Her carnage is much more visceral thanks to some top-notch effects work that piles up an impressive array of dismembered and half-digested corpses and whatnot. If Q had a favorite part of town, Iím sure it would have been 42nd street.

As I mentioned earlier, Shout Factory has summoned Q back to home video with another impressive Blu-ray release that represents the filmís first foray into high definition. The transfer represents a decent upgrade from Blue Undergroundís DVD release from several years back, and it accurately reflects the filmís grungy and garish cinematography. This disc eschews the surround audio mixes from the previous releases in favor of one DTS-MA stereo track thatís faithful to the filmís original mono mix. Shout also didnít port over that releaseís commentary track, which paired Cohen with Bill Lustig, but they have provided a newly recorded solo track with the director and the filmís teaser trailer. In many ways, Q is defined by unholy genre unions, which isnít surprising considering it joined one of Americaís preeminent provocateurs with B-movie maven Samuel Arkoff, and the result is an unabashedly trashy but slightly heady monster movie. Unlike its predecessors, it doesnít feature a trace of nuclear radiation, but it shines a light on something toxic all the same. Buy it!

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