❉ Jonathan Sisson on legendary director Larry Cohen’s bonkers cult classic.
“You couldn’t get away now with the street action we pulled off. These days, with cameras everywhere, and armed cops, you’d be shot in the street before lunch. My films were all about mischief and craziness. I just didn’t want to miss out on anything. I made my films in the right place and at the right time.” – Larry Cohen, on Q – The Winged Serpent, in conversation with We Are Cult’s Nick Clement.
Q – The Winged Serpent, possibly maverick exploitation auteur Larry Cohen’s most celebrated film, was, in his own words, born from disaster. After being fired from the absolute shower that was I the Jury (1982), Cohen rose like a phoenix (it’s a cliché, do you see?) to slap together his gritty-crime-drama-cum-monster-movie with less than a week’s worth of pre-production.
The intricacies of its spontaneous—if not downright guerrilla-style—production are chronicled elsewhere (look to Cohen’s excellent commentary track on the physical media editions of the film), so it’s only worth giving a brief summary. As mentioned, Cohen fell out with the producers on I the Jury, which was already undergoing financial difficulties and, having been banned from the set and ordered to leave his hotel, pulled an old script from a drawer and immediately began production with no money, a few called-in favours and a (literal) wing and a prayer.
The script in question was inspired by the New York cityscape, with its spires reminding Cohen of Aztec temples, and he chose locations that subliminally reflect this. He always had his sights set on the Chrysler Building, but the original screenplay made no mention of it since he didn’t know if he could secure it as a location. After six requests, the owners finally relented and agreed to a fee of just $18,000 due to them facing near-bankruptcy. Most of the film was shot on the fly, with a lot of shooting being done out on the streets with no permits and very little planning. Shortly after production began, Samuel Z. Arkoff stepped in with the necessary completion funds.
The resulting film, which Kim Newman described as “Part Mean Streets, part King Kong,” is, like most of Cohen’s films, endearing more because it juggles so many idiosyncratic ideas than because of its execution. If you walked in at any random point, the chances are, you’d mistake it for some sort of off-beat New York crime drama. The monster attacks punctuate the narrative almost at random in discrete episodes, just to remind us of the stakes and the continuing threat (and, in one instance, so that Bobbie Burns can get all booby with suntan lotion), but they barely affect the main plot in any other way; they’re mentioned in passing by the police, but, unlike in, say, Jaws (1975), they’re treated pretty casually once we’ve actually seen them, and that’s fine; each attack introduces a character with their own little arc, and then something swoops down out of the sky and viciously murders them, so we don’t need to see anyone mourning them or traumatised by their loss any more than we already have.
The first death is the best; a window washer on the Empire State Building (played by William Pilch—the actual window washer on the Empire State Building) is decapitated by something we don’t see, resulting in his headless body spewing blood almost mockingly over the window of the office belonging to the woman he has been attempting to unsuccessfully flirt with. Actually, a lot of what makes Q (its on-screen title ditches the “winged serpent” caveat seen on the posters) is not the monster at all; it’s the character drama. Indeed, it may as well be an afterthought or even not a monster-monster at all; replace it with a serial killer and— wait; there is a serial killer in Q! The more you break this thing down, the more bonkers and undisciplined it seems.
Quinn, originally having supposed to be the getaway driver, is saddled with the loot, quickly loses it, and ends up hiding in the spire of the Chrysler Building whilst fleeing from a security guard after setting off an alarm by attempting to enter his absentee lawyer’s office. In the spire, he discovers a huge bird’s nest and, more worryingly, a gigantic egg and what little remains of the missing sunbather, identifiable only by her ankle bracelet. Being the only one who knows the location of the monster’s nest, Quinn is now in a position to blackmail the city for $1 million.
If all this sounds completely stupid, it kind of is, but — on first viewing at least — you fail to notice it, because the whole thing feels so spontaneous, mostly due to the hurried nature of the production. How come no one notices an enormous bird flapping about Manhattan? Um, “The thing could be just smart enough to smile right in line with the sun so that when people look up it’s blinding for a minute…” To which the audience should reply, “Sorry, what, Shepherd?” But doesn’t have time to think about it before the movie yells, “Shut up you! Moving on!” Furthermore, Shepherd making the connection between the serial killer and what is, apparently an ancient Aztec monster-god is dubious at best. He speaks to a couple of museum experts (one of whom takes him on a tour of a gallery filled not with Aztec artefacts but Native American ones) and bingo! We’ve not got a quetzalcoatl on our hands but the Quetzalcoatl flapping about up there.
Speaking of which, the monster effects by David Allen and Randy Cook amongst others (including The Land that Time Forgot and Alien‘s Roger Dicken who made the models) are variable, but their stop-motioness fits the tone of the movie and if you going to have an oversized beastie rampaging through New York, what better way to pay homage to trend-setter Kong than to give your antagonist a distinctly Plasticine look? That said, the shots where the creature’s shadow is seen cast against New York’s sky scrapers and the gunfight finale atop the Chrysler Building are spectacularly staged.
The one element that never seems to get much praise is second billed Candy Clark as Quinn’s much put upon girlfriend. It’s easy to see why she’s overlooked, given that she’s only in about four longish scenes scattered throughout the movie, but Clark brings a hell of a lot of spark to a pretty thankless role. Her relationship with Quinn is clearly toxic: “The next time you hit me, I’ll break a lamp over your head while you’re asleep!” but she’s the only really decent thing in his life, has clearly fixed him up a bit (it’s through their interactions that we learn he’s an ex-junkie), and by the time his schemes come crashing down, she’s the most valuable thing he loses.
Quinn’s tragedy is that, perhaps, had he got a regular job and not tried to overplay his hand, he might have been happy, but, other than losing any sense of fear, he doesn’t seem to learn much by the end because he doesn’t have any self-awareness. He’s not the sort of person many of us would want to know and he’s a true villain-protagonist rather than an antihero, even tricking two men to their deaths at the hands—sorry, talons—of Q. It’s Carradine’s Shepherd who’s the films real hero, but what makes the film unique is that in reality, it’s a character drama and police procedural that mostly focuses on the story’s most unlikable character and makes him somehow pathetically endearing.
As for I, the Jury, it ended up costing eight times as much as Q and went on to become a box office bomb. Q ironically opened on the same weekend and grossed four times as much, in part thanks to fantasy artist Boris Vallejo’s amazing poster designs.
❉ ‘Q – The Winged Serpent’ (1982) Cast: Michael Moriarty, Candy Clark, David Carradine, Richard Roundtree, James Dixon, Ron Cey. Director: Larry Cohen. Screenwriter: Larry Cohen. Distributor: Shout! Factory Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 1982. Blu-ray Release Date: August 27, 2013.
❉ A regular contributor to We Are Cult, Jonathan Sisson studied Moving Image at the University of Central Lancashire and produced several short films. After that, he became an actor and has appeared in several film and television productions. Visit his website.