Directed by Larry Cohen
Distributed by The Scream Factory
Although his name might not be as well-known as Roger Corman – the king of low-budget genre productions – auteur Larry Cohen deserves every bit as much respect for his endless gumption and total devotion to making the most out of his features. His ability to work on-the-fly and under the gun is exactly the reason why his film Q: The Winged Serpent (1982) exists today. Cohen, who had just been fired from a low-budget production shooting in New York City, didn’t want to waste the room he’d paid for during the production, so instead he hired some actors and banged out the script that would become Q in a mere six days. The conceit for this tale of a modern-day Aztec beast-god nesting in the art-deco spire of the Chrysler Building came when Cohen looked up at the skyline and said to himself, “That’d be the coolest place to have a nest.” Inspiration can come from anywhere when you’re in the Big City.
New Yorkers are losing their heads, literally. Reports of a gargantuan winged creature terrorizing rooftops have the NYPD on high alert, but they just can’t seem to spot the damn thing. Meanwhile, across town, small time crook (and wannabe jazz pianist) Jimmy Quinn (played by Cohen crony Michael Moriarty) is an unwilling participant in a diamond heist (at a store called… wait for it… Neil Diamonds). It goes poorly, leaving Jimmy to run for his freedom all the way up to the top of the Chrysler Building where he finds a huge nest housing the largest cinematic egg since Mothra gave birth. Quinn decides that maybe now would be a good time to give up his life of crime and try going straight for once, but when a couple of his associates come looking for the diamonds he lies and claims they’re hidden at the top of the Chrysler Building. Sure enough, both men leave the rooftop minus a head. Thinking this is his big ticket, Jimmy figures he can use his knowledge of the nest’s location as a bargaining chip with the police, exchanging what he knows for a full pardon on all his crimes in addition to a cool $1 million cash. The way he sees it, this city owes him. Who cares if there’s an ancient behemoth eating residents, all while a mysterious man in a bejeweled mask is making willing human sacrifices to appease the beast?
Cohen started off writing detective dramas, a fact which is evident in many of his films since they almost always feature a subplot involving police procedures. While the film is ostensibly sold as a monster-run-amok tale, the fact is that virtually every big creature feature needs a compelling story to work within. Now, I’ll be the first to admit that Michael Moriarty isn’t exactly the most charismatic leading man, but it’s clear that he has a strong desire to imbue his parts with enough of his quirky charm and dogged resilience that they’re at least memorable. Jimmy Quinn is a lifetime loser; a petty crook with no luck who overlooks the one stable, good thing in his life: his girlfriend, Joan, played (rather terribly) by Candy Clark. He’s so accustomed to being broken down and spat out that once he gets a small amount of power it completely goes to his head. Moriarty’s performance ends up being the film’s highlight, mainly because our eponymous creature is a little less than spectacular when finally revealed.
Q had a stellar poster design. I can still vividly recall seeing the VHS cover art many times as a kid and thinking that it looked impossibly awesome. Emphasize impossible because this is another case of the poster setting such high expectations that they would be hopeless to match on screen. It also doesn’t help when you hire one of the foremost fantasy artists of all-time, the masterful Boris Vallejo, the design your one sheet. Quetzalcoatl looks a lot like a plucked turkey, soaring through the skyline of the Big Apple. The design isn’t necessarily terrible, but compared to the beast the cover implies you’re getting… it just doesn’t even come close. Thankfully, since this is 1982, viewers can enjoy seeing Q brought to life via stop-motion animation. The work done here is impressive for a low-budget production, and Q moves through the air almost seamlessly. Large feathered claws were crafted for scenes where lounging New Yorkers are pulled from rooftops before being torn apart, although their employment usually ends up looking like someone is playing with a giant arcade claw machine attempting to win a prize.
Richard Roundtree and David Carradine both receive top billing as a couple of cops working the Q case. Carradine is given the most to do out of the pair, however, leaving Roundtree to just bark a few orders and act mildly heroic when he finally meets the beast. Carradine’s focus is mainly on investigating the series of human sacrifices occurring around the city – hearts cleanly ripped from chests, skin flayed off bodies… that kind of stuff. It’s a bit underdeveloped as a subplot, but the only real purpose it needs to serve is explaining why an Aztec god is making home in a modern day metropolis.
While many might dismiss the film as a big turkey, I think there’s more than enough of interest occurring within the running time to at the very least entertain viewers. Cohen came up with a unique take on ancient Aztec rituals, and he made sure to populate the film with a few well-rounded characters and familiar faces. Hell, it’s worth watching just for all the glorious NYC skyline porn, since the film was shot entirely on location. Cohen even managed to secure permits to shoot at the top of the Chrysler Building. Fans of old-school monster movies are sure to be pleased.
Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray is an appreciable upgrade over the previously issued DVD from Blue Underground. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they simply used the existing HD master that was available since BU is known for quality image restoration. The image enjoys an upgrade in clarity, as well as a boost in color reproduction, while also maintaining a healthy, moderate layer of grain. Night time shots lose much of their detail to darkness, but Cohen (surprisingly) chose to shoot almost entirely in daylight. On the audio side of things, a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo track kicks things off. Now, before anyone goes complaining that this is a downgrade from the DTS 6.1 surround sound track found on the DVD, be aware that this film was mixed in mono, so anything those extra channels might have added would likely be newly-created to fill out the soundfield. The stereo track perfectly suits the film, although the dialogue levels are a bit on the low side.
The major bonus feature here is an audio commentary with writer/producer/director Larry Cohen. Whether or not you’re a fan of his films, this is a must-listen track. Cohen talks virtually non-stop right from the get-go, regaling listeners with on-set anecdotes, information on how he achieved some of the film’s more impressive shots, casting, securing permits, and more. He covers all aspects of the production in a clear, direct tone. The disc also includes a theatrical trailer, as well as a teaser, both of which (while looking rather rough) are in HD.
Q might not live up to the promise of its poster art, but what films truly do? Cohen delivered a picture that is a hodgepodge of monster activity, crime, extortion, and greed. And he did it all with a single week of pre-production. He makes the most of his time, his actors, and his films. Michael Moriarty delivers a solid performance, essentially carrying the film on his shoulders. Fans of Cohen’s oeuvre already know what’s in store here, but the uninitiated should (hopefully) find something here to keep them entertained. Shout! Factory’s Blu-ray provides the best presentation Q is likely to receive, and while the bonus features may be minimal, the commentary alone makes up for any shortcomings.
3 1/2 out of 5
2 1/2 out of 5