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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 appropriate. In short, Q: The Winged Serpent accepts and internalizes its bizarre premise, and that acceptane 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 ), a blazing political context (Godzilla: King of Monsters), or a man-on-the-street point-of-view (Cloverfield ).
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.
Q: The Winged Serpent flies so close to the sun, it momentarily blinds you.