Somewhere high up in the steel and glass and concrete canyons of Manhattan, a window washer finishes up his daily routine by ogling a certain female wholesaler on the 40th floor by trying really hard not to look like he’s ogling at her. But the woman is on to Mr. Subtle as she relays what an ass he’s making of himself to someone on the phone and does her best to just ignore him. Then, a massive shadow passes by the window, followed by a sudden rush of wind, the man screams, and when the saleswoman spins around she takes up these screams as a headless corpse falls from sight and leaves the safety harness swinging empty in the breeze.
When Detective Shepard (Carradine) and his partner, Detective Powell (Roundtree), show up all thoughts of this being an accident or just a suicidal jumper are put on hold when the victim’s head cannot be located; and from the neck down it appears to have been torn off quite savagely. Still, odds are good the body just got caught on something on the way down and the missing appendage will turn up eventually. But then the day gets even stranger for Shepard and Powell as they are next called to a crime scene in a hotel room, where the murdered victim was skinned alive.
Elsewhere, Jimmy Quinn, a small-time hood and recovering drug addict, is not having a very good day. Seems Quinn, a former wheelman who’s been trying to keep it on the straight and narrow for his girl, Joan, was coerced into actively participating in a heist of -- wait for it -- Neil’s Diamond Exchange. (Wow.) Things go staggeringly awry, and Jimmy is the only one from the crew who managed to escape the store in the resulting shootout with a valise full of diamonds -- only to realize he’s lost his car keys, then gets hit by a taxi cab while fleeing on foot, and then watches helplessly as the diamonds are lost in the resulting confusion. And as the police dragnet closes in around him, Jimmy limps into the nearby Chrysler Building, where his lawyer’s office is located, and tries to make himself scarce somewhere inside when the man he’s seeking is out to lunch.
Now, this "somewhere" turns out to be way up in the tower that crowns the skyscraper, where, after eluding a security guard, Jimmy makes his way up into what is essentially an open air atrium. Here, to his shock and horror, Jimmy discovers some grisly skeletal remains of several people that have been mostly picked clean. And after trying and failing to remove a valuable looking bracelet from one of the cadavers, Jimmy is drawn further up into the tower and makes an even more shocking discovery: a nest, and nestled inside it amongst all the bloody bones is a rather large egg. And when he hears what most likely laid that egg coming in for a landing, Jimmy vacates the tower as whatever he heard has since landed and, judging by all the crunching and slurping, starts to feed on another victim.
Meanwhile, meanwhile, on top of all the disappearing high rise construction workers and rooftop dwellers, another body that fits the bizarre modus operandi of the killer who flayed the corpse in the hotel room has turned up; only this one had their heart removed while it was still, well, in service. Following a hunch, Shepard consults with a cultural anthropologist from the Museum of Natural History, who agrees these victims appear to be all part of some ritualistic human sacrifice ceremony. And, this expert sees certain similarities between the killer’s handiwork and an ancient Aztec cult, who offered massive human sacrifices to their god, Quetzalcoatl. And as he hears a description of what this winged serpent looked like, at least in legend, Shephard starts to openly wonder if these ritual killings and the missing high-risers are somehow connected -- the growing number of credible eyewitnesses swear they saw a large bird after all. But before he leaves to make his report, after a quick philosophical debate on the existence of gods and monsters, the curator leaves the detective with this nugget: according to the lore, the victims for the Aztec rituals had to be willing sacrifices for any of this to work -- at least in theory.
Back in the safety of his apartment, Jimmy has a near nervous breakdown while trying to describe to Joan (Clark) what he saw and heard, who doesn’t believe him and fears he has started using drugs again to spin such a fantastical yarn. This discussion then turns into a full blown row -- in what appears to be another in a long line of them, and Joan is luckily long gone to cool off before Jimmy’s silent partners in the botched robbery show up looking for him, wanting to know where those diamonds he absconded with went. And after a brief chase and little roughing up, Webb and Doyle (Page, Capodice) don’t buy it when Jimmy reveals what really happened. And as they prepare to beat their version of the truth out of him, Jimmy caves and promises to take them where he stashed the loot -- in the Chrysler Building.
