Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Q: The Winged Serpent

Back in the mid-1980s, I think it was when I lived in Chicago, I caught the video of Q, a stop-motion-animated monster flick written and directed by B-movie guru Larry Cohen (It's Alive, It Lives Again, Island of the Alive, The Stuff, The Phone Booth, et. al.). I thought it was reasonably good fun, but I never saw it again afterward, and pretty much forgot it ever existed. A couple of weeks back, the movie's name popped up on my computer, I think while browsing titles to add to my Netflix queue. I figured, what the heck, I'd give it another look, as I do love my B movies, especially the flicks I remember from the heyday of the drive-in movie theater.

Now, I never saw Q at the drive-in, but this one is consummate outdoor movie fare. It came out in '82, when drive-ins were already on the decline, so it missed the glory days of the prior couple of decades, but as pure shlock, Q fits right in with the best (or worst) of the grindhouse pictures of the 1960s and 70s. From the opening notes of the score by Robert O. Ragland (The Touch of Satan, The Thing With Two Heads, Grizzly, et. al.), you can smell the popcorn and exhaust fumes. The film's production values are anything but extravagant, but its Manhattan setting offers some intriguing scenery, everything from intimate shots of its seediest backstreets to panoramic aerial views of New York City in all its splendor. There's enough gore and coarse language to justify its R rating, at least for its day; some entertaining, if sparse special effects; and... Michael Moriarty.

A handful of other recognizable names/faces appear here — David Carradine, Richard Roundtree, Candy Clark, and Eddie Jones — but Moriarty, one of Larry Cohen's staple performers, chews and chews his way through this movie, playing manic-depressive two-bit crook Jimmy Quinn, who, despite more than plentiful foibles, might just become the savior of the Big Apple. I recall during my first viewing of Q, way back in the day, it struck me as mostly too talky, with people scenes aplenty and monsters too few. But with the perhaps questionable benefit of age and experience here, I can tell you that Moriarty — a reliable talent in countless movies and TV series — is a joy to behold, his character offering up dizzying mood swings, ridiculous soliloquies, and an almost likeable manner, despite needing his teeth punched out in every other scene. It's Moriarty more than the monster that drives the movie's momentum, such as it is, and it can safely said that, without him, there probably wouldn't be enough here to justify paying for the popcorn.

It goes like this. People are disappearing from unlikely places — window washers from their precarious 40th-floor perches, young women sunbathing on rooftop terraces, construction workers from high-rise girders. At the same time, several mutilated bodies turn up, all bearing all the hallmarks of Aztec ritual slaughter. NYPD Detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) are at first baffled, but with the help of young Quinn, who, during his escape from a bungled diamond store robbery, sees the murderous beast up close and personal, they piece together an unlikely scenario: someone is conducting ritual murders in order to placate the fearsome Aztec serpent god, Quetzalcoatl, who has decided to pay the Big Apple a big old ugly visit. Indeed, the winged serpent is alive and quite animated (courtesy of David Allen, Randy Cook, and Peter Kuran), having taken up residence in the uppermost reaches of the Chrysler Building.

Once it's ascertained that the beast exists, they need a plan to destroy it. And who should come up with the means to do so but our all-but-failed, mostly cowardly hood, Mr. Jimmy Quinn.

Larry Cohen enjoys his police procedural stories, and Q's extensive police drama is well enough done, with Carradine and Roundtree occasionally expending a modicum of energy in otherwise dry, two-dimensional roles. At one point, after a particularly close call with the monster, Carradine glances at his partner, looks momentarily bemused, and then says, "Big!" with a little chuckle. I don't know whether the scene was ad-libbed, but it does present a welcome moment of spontaneity from someone other than Moriarty.

With Q, it goes without saying you're not getting sophisticated entertainment, but if you're a fan of stop-motion animation, the critter is right fun, and for the people scenes, Michael Moriarty — with the tiniest bit of help from Carradine — adds energy by the bucket load. I'd put this movie neck and neck with The Crater Lake Monster for cheap, fun, late grindhouse–era entertainment. Not one I'm likely to watch again anytime soon, if ever, but at least it made for one evening of solid amusement.

Three out of five Damned Rodan's Dirty Firetinis.
The winged serpent scouting for an appetizer
Jimmy Quinn has a brilliant idea, or a million.
Have a heart, Mr. Aztec High Priest dude!
Unlike many reptilian monstrosities of our acquaintance, substantial amounts of
small arms fire inflict Q with a case of heartburn.

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