Friday, February 24, 2012

The Films of 1982: Q: The Winged Serpent




One  reason I admire low-budget exploitation films so much is that, in many cases, writers and directors don't feel compelled to trot along happily with the Hollywood party line.

A three-act structure patterned after the Campbell Monomyth may be tiresome de rigueur for the big budget extravaganza, but filmmakers such as Larry Cohen or Tobe Hooper are subversives and non-conformists. They march to the beat of their own (distinctive) drums and, in the process, shatter audience expectations.

Not every film they make is great, but every film they make is theirs, not the product of committee.  I prefer that approach because I'd rather see a unique, oddball effort than a "product" that looks the same as everything else out there.  I've seen movies like Thor or Green Lantern a dozen times.  By contrast, there is only one Q: The Winged Serpent, to modify the tag-line from the 1976 King Kong.  The descriptors "strange" and "offbeat" don't even begin to do this 1982 film justice.

Q: The Winged Serpent, released in September of 1982, is a perfect example of a movie that, on cursory description, sounds like a lot of other monster movies, namely Godzilla or King Kong, but which as been gloriously corkscrewed by writer/director Cohen to play as a totally different, totally unique viewing experience.   

Most importantly, Cohen's point-of-entrance/attack on Q: The Winged Serpent is revolutionary.  The film features a small time crook, Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarity) as protagonist, if not "hero."   And it's not even that he's just a crook that's important. He's actually a coward too. In monster movies we've been conditioned to expect the square-jawed romantic hero, one who is courageous and noble.  Jimmy Quinn is a different...bird.

Additionally, Cohen -- on a low budget, no less -- reveals to audiences a visual aspect of New York City we've never really seen before in film.  It's an eagle's eye, roof-top view of the metropolis and much of the action occurs there.  Notably, such moments atop high-rises, including the vicious opening attack on a window washer, don't appear faked in terms of exteriors or stunts.  The real location shooting -- in Manhattan and atop the buildings -- thus grants the sense a film of gritty authenticity and legitimacy.  Watching Q, I appreciate the contrast between Jimmy Quinn -- a rat on street level --  with Quetzlcoatl, a winged monster in the sky.

Despite such virtues, critics by-and-large dismissed Q: The Winged Serpent.  Janet Maslin wanted to offer "only a very few words" about the film, as if it wasn't worth the energy of a full review.  She also viewed the script's humor as "inadvertent," an opinion I would strongly contest given the comedic sheen of Cohen's work in films including It's Alive (1973) and The Stuff (1985).  Meanwhile, Roger Ebert famously championed Michael Moriarity's tic-filled lead performance as Quinn while dismissing the rest of Q as "dreck." Chicago Reader's Pat Graham called the effort "curiously disengaged and sloppy."

Again, for me the very opposite holds true.

I find Q: The Winged Serpent absolutely engaging because of its droll, edgy, unconventional nature, and because Michael Moriarty absolutely rivets the attention, though often in deliriously oddball fashion.  The conventional and disengaged approach, in my opinion, would have been to feature stalwart, heavily-armed heroes of the military and U.S. government battling Quetzlcoatl throughout, with scientists theorizing about how to destroy the dangerous creature.  Instead, Cohen takes the extraordinary route of weaving the story of Quetzcoatl -- an Aztec God "prayed" back into existence -- into the life story of a neurotic, twitchy crook who, perhaps, feels more at home in prison than among free men.   Again, this is a character who might have a supporting role in a "regular" monster movie, perhaps even played as comic relief.  But here, Quinn is Q's raison d'etre.

Can a movie about a giant, man-eating serpent actually be a terrific and illuminating human character piece?  Larry Cohen seems to think so, and in Q: The Winged Serpent he explodes long-standing monster movie cliches to make the point.

"What else is God but an invisible force that we fear?"

In New York City, something strange is happening.  A serial murderer seems to be flaying (willing?) victims in accordance with ancient Aztec rites of human sacrifice.

Detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) investigate these horrendous crimes at the same time that an urban legend multiplies in the city: the legend of a giant bird/serpent that strikes from the sky, and claims human prey as food.  People have gone missing, and blood has literally rained down upon the streets on occasion.