Seems Jimmy ain’t so dumb after all as he leads the other men into a trap after they pistol-whip the guard and proceed up into the tower, where Quetzalcoatl incarnate, apparently, makes short work of these two hoodlums. And as it noisily feeds, an overjoyed Jimmy cheers his rescuer on, screaming, “Eat ‘em! Yeah! Crunch! Crunch! Eat ‘em up!” But as he leaves, odds are good these two men won’t be the flying serpent’s last victims. It also appears to be getting larger with each victim sacrifice and body consumed, meaning the whole city will soon be in danger. And only Jimmy knows where the monster is nesting...
Ever since he was a kid, Larry Cohen possessed a voracious appetite for the movies, spending a good chunk of his youth at the local theater catching double bills, favoring film noir and hard-boiled detective stories filled with hard-drinking and hard-fisted gumshoes and femme fatales based on the novels of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Mickey Spillane. He later landed a job as a page at NBC in New York, where he kept his eyes and ears open, learning the craft of TV production, and soon began writing and selling teleplays -- The Defenders, The Fugitive, and created the TV-series The Invaders and Branded, and also wrote a few feature films -- Return of the Magnificent Seven (1966), Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (1969).
By 1970, perhaps tired of the lack of creative control on his scripts, Cohen took the next step by writing, producing, and directing his first feature, Bone (1972) -- a/k/a Dial Rat for Terror, a socially conscious thriller -- soon to be the director’s trademark as he continued making films with a lot of bite throughout the 1970s be it blaxploitation -- Black Caesar (1973), Hell Up in Harlem (1973), or horror -- It’s Alive (1974), God Told Me To (1976).
At the dawn of the 1980s, Cohen secured the screen rights to remake Spillane’s most infamous Mike Hammer novel, I, The Jury, which put the ‘hard’ in hard-boiled and was first adapted to film back in 1953 by Victor Saville and Harry Essex. And considering the social and cultural impact of Spillane's source novel, it probably deserved a better cinematic debut than that quick to screen cash-in. But this new version was to be the first part of what Cohen had envisioned as a trilogy of Mike Hammer films as he finished his adapted screenplay and secured financing through American Cinema Productions (ACP). From there, Cohen rounded up his cast, including almost discovering Bruce Willis for the lead but went with the studio dictated Armand Assante instead, and started scouting locations in New York City, where he insisted the film be shot, on location, feeling Hammer was “a New Yorker in both personality and toughness."
But after three weeks of rehearsals and only one week of filming, Cohen was abruptly fired off the picture. According to ACP, after that initial week, he was already over schedule and $100,000 over-budget and pulled the plug, citing Cohen’s loose and time consuming improvisational style. According to Cohen, he felt things were fishy with the financing from the get go and felt some of the budget went “somewhere else” and started expressing these concerns to the cast and crew, fearing the film might be dead in the water. These rumors got back to ACP, who also weren’t too thrilled with some of the dramatic liberties Cohen had taken while adapting the novel, most specifically an implied homosexual infatuation between two old war buddies, and he was out, replaced with Richard Heffron. Which version is true? Who can say. Maybe a combination of both. But it should be noted that ACP went bankrupt not long after Heffron’s completed film tanked at the box office.
But before all that happened, after he was initially relieved from duty, Cohen was stuck in a hotel room he’d paid for, where the rest of the cast and crew for I, The Jury were staying, and got a little itchy and feared he’d never work again after getting fired for “being difficult.” And as he sat in this hotel and stewed, perhaps he saw the Chrysler Building out his window. An Art Deco inspired skyscraper located at the intersection of 42nd Street and Lexington Avenue in Midtown Manhattan since it was completed in 1930, Cohen had always been fascinated by the building’s near brush with fame when it was almost chosen for the climax of King Kong (1933) only to lose out to the Empire State Building, and its steel guardian gargoyles, avian in nature, thinking the top spire would make an excellent nesting grounds for a giant terror bird.
This idea had always stuck with him, and knowing he needed something fast to salvage his career, Cohen decided then and there he needed to make a movie on his own, and quick, and hashed out a treatment for a film about a couple of cops and a no-account hood trying to deal with the aftermath of human sacrifices resurrecting an ancient winged Aztec god, which swoops around Manhattan, snatching people off of roofs and devouring them, when not tending its nest nestled atop of, you guessed it, the Chrysler Building.
