I know what you’re thinking.
“Now you are just screwing with me. You’re going to seriously tell me that something called ‘Q – The Winged Serpent’ is some sort of essential film viewing?”
Yes. That is what I am going to tell you. Larry Cohen is a name you should know. Unless you’ve got some sort of melonfarming problem with fun. Because Larry Cohen is an exploitation filmmaker, no doubt, and a damn crafty one. He took outrageous ideas and spun crazy, unique gold from them. Time and again, I think he demonstrated that he has great storytelling and character chops, and given the right cast, he’s pretty good with performance, too. There’s a De Niro to his Scorsese, as there always is, and I think it’s a great volatile relationship, so it’s actually more like a grindhouse version of Kinski and Herzog, and that relationship yields its richest gold in this film, where Michael Moriarty (of “Law and Order” fame) plays Richie, an occasional getaway driver and struggling jazz pianist who, through a series of events, ends up as the only man who can tell New York City where the giant killer Aztec dinosaur god is hiding between forays out into the city to eat people.
Now are you starting to understand how great this film is?
[more after the jump]
One of the things I love most about “Q – The Winged Serpent” is the way New York is shot in the film. This is a movie that was made fast and cheap, and instead of letting that be a limitation, Larry Cohen embraced it and made it part of his shooting style. Everything looks like it was shot without permits, without people even knowing that they’re on-camera half the time. And there are shots in the film involving skyscrapers that are just real, where Cohen had no choice but to hang a camera and an actor out a window, and the results are dizzying and really sell the illusion once the stop-motion creature shows up. And, yeah, it’s a low-budget movie from the early ’80s, but the FX work by Dave Allen, Peter Kuran, and Randy Cook is impressive, particularly in the way it’s shot. They wisely keep the beast off-camera or only seen in glimpses for most of the movie. When it does show up during the film’s climax, there are some inventive ideas in terms of how to marry the stop-motion to live-action, and while it’s never going to convince anyone it’s real, there’s character to it, and that counts.
And although I would describe this as a great monster movie, smart and funny, what really makes this worth rewatching is the character work from a whole fistful of great exploitation actors. Let’s start with Michael Moriarty, who I mentioned above. He’s outstanding here, a creepy twitchy little weirdo who shouldn’t be the lead in any film. I love the moment in the film where he goes to try and get a gig playing piano in a bar. It’s all improv, just Moriarty on the piano, and the bartender couldn’t be less interested. When confronted with danger, Moriarty is a cringing little coward, not exactly a trait you’d see in most heroes. And his relationship with Candy Clark is realistic, messy, interesting. Clark’s one of those actors who didn’t work a lot, but she did some weird, quirky, great work in that time. She’s a good match for Moriarty’s energy, and even in a limited amount of screen time, they suggest a real dysfunctional relationship.
The cops in the film are played by Richard Roundtree and David Carradine. That’s right… if you want to destroy a resurrected Aztec god, it’s gonna take both Shaft and Kung-Fu to get the job done. Cohen brings them in via a serial killer case that might somehow be related to the appearance of the giant monster in New York, and little by little, he brings the two storylines together. I like that the cops don’t spend the whole movie pretending that there can’t be a giant flying lizard creature in the city. They just follow the investigation, and if it leads to a giant lizard, then so be it. It’s all just the job for them.
Cohen came out of the great training ground of ’60s TV, and he knew how to write fast, lean, and for a budget. I have a real affection for the films he wrote and directed, like the “It’s Alive” movies or “Hell Up In Harlem” or “God Told Me To.” And of them all, I think “Q – The Winged Serpent” is the best place to introduce people to his work. If you honestly don’t like this movie, then it’s probably best that you not push any further into his filmography. But if you do enjoy the movie, and I’m betting most people will, then consider it an introduction to one of the most entertaining of all the grindhouse gods.
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