“Q: THE WINGED SERPENT” (Scream Factory Blu Review)
Week after week, we are “treated” to monster movies on the Syfy channel, most of which seem to be based on a template script that they never bothered to personalize; random people are chomped or stomped, a hero (usually played someone from a Syfy show, or a has-been) comes on the scene, suspects things are wrong despite heavy opposition from the mayor or someone (bonus if they go full JAWS and insist that the town parade/bicentennial/dog track opening remains on schedule), gets some proof with the aid of a lovely lady, and kills the beast as a one-man army. Usually his teenager, often visiting against their will, will go off with some new friends and find themselves trapped by the monster, adding some (very minimal) personal stakes for our hero, who will rescue them and earn their respect in one fell swoop. These movies aren’t given the biggest budgets in the world, so I can more or less forgive the cheesy FX, but the anonymity that they all possess truly baffles me. Why are they so opposed to the idea of making them memorable?
Because if there’s any proof that a lack of funds and some not-great FX can still produce a memorable monster movie, it’s Larry Cohen’s Q: THE WINGED SERPENT which makes its debut on Blu-ray this week, courtesy of Shout! Factory’s increasingly impressive Scream Factory line. The stop motion animation for the titular beast is impressive, but the mix of miniatures, matte paintings, and rear projection compositing don’t exactly hold up, if they even looked great back in 1982. And the film’s low budget often results in some plot holes; while he’s not “Godzilla” big, I fail to see how a giant bird flying overhead in Manhattan manages to stay more or less out of sight for several days, and an early robbery scene is borderline incoherent thanks to the lack of, well, the robbery—we just hear some scuffle and then our hero runs out of the store, instantly loses the diamonds, and stumbles around until he finds Q on top of the Chrysler Building.
But what if that hero is played by Michael Moriarty? Suddenly, all of those blemishes don’t seem to matter as much, if at all. If you’ve never seen the actor perform in one of Cohen’s films (he also starred in THE STUFF, as well as his MASTERS OF HORROR episode, “Pick Me Up,” this is a terrific place to start, as it’s possibly his best effort. Having seen Moriarty in other movies/shows, I can tell that there’s something about working with Cohen that just pushes him go the extra mile to make a truly memorable character. He often seems like he’s wandered in from a different movie entirely, but in a good way. Whether he’s singing a scat song at a piano, luring some bad guys into Q’s nest so he can get rid of them without getting his hands dirty, or merely chatting with his girlfriend, there’s always something wonderfully unhinged in his delivery and mannerisms (at times he seems to be acting as if his character was blind), which adds immensely to the movie’s entertainment value. Honestly, he could be the only real character in the movie, just doing his thing in between attack scenes, and the movie would be a must-see.
However, it’s actually got more going on than just giant bird attacks. In an interesting turn, the movie actually takes on a bit of a serial killer procedural feel as there’s a religious cult type who worships the bird and is going around skinning people alive. Heading up the investigation are Richard Roundtree and David Carradine, both of whom are also clearly having fun (though Roundtree disappears for big chunks at a time). Carradine—in a role that almost went to a then-unknown Bruce Willis—eventually crosses paths with Moriarty’s thief, putting the pieces together and realizing that he knows where the nest is, with Moriarty agreeing to show him where it is in exchange for a million dollars. There’s something sort of hilarious about a “hero” who is content to let more random NYers die (by bird or by cult weirdo dressed as one) unless he gets paid, and [Spoiler] I love how there’s never much of a redemption for him. Until the bitter end he’s sort of hanging out in the background, complaining about not getting his money while Carradine and his fellow officers do all of the real work. So many heroes in modern movies go through the “refusal of the call” bullshit only to come around and be a hero. I love that Moriarty never has that change of heart. He even admits an opposition to guns early on, which in any other movie would mean he’d get over it in order to save the day, but nah.
Depsite the low budget, Cohen stages some great scenes all around New York, like when pedestrians, cab drivers, etc. are splashed with the blood of a victim from above, or when Q takes out a sunbather on the roof of some other high rise. Characters also tend to have more personality than the average anonymous monster movie victim as well; I particularly like the annoyed office worker who passive aggressively deals with the sleazy window washer that takes extra time on her window so he can leer from outside. As the story goes, Cohen wrote the script in a few days and had a mere week of pre-production. He was fired from another movie called THE JURY and opted to make this instead, since he had already paid for a hotel room. So, we can assume that a lot of the movie’s weird quirks are the result of Cohen hiring actors he liked and trusting them to make something out of thinly sketched characters, not to mention pad the runtime out with anything that didn’t involve time-consuming and expensive giant monster scenes. But we’ve seen that sort of thing in a zillion other movies, so whatever rushed circumstances led to its design, Q is all the better for it.
Compared to their other recent releases, Scream Factory’s disc is a touch disappointing, however. The transfer is great (though the crystal clear image just makes some of the FX look even worse), but apart from the commentary, the only bonus features are the hilarious teaser (“Just call it Q – that’s all you’ll have time to say before it tears you apart!”) and trailer. It doesn’t even have a damn scene selection, just chapter breaks. The commentary is pretty solid; it’s newly recorded with Cohen going at it solo (the previous DVD release from another company had him moderated by Bill Lustig), and he tells some new—or at least, longer versions of—stories instead of repeating everything he said the last time around, including more details on his firing from THE JURY. He also confirmed my suspicion that some of the movie’s most memorable moments with Moriarty are the result of him just being let loose to do his thing (the actor apparently prefers to do his closeups without the other actors around). Without a moderator however, he often just goes off too long on things we could have just looked up ourselves if we were interested; at one point he just reads choice reviews for what seems like 3 minutes straight
Thus, if you already own the previous disc, there isn’t a whole lot here to warrant an upgrade beyond the high-def transfer, unless you’re a commentary junkie. For everyone else, this deserves to be in your collection. It’s a perfect “B movie” and definitely one of Cohen’s best, plus Moriarty delivers one of the most memorable performances in horror movie history. And unlike all those Syfy movies, you’ll want to watch it again someday. It might not be classic horror, but it sure as hell ain’t forgettable.