Things quickly picked up steam when Cohen ran into actor Michael Moriarty at a restaurant near the hotel, who read the treatment and liked the Jimmy Quinn loser role so much he signed on. Cohen then called in David Carradine, who agreed to be in the picture without even reading the script or knowing who or what his character was. For financing, Cohen turned to his old friend, Sam Arkoff, with whom he’d worked back in the 1970s for American International Pictures. Arkoff had since sold off his shares of AIP but was ready to start over with Arkoff International Pictures, and gave Cohen a budget of around one million dollars for his monster picture in less than 24 hours. And all of that -- from the hotel room, to the concept, to the financing, to casting, to the first day of filming on Q! The Winged Serpent (1982), took a grand total of six days. Six. Days.
Carradine later recalled how he flew to New York, stepped off the plane, shot his first scene in the bar where Moriarity failed his audition before being coerced into the robbery, and then was given a script -- what little script there was, as the whole film feels heavily improvised. Not a knock, as all the actors appear up to the task as Cohen and his crew shot around New York, guerilla-style, with no permits on most occasions. Apparently, Cohen was initially denied permission to film in the dome of the Chrysler Building. And once he got up there, he was surprised to find the facade had many large openings with no safety rails, making for a fairly scary filmmaking experience.
Now, there’s a scene in God Told Me To, where Cohen dressed up Andy Kaufman as a cop, snuck him into New York City’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and filmed him murdering someone with the crowd totally unaware. At the end of Black Caesar, when Fred Williamson’s mortally wounded character stumbled down the streets of Harlem, he had to shoo off several concerned citizens who tried to help him and nearly ruined the shot. In Q!, I love the scenes when the citizens of New York react to the blood and gore falling from the sky, shot on the fly, giving the film a certain kind of frisson that can’t be manufactured on a lot. And I also dug how Cohen asked Moriarity what he was listening to on his Walkman between takes. Turns out the tape was full of Moriarity’s own musical recordings. Cohen gave a listen, dug the Caucasian scat, and not only worked it into the script with Jimmy Quinn being a failed musician on top of being a failure at everything else, but several of Moriarity’s songs wound up on the soundtrack.
And to think, if Jimmy had only been hired on at the bar as piano player, he wouldn’t have been involved with the heist and would’ve never found Quetzalcoatl's nest. But, dominos, man. Dominos. And that’s why Jimmy’s gets pinched on the way home from the Chrysler Building. Seems his other cohorts in the diamond heist got caught in the act and ratted out Jimmy, Doyle and Webb. In fact, they’re saying Jimmy is the one who orchestrated the whole thing. Jimmy, of course, denies this and swears he doesn’t know where the other two men are. He and Powell also have some history, as Jimmy accuses the detective of planting some smack on him which netted Jimmy his first prison stretch. And as the two-time ex-con sweats it out at the precinct, he overhears a conversation between Shepard, Powell and their Lieutenant.
Seems another person got snatched from a rooftop. Only this time there were over 40 witnesses who saw a giant monster swoop in and snare the victim from a pool located on top of a condominium, meaning they can no longer deny the existence of a giant terror bird being loose over Manhattan. Here, Shepard makes his pitch to connect the two cases, saying whoever committed the ritual murders has more or less prayed this ancient monster back into existence. And as these two plot threads collide, Jimmy sees his chance and makes his play to clean up his record and extort a million dollar payoff from the city. And once he proves his claims are legit (-- describing the bracelet found on the corpse, which is linked to one of the missing persons), and gets a signed agreement on his full pardon, payoff, and the commercial rights to exploit the monster and the egg, he promises to reveal where the bird is nesting.
And as the city officials mull over this offer, first, Joan fails to get Jimmy to forget the brass ring and just do the right thing, pretty much marking the end of their volatile relationship, and second, Shepard nearly tricks Jimmy into revealing where the nest is before the city caves into his demands. Thus, as a SWAT team is assembled to take out the bird, Shepard is ordered by his superiors to destroy his report linking the monster to an ancient god. A monster is one thing, proof of an ancient deity is another. But the bird isn’t home when Shepard leads the strike team into the dome, where they destroy the egg and kill the premature hatchling. With that, Shepard informs Jimmy his deal is off since he didn’t deliver the mama bird as promised. And to get Jimmy to play along with the cover-up, he’s threatened with murder charges on Doyle and Webb, saying he led them there for the express purpose of getting them eaten.
