Monday, May 6, 2013
"Q" is for Q - The Winged Serpent
In the continuing effort to maintain a "Larry Cohen" presence on the Blogorium, it only made sense to include his 1982 film Q - The Winged Serpent (aka "Q") in The ABCs of Movie Masochism. While it may not be as well known as The Stuff or It's Alive or even just movies Cohen wrote like Maniac Cop, I thought it deserved a place in the alphabet of film reviews. Also, it starts with Q - all by itself, in fact. Take that, The Quiet Man!
Q - The Winged Serpent is often trying to hold together three separate movies together, even if they barely fit together when, in theory, they should all nicely dovetail into one story:
First is a neo-noir-ish story about a down on his luck guy named Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty), who really just wants to play piano in a bar but keeps getting dragged into robberies because they pay. Jimmy's convinced that he can hit the big time and then enjoy the easy life, even though it's clear to the audience - not to mention his much beleaguered girlfriend (Candy Clark) - that he's a total loser. When the heist he agrees to drive for goes south, Jimmy - who has strongarmed into joining the robbery - loses the diamonds, is hit by a car, and discovers that his lawyer won't return his calls. This, of course, after he walks to the Chrysler building to go to his office. But instead of legal representation, he runs into a security guard happy to chase him up to the top of the building...
Meanwhile, two cops who have seen it all. played by David Carradine and Richard Roundtree, are busting noses and talking shit to any perp who crosses their path. They get roped into investigating a series of ritualistic murders that involve the victim being skinned alive, with no apparent motive behind the killings. When Shepard (Carradine) follows a hunch to the natural history museum, he discovers that rituals much like the murders taking place around New York resemble sacrifices made to the Aztec god Quetzlcoatl.
Meanwhile meanwhile, a giant flying lizard monster is picking up people and eating them - if they're lucky - mostly at random but generally speaking if they happen to be on top of a building. It doesn't care much about subtlety, so body parts drop onto the street and freak people out. The police are convinced it's some kind of big bird or something, but Shepard begins to wonder if their "flying lizard" might be Quetzlcoatl. Could the rituals be tied to the appearance of this monster?
The answer is.... maybe? The people doing the murdering seem to think so, but the titular "Q" seems to be tooling around town whether or not the sacrifices are being committed, so I guess it's up to how you interpret the ritual's meaning. Or something. I don't think it was part of the plan for Quetzlcoatl to nest at the top of the Chrysler building, but that sure is what Jimmy Quinn finds when he's hiding out from a security guard who gives up almost immediately.
Here's where you'd think everything would tie together - see, Shepard goes to the bar where Jimmy is trying out his "piano man" routine one night, so we know they're going to cross paths again. The monster is pretty much just there to punctuate endless "investigation" scenes so that we can see Q kill a guy watching someone do push-ups or a construction worker who has his lunch stolen by the foreman - don't forget the gratudity from a topless sunbather! But seriously, what's going on with this movie?
Instead of pulling everything together, Cohen has Quinn lure two mobsters up to the top of the building to be killed by the winged serpent, then Jimmy goes home and abuses his girlfriend and eventually ends up in the police station for questioning, when he FINALLY decides to tell them that he knows what's been eating people. But only if they make a deal with him wherein he's not culpable for any crime he may have committed or ever will commit. Oh, and also money and exclusive picture rights.
Then we eventually get the police to the Chrysler building while John Shaft - er, Powell - is hunting down the ritual killer with the help of an undercover cop dressed as a mime wearing an Amadeus shirt and vest. And then *SPOILER* Q just up and eats Richard Roundtree! From what I can tell, Shepard NEVER learns this pretty important fact. That, or he's so jaded by his years on the force that the death of the one other cop he seems to get along with doesn't even faze him. It could go either way with this movie.
It all eventually comes together, probably not in the order you expect, but by that point you're wondering what the point of Q - The Winged Serpent was. It's not a monster movie, or a gritty procedural, or even much of a neo-noir. Cohen tries to make it all three, but it's one too many genres to be juggling on a low budget, and the end result isn't as much fun as you'd hope for.
There are still things to enjoy - the monster is pretty cool and used minimally for long enough that it doesn't get silly. Cohen also shoots the movie on the real streets of New York, often with what I'd like to believe was a lack of permits. The shots are quick, especially around the heist (at Neil's Diamonds), which also uses the low budget to its advantage.
Fans of Reservoir Dogs will appreciate the economy of the jewel store robbery, which is told entirely from the outside of the building, so that the audience never sees how things go wrong, only Quinn's reaction as he comes hurtling outside with a briefcase full of purloined goods. It's worth noting that he's hit by the car first, which is what causes him to lose the briefcase in the street, but Jimmy never even bothers trying to find it. He just runs to a payphone to call his lawyer. Sure, we know he's a cowardly driver who didn't want to carry a gun or go in, but not looking for the jewelry is just silly.
Q - The Winged Serpent probably has just enough going for it to recommend, and it can be entertaining in fits and spurts. There's just a lot of excess fat in the movie, and trimming it down from 93 minutes to 80 or so might have helped considerably. Still, you get to see John Shaft and Kwai Chang Caine as buddy cops and Michael Moriarty play the most unlikable protagonist you're ever going to see. Other than Candy Clark, I'm not really sure which character in this movie we're supposed to be sympathizing with. Unless it's Quetzlcoatl.
Yeah, that has to be it. Clearly Quetzlcoatl is the hero of this film. I mean, that's why it ends the way it does, right?
Up Next: a buddy cop movie from Walter Hill that's much better than Bullet to the Head. Stay tuned...