In my previous article “That Infamous B-Flick: The Giant Claw” I talked about what a huge fan of creature-features I am, how they were part of the beginning of my cinephilia, and that while I had seen quite a number of them in my childhood, The Giant Claw (1957) was one that I never got to see until I was in my 20’s. Fortunately, long before The Giant Claw and while I was still in my late teens, I had discovered another creature-feature involving the “giant monster bird” theme – one that was more thoughtful, audacious, gritty, and creepy, not to mention intentionally funny and a redefining landmark in the history of the creature-feature.
Before I should get to the subject proper, I guess I should make it clear at this point that I’m pretty much a huge fan of things that fly. Birds, bats, bugs, prop planes, jets, gliders, helicopters, rockets, spacecraft… you name it. After seeing the original Star Wars (1977) at an early age, I fell in love with all things that fly, or glide, or soar, or coast in mid-air or mid-space. From childhood to young adulthood I went to airshows in Tennessee, South Carolina and Connecticut. I pretty much saw it all – skydivers, WWI bi-planes, the B1 Lancer Bomber, the C-130 Hercules thrust-assisted by retrofitted rockets, the F-104 Starfighter, P-51 Mustang, Mitsubishi Zero, etc. There were also some visits to airports, air museums and actual launching stations – for example, Cape Canaveral back in December 1998, followed by a shuttle launch three years later from one of the hotels at Disney World! And as far as birds are concerned, my photo gallery in the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center online has reached more than thirty species that I have shot locally and elsewhere, including the Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, Eastern Towhee, European Starling, Red-Tailed Hawk, Red-Shouldered Hawk, Great Blue Heron, House Finch, House Sparrow, Ring-Billed Gull, Yellow Warbler, Double-Breasted Cormorant, Tufted Titmouse, Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker and the Pileated Woodpecker!
It helps that Q: The Winged Serpent came out just three years before I was born, in 1982, arguably the greatest year in the history of cinema. This one year alone gave us E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Blade Runner, Tootsie, Poltergeist, The Thing, The Verdict, Victor/Victoria, Fanny and Alexander, Identification of a Woman, Sophie’s Choice, Yol, Fitzcarraldo, Pink Floyd the Wall, An Officer and a Gentleman, The Man from Snowy River, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, The State of Things, My Favorite Year, The Year of Living Dangerously, The Dark Crystal, Annie, TRON, The Beastmaster, Porky’s, the documentary The Atomic Café, the first great Star Trek film The Wrath of Kahn, and the year’s Best Picture Academy Award winner Gandhi, directed by the late great Sir Richard Attenborough and starring Ben Kingsley in his first leading role. Robert E. Howard’s literary pulp fantasy sword-and sorcery hero Conan the Barbarian finally hit the big screen that year courtesy of director John Milius, co-writer Oliver Stone, and former Mr. Universe Arnold Schwarzenegger as the eponymous warrior (skyrocketing him to world superstardom in the process). Animator Don Bluth had his debut feature The Secret of NIMH, which introduced him as a talent to rival animation king Disney (after working, ironically, as an animator for Disney features including Pete’s Dragon in 1977); and Sylvester Stallone not only had his third Rocky feature out that same year, he started another franchise with First Blood, the first film in the Rambo series. It even gave us what was probably literally the world’s first true comic-book-as-a-movie, the horror anthology Creepshow from horror legends Stephen King and George A. Romero. Okay, so there were some bottom-of-the-barrel titles as well (namely Halloween III: Season of the Witch, Grease 2 and Amityville II: The Possession), but given that E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Blade Runner, Poltergeist, Conan the Barbarian, The Thing, and Pink Floyd The Wall happen to be in my top hundred favorite films, how can I complain?
Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), one of a series of schlock exploitation horror films from writer-producer-director Larry Cohen, a filmmaker who hasn’t received the level of fame that has gone to B-movie kings like Roger Corman or the prestigious honors that have gone to contemporary masters of horror like Romero, Wes Craven, John Carpenter or David Cronenberg. Nevertheless, he’s a fine B-movie filmmaker in his own right, and one hell of a storyteller regardless of the limitations of his budgets or the absurdities of his plot premises. He’s also an intelligent artist, usually integrating social commentary in to his works with a sense of personality. And he’s been original in his approach, choosing topics that are seldom explored and fluidly integrating them into the B-movie, giving tried-and-true formulae a new lease on life.
Larry Cohen (b. July 15th, 1941) began his career working in television as a writer, with scripting credits including episodes of 1960’s and 70’s cult favorites and mainstream hit series like The Invaders and Branded (both series he created himself!), The Fugitive and Columbo. In film, his screenwriting credits include the first sequel to The Magnificent Seven (1960), with Yul Brynner (one of my favorite actors) reprising his role as stoic leader Chris Adams. But it wasn’t until the mid-70’s – shortly following the comedy Bone (1972) – that he truly came to prominence as a horror auteur with the classic It’s Alive (1975), the first and best in a trilogy (including 1978’s It Lives Again and 1987’s It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive) concerning an infant human monster mutated by an experimental drug that, once born, goes on a killing spree. The first It’s Alive was also followed by some freaky, far-fetched fun flicks outside the franchise like God Told Me To (1976); The Stuff (1985); A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987), which had little or nothing to do with King’s novel or the 1979 Tobe Hooper TV movie it inspired; Maniac Cop (1990) as writer/producer, which was the beginning of another franchise; and The Ambulance (1990). Following the turn of the millennium, Cohen wrote the screenplays for Phone Booth (2003), directed by Joel Schumacher and with rising star Colin Farrell; and Cellular (2004), directed by David R. Ellis, with Kim Basinger and future Captain America of the Avengers himself, Chris Evans. In each of these, he addresses a particular societal issue – It’s Alive was an indictment on the effects of chemicals on both human and natural environments both manufactured and unethically used by government parties; The Stuff on the lack of ethics involving rapid public marketing of unhealthy food products, etc.
Q – The Winged Serpent (also simply called Q) is no exception, but it is a standout among Cohen’s work in more ways than one. Rather than being hard sci-fi, it’s an ingenious hybrid of horror and dark occult fantasy, taking an element from ancient Aztec religion and mythology – the god Quetzalcoatl, for which the Q in the title stands – and putting it in the center of a mystery and cop-gangster exploitation piece. It also featured what was probably Cohen’s biggest budget at the time (slightly over one million dollars), and also his biggest name cast at the time, led by Michael Moriarty (later of TV’s Law & Order), David Carradine (then best known for TV’s Kung Fu, later Bill in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films), Candy Clark (from American Graffiti and The Man Who Fell To Earth), and the original Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree. And before I go further, I would like to note that the film’s main poster, with one hell of a tagline (“Just call it Q – that’s all you’ll have time to say before it tears you apart!”) and the “Q” drawn as a fanged dragon, was created by legendary Peruvian sci-fi/fantasy artist and successor to Frank Frazetta, Boris Vallejo. While the monster of the film doesn’t exactly match that on the poster, having a bird beak in place of fanged wolf-like jaws, rest assured it is NOT The Giant Claw.
The film itself begins with a series of horrific deaths, including a window-washer who is decapitated and a topless sunbather who is plucked off her apartment rooftop. Meanwhile, a tenant has been found dead in his apartment, “peeled like an orange” (probably the most gruesome effect in the film). A flying monster is the cause of all this, but New Yorkers can’t identify it (regardless of how huge it is) because, while its killings are taking place in the open daylight, the creature itself flies fast and directly against the sun, blinding anyone trying to identify it. NYPD detective Shepard (Carradine) begins investigating, eventually discovering that the monster is in fact a feathered serpent incarnation of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, brought to life through human sacrifices carried out on willing victims by a fanatic follower and high priest of the god. He has to find out if it truly is immortal, or just a “good ol’ fashioned monster” while tracking down the priest before another sacrifice occurs.