Meanwhile, small time crook Jimmy Quinn (Moriarity) has been seeking legitimate work at his girlfriend's (Candy Clark) insistence.  Unfortunately, he gets involved in a diamond heist (at a jewelry store called Neil Diamonds...) and runs afoul of both the law and his law-breaking cohorts.  After Quinn loses 77,000 dollars of diamonds in an accident, he hides on the top floor of The Chrysler Building and learns that the city's monster is no legend.


There, he discovers the nest for Quetzcoatl, the Aztec God of blood and human sacrifice.   Pursued by his former partners in crime, Quinn leads the crooks to The Chrysler Building...where they are promptly eaten.

The Quetzlcoatl attacks over Manhattan grow more numerous and brazen, and after Jimmy is arrested, he realizes he possesses a unique bargaining chip.  He offers to share the location of the monster's nest with the police if they give him a "Nixon-like" pardon and immunity, a million dollars, and exclusive book, movie and photograph rights to the monster's story...

"You are a betrayer and now you must humble yourself..."

At the center of Q: The Winged Serpent is Jimmy Quinn, the strangest monster movie protagonist you've ever seen.  He's a loser and a coward.  He "scats" at the piano, and creates his own bizarre musical numbers/voice-over narrations, such as the composition "Evil Dream."

Basically, Moriarity twitches and gesticulates his way through the film in a manner that captivates the attention, and feels strangely authentic and real.  Quinn is neurotic and afraid: a rat trapped in the "mean streets"/cage of The Big Apple.   But he's not just your average crook, either. He's a hustler with delusions of grandeur and a creeping suspicion he'd be happier in prison, a place where he would be taken care of by the state, and perhaps do no harm to others. He'x an ex-junkie, an alcoholic, a loser...and yet you root for him to succeed.

In Q: The Winged Serpent, the audience gets to see all sides of Quinn, and some are appealing and some not.  For instance, as I wrote above, Quinn is trying to go "legit," and so the movie showcases his efforts to make it as a musician.  Efforts which are, I would estimate, pretty dire.   You haven't really lived until you've watched Michael Moriarity scat at a small bar piano.

And then, further de-romanticizing our already-unconventional protagonist, Quinn and his girlfriend argue over the fact that, on many occasions, he has gotten drunk and hit her.  This is a key part of Quinn's character.  When in a position of power, he's not just a small time loser, he's dangerous...and mean.  We see it in his treatment of his girlfriend, but also in the way Quinn holds the City hostage, and, of course, in his brutal, deliberate act of feeding two criminals to Quetzlcoatl.  He brushes off the latter act as self-defense.

Quinn clearly is against-type in monster movies, as I've enumerated above.  But what makes him truly fascinating is his dawning sense of self-realization that he is, to put it mildly,  a creep.  Cohen gives Moriarity a great monologue -- a clear analog to an important moment for Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy in Elia Kazan's On The Waterfront (1954) -- where he reflects that he's been a bum all his life, and that if things were different, he would change that fact.  "All my life I've been nobody," he reflects, "now I can be somebody."

Moriarity's Quinn is the glue that holds together Q: The Winged Serpent, and more than that, the very point of the movie.  Here's a guy who discovers a man-eating monster, and decides to use that knowledge to better his position in life.

Importantly, Quinn's rather heartless approach to life is pointedly contrasted with the efforts of the ritualistic serial killer, who also uses the lives of others to remake the world in an image he prefers.

Amidst all of this selfish behavior -- a perfect reflection of the young, upwardly mobile values of the early 1980s -- Quetzlcoatl and its just-hatched offspring seem like true innocents.  The real "monster" in this monster movie isn't the man-eating beast with razor sharp talons, but the kind of man who would use tragedy and pain to make a personal fortune.  There may even be a debate here about human nature.  The Q operates by its nature (to kill in order to survive), but what about Quinn?  Is he just acting according to human nature, or is he representative of the worst of human nature?

