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A defense: “Q: The Winged Serpent”

April 17, 2012

This week on the Bad Movie Fiends Podcast (or “Bamfcast” for brevity), the crew watched Q: The Winged Serpent, a movie heavily endorsed by me and some others. To my immense shame and chagrin, the guys did not enjoy it, with three of the four awarding it various numbers of “bags” (i.e. stars in a normal review), which is short for “douchebags,” a yardstick using the movie Twilight as a barometer. That’s right: I recommended a movie these guys likened to Twilight. If this were feudal Japan, I would have no option to commit ritual seppuku.  But it’s not, so I didn’t do that. What I will do, however, is mount my defense of Q, a movie that I maintain is one of the better B-movies you’ll find.

If you’re not familiar with the film, Q: The Winged Serpent is about a giant flying reptile–an Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl–who is willed into existence by a cult practicing ritual sacrifice. This flying reptile is doing what you’d expect any flying reptile to do: it nests in the Chrysler building and eats New Yorkers. Working the case are cops David Carradine and Richard Roundtree. Unfortunately, the only guy who knows where the nest is happens to be a two-bit hood named Quinn (Michael Moriarty). There, you’re up to speed. This what I like about the movie:

* Michael Moriarty’s performance: This is the major point of contention for the Bamfcasters, who found Moriarty’s Quinn grating and given far too much screen time. For me, however, Moriarty’s lunatic performance truly is a thing to behold. If you remember him as ADA Ben Stone, you know what I mean. The most oft-quoted piece of trivia about this movie is a story Roger Ebert told about when critic Rex Reed met the movie’s producer Samuel Arkoff. Reed told him “What a surprise! All that dreck—and right in the middle of it, a great Method performance by Michael Moriarty!” Arkoff replied “The dreck was my idea.”  And Reed is right, Moriarty’s performance is amazing—as well as bug-nuts insane (about par for the course for an actor so off-the-reservation that Hollywood won’t even deal with anymore). I suppose director Larry Cohen could have reeled him in a bit, instead of letting him devour every piece of scenery in sight, but hey, if you’re making a low-budget movie, and you get a guy improvising a performance like this, wouldn’t you keep the cameras rolling?

"What? Yeah, sure you can rant about the federal government, we'll keep filming."

* Everyone else’s performance: For low-budget grindhouse fare, everyone’s really game in this movie. Check out David Carradine, as the only cop who know what the score is (the score being, Aztec bird god: 5; NYC: 0). He projects effortless cool, never quite taking the movie seriously, but never phoning it in, either (as he would in his later direct-to-DVD movies). He actually looks like he’s having fun with the role; talking Aztec gods, collecting a paycheck (his best line, after damn near getting eaten by the monster: “Big”). Ditto Richard Roundtree, who pretty much just puts it in “badass” gear and spends the whole movie glowering and snarling at the idiocy surrounding him. Maybe he wasn’t acting. Either way, he’s fun to watch. If this movie were made today as a pump-and-dump SyFy Channel movie of the week, we’d get a couple of has-beens phoning it in and some never-weres who couldn’t act their way out of a paper bag.

* The Monster: Call me sentimental, but I think the herky-jerky stop-action winged serpent has more charm than the cruddy CGI beasties that populate today’s movies. It’s not a good effect, by any stretch of the imagination, but the movie would almost be worse for it if it was.

Behold the god Quetzalcoalt in all his claymation glory!

* Location, location, location:  The movie is filmed on location in New York City and atop the Chrysler building, which gives it an authentic gritty feeling, unlike most of the low-budget movies being produced today, which have the most generic settings imaginable.

* The Anarchy: Somewhat informed by the location, Cohen’s movie has the caffeinated, improvised feel of a movie shot in eighteen days. Dialogue is yammered, edits are jarring, people step on each other’s lines, and every scene seems chattering with ambient, background noise. All-in-all it’s a great portrayal of urban life in the early ‘80s, when the decay of the 1970s had been, if not reversed, at least staunched. When Quinn makes a comment about suing the city, Carradine’s shrugging response, “Why not? Everyone else is,” seems a perfect response to the world around him. I originally recommended the Bamfcasters review this movie as a part of their series on movies of the 1980s, but they went with Class of 1999 instead. I still maintain this is a better window into the movies of that era.

* David Carradine shoots a giant lizard in the face with a machine gun: If that’s not what we go to the movies for, well, I don’t know what is.

"Sup."

Ultimately, what I find so refreshing about Q: The Winged Serpent is that it is very much a unique specimen. Why is there an undercover cop dressed as a mime? Dunno. Somebody working on the movie had a brainstorm or heard about an NYPD cop who went undercover as a mime. Either way, it’s not something you’re likely to see in too many other monster movies. If this was made today it would look like Raptor Island or Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus. Today, with the myriad outlets for B-movies, they’ve become as mass-produced and generic as any other Hollywood product. Q is a throwback to a time when even B-movies had to be creative and dangerous, because they would be played in movie theaters and had to entice people to plunk down their hard-earned money (after braving a hazardous Times Square).

So, guys, I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy Q. I’ll have to find some way to make it up to you. (Oh, and Chuck? The Stuff is a treasure we’ll have to keep to ourselves…)

One comment

  1. After your other recommendations, if there’s anyone that doesn’t need to feel shame, it’s you! Sometimes we just don’t have the nostalgia or frame of reference for movies of that era (even if, given our ages, we really should.)

    One thing I will reiterate is that I honestly think I’d love this movie if Michael Moriarty wasn’t the main character. I found myself wanting more Richard Roundtree and David Carradine running around early ’80s crap NYC tracking down a cool-looking dragon thing. There would have been a lot more emphasis on characters that were likable and it would have focused the movie a bit more. As it stands, this movie really has no idea what it is. Monster flick? Serial killer movie? Cop procedural? Crime drama? It tries to do all of them and doesn’t particularly succeed at any of them. If there’s one thing the best B-movie filmmakers know, it’s that you pick your genre and you only sprinkle a tiny bit of something else in there unless you REALLY know what you’re doing. Larry Cohen didn’t seem to know what he was doing. Ambition is a good thing, but not when you’ve got a shoestring budget and 18 days to pull it off.



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