A solution to both said challenges comes in the unlikely guise of Jimmy Quinn (Moriarty), a former junkie and jittery small-time crook looking to turn a new leaf and pursue a career as a jazz pianist, and with very little luck so far, much to the dismay of his girlfriend Joan (Clark). When he botches a diamond heist (losing $77,000 worth in diamonds in his escape), he seeks shelter in the spire of the Chrysler Building where – Surprise Surprise! – Q is nesting and has already laid an egg. Although he is lucky to discover the nest while the parent is away, he is eventually tracked down by his crook colleagues wanting to hold him accountable for the loss of the loot and tricks them into going to their deaths by leading them to the nest in the spire at the exact moment when Q is present (“Eat ‘em! Eat ‘em! Crunch crunch! We don’t need ‘em!”).
Escaping Q (yet again!), Quinn runs afoul of the police, who while at first skeptical of the results of Shepard’s investigation are forced to concede when a full sighting of Q snatching a rooftop pool swimmer confirms his report to be true. Seeking a chance to be someone significant while clearing his name, Quinn becomes a maniacal, full-fledged extortionist, saying that he’ll sell out the serpent bird to the NYPD with Shepard’s help… but only in exchange for immunity and one million dollars in cash “tax-free” from the city, complete with instant celebrity status (“This city needs me now! And get the owner of that newspaper – what’s his name, Murdoch? Get Rupert down here with his arm around me!”), exclusive rights to the bird’s carcass, book and movie royalties, and a “Nixon-like pardon.” Unfortunately for everyone involved, the Chrysler Building’s spire is not the only place where Q has laid eggs…
It may not be saying much to average moviegoers to claim that this is probably Cohen’s best film, apart from It’s Alive, as a writer-director-producer with total control. But – and it’s a big but – I will go on record claiming that this is, despite the limitations of its budget – and because of its uncompromised, unhinged approach – probably the best recent(ish) monster movie I’ve ever seen, rivaling other personal creature-feature favorites of mine like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), the original Godzilla (1954), 20 Million Miles to Earth and Rodan (both 1957), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad and The Blob (both 1958), Jason and the Argonauts (1963), When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), Alligator (1980), and Dragonslayer (1981). While later films of this crop, such as Jurassic Park (1993), Starship Troopers (1997), The Host (2007) and Pacific Rim (2013) may awe and dazzle with their vastly superior effects work and sense of scale and atmosphere, Q is in a class of its own. It has more realism, scathing humor and a decidedly deeper approach to the topics explored, because of its cynical take-no-prisoners and defiance of audience expectations.
What the hell am I ranting about? Let me break it down. To face the facts, most kaiju films from the 1950’s and 60’s, while fun to watch, suffer from drawbacks that we don’t get with this one. They have a more polished edge, presenting the cities being destroyed by monsters as squeaky-clean settings, with polite characters, sketchy science blabbering, and of course, the standard storytelling convention that the monster is usually defeated by some stud playing a scientist, military officer or misunderstood teen. This protagonist is usually disbelieved at first upon seeing the monster but ends up coming to everyone’s rescue and getting the girl in the end. And they usually do it with a straight face too.
Cohen here fortunately does not pander to pre-established conventions, and as a native New Yorker, he pulls out all the stops to show the New York City he knows. New York City is depicted here in all its 1980s ugliness, from the smog-stained rooftops and half-finished construction sites down to the graffiti-and-vomit-marked alleys and tightly packed shops, complete with cheap rat-infested apartments, seedy bars, and nastiness from cop and crook alike. Even the spire of the Chrysler Building, with its polished chrome look combined with Gothic tone, is shown as an interior mess with broken rafters and rusty ladders – a perfect spot for a monster to nest. It would be blown up in the 1998 Godzilla, and Cohen would later state:
They stole a lot of the idea of Q, didn’t they? About a monster who comes to New York to lay eggs at a New York landmark… except they use Madison Square Garden instead of the Chrysler Building. And the last thing in the picture, it’s the exact same shot, photographed the exact same way, cut for cut, they find the egg in the deserted building, and they cut in on it, and as it cracks open the picture says ‘The End.’ It’s taken exactly from Q. But I like that they spent $140 million dollars to steal from a movie that I made for a million two!
