The Cohen Case Files: Q [aka Q: The Winged Serpent] (1982)

Written, Produced, and Directed by Larry Cohen

Q (aka Q: The Winged Serpent) hit theaters in 1982.  But for me the film came along circa 1984-85.  You see, that’s when the film was in heavy rotation on cable.  I was a terribly impressionable ten year old, watching in shock and disgust by peeping through the fingers I used to cover my eyes at what seemed the most frightening movie I’d ever seen.  As a child, I was a complete wimp when it came to horror films.  It wasn’t until I grew up and started taking the study of film seriously that I grew to appreciate the extreme gamut the horror film can run from pure cheese to intentionally funny to downright unsettling.  No other genre of film offers such an extensive emotional playground for filmmakers to run rampant through.  I’ve since seen hundreds of horror films better than Q, but I don’t think I have as much of a nostalgic connection to a film in any genre as I do to Larry Cohen’s silly little monster movie.

NYPD Detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) have two very baffling cases on their hands.  In the first case, a window washer working high up on the Empire State Building, loses his head.  Literally.  The problem is, no one can find it.  In the second case, a professor travels thousands of miles to New York City, checks into a hotel, visits a museum about the ancient Aztec civilization, and is later found in his hotel room, dead from being skinned from head to toe.  After doing a little digging, Shepard starts to wonder if the two cases are connected while Powell wonders if Shepard has lost his mind.

Meanwhile, low rent criminal Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) gets caught up in a jewelry heist gone wrong.  To escape from the police and his partners in the heist, Jimmy hides out at the top of the Chrysler Building.  This turns out to be a great hiding place since the building is undergoing renovations to its iconic pyramid top.  While finding the usual construction mess that comes with such a large renovation project, Jimmy also finds a gigantic nest containing an egg the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.  When he also finds a human skeleton, stripped of its flesh, it doesn’t take Jimmy long to realize that whatever laid the egg, is probably also responsible for the skeleton.

And just what laid that egg?  It turns out it’s a giant flying lizard that somehow manages to swoop through the skies above busy Manhattan streets without being seen by anyone.  How is this possible?  At some point in the movie, Shepard theorizes something about the creature flying in line with the sun.  This is obviously a half-assed explanation if ever there was one.  In fact, there’s no point in even trying to answer that question, because the honest answer is that it doesn’t matter.  The question that does matter, once the creature is finally spotted when it snatches a man from a swimming pool becomes: Is the creature just a monster, or is it the reincarnated Aztec god Quetzlcoatl?  Because as Shepard muses, if it’s just a monster, you should be able to kill it, but if it’s a god?  Well, who knows?

Who, indeed?  The only character who does know something is Jimmy.  He’s willing to share that knowledge–namely, where the creature’s nest is located–for what he sees as the very reasonable fee of one million dollars and immunity from any crimes that he may have committed.

Like most of Cohen’s films, Q introduces an outlandish premise and then uses that as a launching pad to explore a male protagonist who’s infinitely more interesting than the silly plot.  From my plot description, you would think that protagonist was Shepard, but Cohen makes the very wise decision to focus on the self-pitying loser, Jimmy.

In a more mainstream film with a conventional leading man, Jimmy would be a criminal with a heart of gold.  In a Larry Cohen film, Jimmy is a pathetic schlub who is unable to do anything right.  Whiny, self-pitying, and only occasionally redeemed by his affection for his girlfriend (Candy Clark) and a love of playing jazz piano, Jimmy is a hard character to care about, but Moriarty pulls off the difficult role with aplomb.

In my look at The Stuff, I talked about the “kind of special magic when Moriarty gets together with Cohen.”  The magic is on display here, as well.  As played by Moriarty, Jimmy is constantly covered in flop-sweat, nervously talking a mile a minute in his distinctive mush-mouthed way.  He goes from being a loser that everyone takes advantage of to a loser who tries to take advantage of an entire city.  It’s not exactly a redemptive arc and to the credit of Moriarty and Cohen, they never attempt to make Jimmy a hero.  If anything, Jimmy is made out to be almost as bad as the serpent flying around eating people; the serpent is only doing what comes with its nature while Jimmy is attempting to profit from the deaths of innocent people.

Cohen has been very open that the only reason Q came into being is because he was fired from his job as director of I, the Jury.  Angered by this slight, he hastily wrote the script for Q and began second uint photography within a week of being fired.  By the time he scraped together the funding and finished casting, the film was already well into production.  Despite this, the film is a fairly polished piece of work.  The acting is impressive, the cinematography crisp, and the editing sharp.  The only moments when the feature shows its lack of production values come about with some grainy stock footage recycled from God Told Me To and with some cheaply done effects.  But even the stop motion animation used to bring the crudely sculpted serpent to life and the matte paintings used for backgrounds seem less inept and more like a charming throwback to effects work of years gone by.

Perhaps because he had just lost his job on I, the Jury, Q feels slightly angrier and less thoughtful than Cohen’s other low budget creature features.  This leads to the cynical uses of some excess gore and nudity that Cohen rarely indulged in with previous films.  And while Carradine seems to be enjoying himself as he hams up his straight-man role, there’s something slightly sinister about the way he keeps urging scores of nameless police officers to their deaths with a smile on his face during the film’s action-packed climax.

I’m sure I’m not the only one out there who has an affection for this film that outweighs what it deserves.  Anyone who watched too much HBO in the early ‘80s probably has some kind of nostalgic memory of this film playing on a seemingly daily basis.  It’s not the best film ever made (if I’m being really honest, it only falls somewhere in the middle of Cohen’s filmography in terms of quality), but it’s certainly fun.  If I’m indulging in nostalgia by recommending the film, at least it’s entertaining nostalgia.

James Dixon Sighting: As one of the NYPD detectives investigating the mutilation murders.

Beware a spoiler for the death of one of the main characters in this trailer:

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