LARRY COHEN WEEK: Q The Winged Serpent (1982)

Back in the early 1980’s, the VHS market allowed my family to enjoy movies that never made it to Ellwood City, about an hour from Pittsburgh. Our hometown video store, Prime Time Video, was packed with films that fascinated me. I wish that someone had footage of all of the movies on shelf. I know we definitely rented Ruggero Deodato’s Raiders of Atlantis and this bizarre piece of cinema about an Aztec god loose in Manhattan. What a time to be alive, when you could walk down the street and wander row after row of horror movie choices!

Q The Winged Serpent has Boris Vallejo artwork on its poster and VHS box, which made it leap into my hands. As a kid, I hated the parts with humans. As a grown-up, I’m so intrigued by them.

The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, a feather winged dragon, has found its new pyramid on the Chrysler Building. The film starts by showing us how it finds and devours the heads of its victims in gory detail. Meanwhile, an Aztec cult is leaving sacrificed victims in its wake as Detective Shepard (David Carradine, Death Race 2000) and Sgt. Powell (Richard Roundtree, Shaft) try to keep up.

The film cuts to a failed diamond heist that leads Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty, who owns this film with a manic Method performance) to the title monster’s nest. He uses his new knowledge to move away from crime (and jazz piano playing) as he extorts the city for the location of the creature’s egg.

Shephard finds out the location on his own, ruining Quinn’s plans. The cops conduct an attack that takes out a baby Q as the creature returns home, wiping out nearly everyone (don’t take Shaft, Q!) until it’s shot over and over, falling dead to the streets below. The cop also saves Quinn as a crazed Aztec priest almost sacrifices the crook to his gods.

That said — the magic of the past in man’s modern world is not gone. The film ends with one last egg hatching.

Q is a great movie even without the monster. In Will Harris’ great oral history of the film, David Caradine said: “I thought if [Larry] had left the monster out of it, between me and Michael Moriarty, there was a real great story there between the detectives and the sleazebag heroin addict/petty-thief character. That’s where the power in the movie is. That’s where the heart of it is… and not in the chicken that ate New York!”

And this is a movie that rose from tragedy! Cohen had just been fired from I, the Jury and didn’t want to waste the hotel room he had already paid for. He wrote the script, hired actors and was done with pre-production in just six days!

Like all of Cohen’s films — do I sound repetitive yet? — this is a movie that outdoes its small budget and looks like a million bucks. It has heart — and plenty of other organs — and verve and panache and any other hyperbole you’d love to bestow upon it.

It’s easy to find, too. If you have Shudder, it’s right here! And you can grab the blu-ray from Scream Factory.

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