Ok, picture the scene: it’s maybe around the mid-to-early eighties and if you can believe it, I’m an offensively adorable kid who around five or six years old. I’m a Jaws nut, so one day my folks bring home VHS they randomly rented because the guy behind the counter said it was basically Jaws with wings and so into the player it went and I excitedly pressed play. The movie was Larry Cohen’s Q – The Winged Serpent and I lasted all of five minutes.
Of course, I eventually went back and finished the whole thing the next day, but the jump from Spielberg’s slick chomp-buster to Cohen’s cynical, satire went way over my head as I recoiled from the sight of decapitated window cleaners and screaming sunbathers plucked out of their rooftop swimming pools. If you discount Jaws, Alligator, Piranha and all the other rampaging animal movies I was absorbing at the time, Q – The Winged Serpent was debatably the first true horror flick I ever watched and I admit I watched it way too young – but maybe not for the reasons you think.
Jimmy Quinn is a small time loser who, despite kicking his drug habit, is still regularly kicked around in return by life being broke in New York city. His girlfriend, Joan is rooting for him despite him being a whining, abusive, petty asshole, but in a desperate attempt to score some Doug, Jimmy finds himself the wheel man of a gang who rob a jeweller’s, but naturally everything goes wrong and he loses the diamond as he’s hit by a car while he’s trying to escape.
However, Jimmy’s luck is about to change, because as he limps to his lawyer’s office located in the Chrysler Building, he’s forced to hide way up into the top of the iconic structure and its here he makes a stunning discovery. Making it’s nest in the top of the building is a large, winged, Aztec god named Quetzalcoatl who has been prayed back to life by a serial killer who has been running around the street of the Big Apple, performing ritualistic sacrifices in the name of his deity and thus, this creature has been feeding by swooping down and scooping up New Yorkers off their roof tops to take back to its nest to crunch on.
Trying to make sense of all this chaos are detectives Shepard and Powell, with the former buying into all this claptrap about Aztec gods and flayed corpses with remarkable ease; but authorities are stumped are to where to even start when it comes to finding a giant lizard/bird hiding among the skyscrapers of the city that never sleeps. However, one man knows, but Jimmy Quinn isn’t about to let this massive opportunity pass him by and decides to play the hero – but only if the reward is high enough…
Anyone familiar with the works of Larry Cohen, whether it’s his directorial efforts like The Stuff or God Told Me Too, or his scripts for Maniac Cop, Phonebooth or Cellular, knows that he has a nice line in high concept storylines that combines the realistic, grimy, New York, tang of Martin Scorsese’s earlier works with the kind of hard-boiled police procedural stuff of a Dirty Harry movie – and then dunks it all in in a big vat of a Roger Corman level of cheese. Never has this been more evident than in the schlock-tacular, monster epic Q – The Winged Serpent, despite featuring exploitation roots rougher than cheap toilet paper, features a script that is pure, fuckin’ gold. It brings to mind that other purveyor of cinematic, New York weirdness, Frank Henenlotter, whose debut, the unfeasibly sleazy Basket Case, also boasted a keen, intelligent, sense of humour underneath its choppy, streetwise demeanor and primitive effects.
While others would present a standard Jaws rip-off, Cohen instead experiments with his characters, giving us a bizarre alternative to the usual everyman hero who rises up to slay the beast. No, here we get Michael Moriarty’s Jimmy Quinn, a two-time loser who is so flawed its frankly amazing and he literally spends the entire movie complaining, grifting and blaming everyone else for his problems as he refuses to take a shread of responsibility for the fact that others may die while he waits for a payday he feels the world owes him. Is Jimmy a cowardly, greedy, piece of shit – certainly; the script and Moriarty’s skeevy performance makes no bones about that – but he’s also amusingly human and even relatable as a man who’s been stepped on one too many times by life. Moriarty’s performance may be way over the top as he tries to justify his shitty behaviour one minute and shows some impressive Jazz chops on another, but he fits the tone of the piece perfectly during a time when anyone would do anything for a quick buck.
Elsewhere, we get some fittingly crusty support from exploitation gods David Caradine and Richard Rowndtree as the two cops stuck between a giant carnivorous lizard and its devotee who is skinning willing victims alive in its name. Both are great, but inching ahead on points is Caradine’s unflappable Shepard who ups his cool motherfucker credentials by leading the investigation and settling matters in the rousing finale as he dons some black leather gloves and leads an army of cops to try and bring Quetzalcoatl down.
Speaking of Quetzalcoatl, the titular monster is a delightful creature, brought to life by David Allen and Randall William Cook’s above-par stop motion and looks da bomb with its mottled beak and sinewy limbs. Whether chowing down on unsuspecting builders or hurling members if the NYPD to their deaths in a King Kong inspired final battle that’s obviously punching way above it’s weight when it comes to the budget, but it’s still freakin’ awesome nonetheless.
To those unaccustomed to this kind of magnificent, oddly cerebral, trash, may find that events seem silly, or may even come across as amateurish, but you truly don’t get movies that feel this genuine anymore, that casts this type of NYC as an almost breathing, sentient character itself. This is the New York of 70’s Marvel Comics, where everyone in the street, even the background characters, are an opinioned and seasoned wiseass and you’re barely ten minutes away from the next “fuggeddaboutit” or “Hey, I’m walkin’ here” – christ, you can virtually smell the food from the street vendors. The main part of this is the copious location shooting that mostly takes place in and around the actual Chrysler Building that helps to solidly ground the camp lunacy into something approaching something feasible.
Obvious my tale at yhe top of the review may mark me out as having a nostalgic bias, but I genuinely find this a delightfully off-beat creature feature from a reliably off-beat talent.
When it comes to merging flappy predators and crappy criminals, Q scores a solid B+.
The best horror flick of all time. We need more dragons as the antagonists in horror and folk horror.