The only real beauty revealed in the City That Never Sleeps is seen in its sweeping helicopter views – thanks to cinematographer Fred Murphy (with some 2nd unit assistance from Daniel Pearl, who also shot Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974), and aided immeasurably by Robert O. Ragland’s haunting music. These moments serve as Q’s point-of-view, giving us a chance to look at the Big Apple from the perspective of an ancient god looking for a bite. “And it would do that, you know, because New York is famous for good eating,” as Shepard casually observes.
The NYPD is shown through a no-nonsense, matter-of-fact lens, much in the tradition of Cohen’s work, with officers making callous statements around crime scenes, and casually dismissing their fellow cop Shepard’s hard work and dedication in proving Q’s real existence and origins. It is this sarcasm and self-knowing irony combined with exploitation horror that elevates Q above other films of its ilk. As Miguel De Cervantes honored the tradition of the knight tales of old while skewering their silliness with his Don Quixote, so Cohen, with Q, pays homage to the creature-features of decades past while lambasting their straight-faced pieties and puerilities with his own trademark combination of bloody terror and comedy (or “splatstick”). The dialogue is deliciously lewd and intentionally hilarious, particularly when uttered by Quinn (“I’ve seen this bitch in action, she can move in and out!”), and coming at exactly the right moments.
Unlike most kaiju or monster movies before or since, this creature’s origins is not as a prehistoric reptile or mutation of a contemporary species caused by nuclear radiation or mad science experiments in biotechnology, and neither is it the denizen of a “lost world”. It’s due to the fanatical practice of a superstition regarded in the modern world as derelict. And to make things even more disturbing, the creature’s emergence, while sounding hokey the first time you hear the pitch, makes more sense as the film’s plot progresses. How much of this is attributed to Cohen’s talents or that of his cast is debatable. We are told that the sacrifices needed to make the god live in its giant reptilian bird form have to be willing sacrifices, with the victims fully repenting their sins and giving their pacified bodies to the priest to be skinned. If the victim doesn’t fully commit to the sacrifice, it loses all meaning and only serves to weaken the god-beast. Cohen uses the material here to address our vanity as the dominating species of this world, providing a god closer to that of the prehistoric reptiles and birds that ruled hundreds of millions of years ago rather than one who takes on the “form of man”, all while highlighting the dangers of religious fanaticism.
This was by no means the first film to deal with Quetzalcoatl, but it’s easily the best. Q is actually a loose “re-imagining” of a cheaply-made black-and-white production from 1946, The Flying Serpent, which was itself a rehash of the slightly superior Bela Lugosi vehicle The Devil Bat. The essence of that film’s plot involves a publicly disgraced and demented archaeologist, played by George Zucco who, while on an expedition, discovers Quetzalcoatl alive and slumbering. He takes one of the creature’s feathers and gives it in serial fashion to those who disbelieve or have wronged him, starting with his wife, who are then tracked down and killed by the beast. Cohen goes far beyond the laughable poverty-row qualities of this version in terms of budget, atmosphere, effects, storytelling logic, performances and an effective tongue-in-cheek balance between scathing humor and gritty horror, without giving in once to camp.
And to add to the verisimilitude, the main hero of the story is not some good-looking cop in the NYPD. No, the hero of our story is a cowardly, inept, streetwise crook and ex-junkie too ashamed to stand up for himself. And when he does have a chance to redeem himself by saving the city, he again puts his own petty self-pity and individual welfare ahead of the city’s population, leaping on the chance to make himself famous while using his role as a self-imposed savior for the people as an excuse. It’s only in the end, when he resists the fanatic priest’s crazed attempts to make him willingly sacrifice himself for Q’s life and power (“Piss on your prayer!”), that he maintains honor and dignity, and therefore redemption, for his past cowardice and reluctant participation in crime.