The special effects of Q: The Winged Serpent are clearly of their age, featuring very-good stop-motion animation from Dave Allen.  The monster really look pretty good in several impressive shots.  One of my favorite compositions in the film involves a nifty jump scare in which Carradine turns his back on an open window, and the giant serpent lunges in behind him (above).  The film's final battle, with police battling Quetzcoatl from perches atop The Chrysler Building, is also strong, and evokes clear memories of King Kong (1933) and the Empire State Building finale.   But the monster scenes are largely not the point.  This is a movie about what might really happen if a crook discovered a monster, not a movie about a monster's reign of terror. 

Another perpetual joy in Q: The Winged Serpent is the witty screenplay. Cohen's staccato, rat-a-tat, authentic "city" dialogue has been termed tongue-in-cheek in some circles, but in fact it plays as funny because it is so deadpan and earnest, so true.  If a monster were attacking New York City, wouldn't you expect to hear people asking questions like: "Did you find that construction worker's head yet?"  It may seem silly, but it is situationally-appropriate. In short, Q: The Winged Serpent accepts and internalizes its bizarre premise, and that forges amusing dialogue (especially for David Carradine's character) from that real situation.

It's an equation that, for me, really works well.  This is one of those movies that may not seem great in a traditional or conventional sense, but which you just can't take your eyes or ears off of.

More than one critic has also pointed out how the 1998 Godzilla seems to play more closely on aspects of Q: The Winged Serpent than the Gojira mythos.  It's an interesting observation, and not entirely without merit.

For instance, both films end on the exact same cliffhanging note: evidence that an unhatched monster -- an egg -- remains even after the final, urban battle with the Mommy Lizard.

But where Godzilla was a colossal, focus-group tested, market-driven blockbuster, Q: The Winged Serpent is a much more intimate and human-scaled film.  Again, this  approach is just incredibly unconventional in terms of the monster movie sub-genre.  When you consider the greats of the form, you begin to detect how the classics play with form and expectations.  Such innovation may be done with special effects (King Kong [1933]), a blazing political context (Godzilla: King of Monsters), or a man-on-the-street point-of-view (Cloverfield [2008]).  I'd argue Q: The Winged Serpent belongs on that select monster movie list precisely because it is so odd and so personal ,and because it uses the story of a giant serpent almost as background noise for the character study of a memorable creep.

Because Q: The Winged Serpent so expertly grounds its wildest fantasy concepts with a study of Moriarity's sleazy little loser, this film from 1982 truly mimics the soaring behavior of its titular flying serpent.


Q: The Winged Serpent flies so close to the sun, it momentarily blinds you.  

2 comments:

  1. I remember going to see this at Saturday morning matinee with no expectations other than that it would be a low-budget monster movie. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was so much more. Moriarty's performance was mesmerizing. My only criticism was that I felt the detectives could have found the location of the nest on their own if they hadn't been so boneheaded. Of course, then we wouldn't have had a movie since Moriarty's character was the central focus.

    When people think of 1982, they think of movies like ET and Chariots of Fire, but you've pointed out how many great low-budget movies were out there as well. No wonder I spent so much time in a movie theatre back then.

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  2. I really love this Larry Cohen low-budget exploitation film. And the fact that it's based in New York makes it that much more clever and familiar (his HELL UP IN HARLEM and BLACK CAESAR exploitation films were located there and are 70s classics). As you and I mentioned in another post, the backdrop of using a city most associated with Capitalism, along with a ancient god that demanded human sacrifice, juxtaposes the two in way that's slyly entertaining.

    Plus, Michael Moriarity's performance is so damn diverting, along with being a character pitch perfect for the subject of doing anything it takes to make it in that town. Having it coincide with the era of early Ronald Reagan administration and this was ideal for the time, too. Finally, having the monster god nest in the distinctively ornate Chrysler Building (one known for its architectural gargoyles) was just plain slick in its use of a New York landmark.

    I did appreciate the supporting cast, as well. David Carradine, Candy Clark, and our man Shaft (Richard Roundtree, performing his duty wearing the red shirt in this landing party) were a joy. Plus, you gotta love the stop motion SFX and some grisly make-up artistry to top it off. For fans of the genre, this was an under-appreciated 80s gem.

    Well done, John. Thanks.

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