Now supposing, just hypothetically, New York City came under attack by a giant, dragon-like monster that was, possibly, the incarnation of an ancient South American god. And suppose that this thing had a jones for human flesh and liked plucking the heads off window-washers and rooftop sunbathers and the like. Finally, suppose it was laying eggs around the city and had to be stopped before its brood grew up and moved on to, I guess, Boston and Buffalo.
Who would you call in to stop this beast?
If you answered, "Well, CRwM, I'd call in Caine, lanky master of the martial arts, and Shaft, detective and bad motherf . . . shut your mouth!" then cult auteur Larry Cohen likes the way you think.
New York is a city of immigrants. Since the Dutch sailed into the East River, wave after wave of newcomers have come to Manhattan searching for a better life for themselves and their kids. In Cohen's 1982 creature feature, Q: the Winged Serpent, the city's most recent newcomer is a giant man-eating dragon-thingy that feels Manhattan's copious food supply – or "residents" – and the wealth of primo nesting places makes the city the perfect place for a struggling single mother to start over. Unfortunately, even under the fairly lax immigration policies then in place, Ms. Q falls afoul of the NYPD, who dispatch Detectives Caine and Shaft to bring her down.
Running parallel to this main story are two separate subplots. The first involves a shadow cult of Q-worshipers who may have attracted the beast to the city with their blood sacrifices. The second, and more involved plot, follows a small-time thief who accidentally discovers Q's new penthouse crib and becomes the city's only chance of finding the creature in time to stop it. The first of these plots is pretty much disposable. The movie can never fully resolves whether or not Q's origins are supernatural or whether it is some ancient hold over. Tracking and confronting the cult, while good for a few action scenes and some of the films bits of middle-level gore, never feels crucial to the broader story. The story of the thief, played as a wonderfully annoying schlub by Law and Order's Michael Moriarty, is more integrated and is Cohen's only nod to the sort of moralizing he emphasizes in some of his other horror flicks: the environmentalism of It's Alive and the anti-consumerism corporate bashing of The Stuff (my personal favorite from the Cohen canon). While fleeing some thieves who think he's double-crossed them, Moriarty's character uncovers Q's nest. He informs the police that he'll lead them there, but then starts demanding money and pardons from the city. It has the potential to shape up into a Godzilla-meets-High and Low sort of thing, but it resolves too quickly in an effort to tighten up the pace and get back to the monster versus police action.
Visually, Q ties to marry the sort of gritty on-location feel of such NYC classics as The Taking of Pehlam One, Two, Three with the stop-motion SFX of a classic Harryhausen flick. The former it does pretty well, the latter it does with decidedly mixed results. The characterization is better than it needs to be. Carradine phones his role in and Roundtree is underused, but Moriarty is wonderfully grating in his role. The pacing is uneven. It feels like sections of the flick – especially scenes that would have more closely linked the whole cult subplot to the story – are missing. The final battle between cops and lizard-bird-god is fun and is a neat reverse of the climax of King Kong, with the airborne monster swooping down on the human combatants.
Q: the Winged Serpent is not a great flick. Even by Cohen's own standards, it is thin fare. It is clear that Cohen intended to make an entertaining monster movie and he did produce something that can fill a couple hours relatively painlessly. Still, if you're curious about the films of this notable indie filmmaker, I recommend you start with something else and come to this only if you feel the impulse to explore further. Using the rigorously scientific Performances of American Runner Meredith Rainey-Valmon Movie Rating Score, I'm giving Q a 1991 World Indoor Championships in Seville, Spain. This is a middling performance by a director that's done better.
SCREAMIN' EXTRA: Literary-mind viewers will want to keep an eye out of Malachy McCourt, New York icon, author, radio personality, and bother of famed author Frank McCourt (of Angela's Ashes fame), in the role of Police Commissioner McConnell. An Irishman? On the NYPD? What can't special effects do?