This seems to have more relevance now than ever, as Q is an allegorical commentary on man’s vain desire to obtain unearned celebrity status, a chance to belong to society by pretending to be higher than all the rest while doing very little or nothing. Given that the late 1980’s actually marked the beginning of the explosion of celebrity culture, with would eventually deteriorate into reality shows featuring the likes of the Kardashians and Paris Hilton (oh the horror!), the film can be said to be ahead of its time.
Normally, you would expect to show no empathy and only contempt for such a character, but as Jimmy Quinn, Michael Moriarty flings himself into the role with such dialed-up Method conviction that he rightfully earns top billing and a special place in our hearts. When luring the crooks wanting to do him in for screwing up his burglary to their death, he turns from whiny pawn of their plans to a full-fledged maniac, and even as we watch him in shock, we can’t help laughing our asses off and cheering him on all at once. He’s a live-action Looney Tune, a jittery, pathetic and selfish individual who is ironically the only true hero that the city has left. He also shares exquisite chemistry with his co-stars, namely Carradine as the critical-thinking monster-hunting cop Shepard (who masters a crow’s caw), Roundtree as Shepard’s rather hostile deputy Powell, and Clark as the picture’s only truly sensitive and sympathetic human, Quinn’s frequently estranged girlfriend Joan. The film also is unsparing towards what happens to Q’s victims – decent or cruel, whether fully-developed or ciphers, quite a number of them will be monster fodder.
And the “plumed serpent” itself? It’s a superbly rendered and original creation by the late stop-motion animator David Allen, who before assisted Ray Harryhausen with his final film, the original Clash of the Titans (1981), and later did similar work on Willow (1988) and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989). He was assisted by model-maker Roger Dicken, who received an Oscar nomination for his work on When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth and contributed additional services to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979); and Randall William Cook, who did more stop-motion effects work for John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) and Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984), and would receive Oscars for his CG work on Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy (2001-03). And while Quetzalcoatl may not be a “flying battleship”, it certainly is a bad-ass mother that does justice to its unique origins while standing alone as a “good ol’ fashioned monster”, from its random picking of unsuspecting Manhattanites to the final battle with the NYPD cops who eventually invade its roosting spot with Quinn’s help, blasting the egg to oblivion and snipe at the avian assassin in a fascinating twist on the climax of the original King Kong. Granted, the effects work has its limitations (namely in terms of the backscreen shots and rigid jerky movements associated with stop-motion) and hasn’t aged that well, but hey, if they couldn’t get Ray Harryhausen, at least they went with the next best thing, and of course it makes for a refreshing break from the CGI that dominates our contemporary cinemas.
Q – The Winged Serpent was not a success at the box office during its initial release, and it’s a shame, given what a unique and remarkable film it is. This was probably because of its own unorthodox approach to the genre, the same factor which resulted in the previous year’s Dragonslayer failing to find a similar audience. But looking back at it now, I find myself wishing that we had more films of a similar nature, filled with wit and charm but none of the usual pieties and puerilities that the genre has too long been steeped in. That being the case, Toho seemed to pick up on Cohen’s approach, as Godzilla would be given new life and no-nonsense realism in the beloved Heisei series of Gojira/Godzilla films that started two years after Q with Godzilla 1984/The Return of Godzilla. Something tells me it’s only a matter of time before we get more films like Cohen’s work (Jurassic Park, Starship Troopers, The Host, and Pacific Rim actually do come close to it at times, but somehow for all their fun miss the mark) but Q remains one of the best of its type, and for all the things it gets right, I highly recommend it not as a curio or anomaly a la The Giant Claw, but as an essential benchmark of the classic creature-feature that deserves more repeated viewings and praise. And always remember to just call it Q – that’s all you’ll have time to say before it tears you apart!
In Memory of David Carradine (1936-2009) and David Allen (1944-1999) – they will be sorely missed, but never forgotten.