And as Jimmy raves, threatens to sue, and runs Joan off for good, cut back to the Museum of Natural History, where a cop on stakeout, dressed as a mime of all things, has spotted a likely suspect. Seems the killer has been meeting his victims at the museum in the Aztec exhibit. And now, a surgical student named Kaea (Desai) is their prime suspect, who’s just left with another man. Powell is called in to tail them with the mime-cop -- Shepard remains at the Chrysler Building, waiting for the bird to come back, with the SWAT team, and they trace them to a warehouse, where they interrupt the sacrifice already in progress. But the bloodied victim goes berserk and attacks them, allowing the High Priest of Quetzalcoatl to escape during the confusion. And as Powell and Mime-Cop chase him across several rooftops, Quetzalcoatl attacks out of nowhere and kills Powell, much to the distress of Mime-Cop, allowing Kaea to getaway.
Quetzalcoatl then returns to the Chrysler Building, where Shepard waits in ambush, leading to a fairly rousing pitched-battle as dozens of cops open fire on the circling terror bird with machine guns. And after plucking several officers off the parapets and tossing them to their doom, the great serpent god proves mortal and soon falls from the sky, crashing into another building on the way down first, before it finally expires and finishes plummeting to the street below.
And as the dust settles, Jimmy has raised enough of a stink in the press to get on Kaea’s radar, who attacks Jimmy in his seedy hotel room. (Joan has kicked him to the curb.) But he must coerce Jimmy into willingly saying a prayer to Quetzalcoatl before he takes his heart. Jimmy refuses, which stalls things long enough for Shepard to catch up and empty his revolver into Kaea. Thinking both cases are now officially closed, we cut once more to the skies over Manhattan, where we take on the POV of something flying around, which comes in for a landing in some derelict building where another giant egg is percolating and waiting to hatch.
As the legend goes in the Film Gospel of Roger Ebert, a few days after Q! The Winged Serpent was screened at the Cannes Film Festival, film critic Rex Reed talked to Sam Arkoff, saying he just saw the film and “What a surprise! All that dreck -- and right in the middle of it, a great Method performance by Michael Moriarty!” And without batting an eye, Arkoff answered, “The dreck was my idea.” Truth told, of course, the dreck was all Larry Cohen’s idea -- and Moriarity's eccentric performance definitely makes this movie tick, but it’s easy to see the connection between this throwback monster movie and Arkoff’s glory days at American International. I mean, just look at the gorgeous poster by artist Boris Vallejo and the wonderful tagline -- "It's name is Quetzalcoatl ... Just call it Q. That's all you'll have time to say before it tears you apart!" Hot damn. Somewhere, and in some graveyard, Arkoff’s former partner Jim Nicholson just sat-up in his coffin and applauded.
To pull the monster in the poster off, Dave Allen -- Equinox (1970), When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth (1970), Randall William Cook -- who would go on to win several Oscars for his work in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Peter Kuran -- Robocop (1987), Starship Troopers (1997), handled the stop-motion animation, while Roger Dicken, Dennis Gordon and Deed Rossitet built the miniatures the monster interacted with. Like with everything else, the FX were rushed, and it kinda shows in spots, but the motion is fluid and pretty seamless when matted in.
And when combined with the spectacular aerial POV shots of downtown New York gives the miniature monster a real sense of a living and breathing menace -- that breaks down just a tad when the giant chicken claw prop is employed. With those scenes, the film falls into straight-up parody territory. And with Ray Harryhausen calling it a career after Clash of the Titans (1981) and with the computer assisted animation of the dragon in Dragonslayer (1981), Q! The Winged Serpent would pretty much be the last of its kind when it came to hands on stop-motion animation of this magnitude in a feature film.
The usual Cohen social commentary is also present and accounted for as he takes several potshots at organized religion. I love the conversation Shepard has with the curator, when the detective expresses how a modern day New Yorker are less likely to believe in a serpent god like the primitive Aztecs did and is told they would if they feared it enough. For what is God but some invisible entity that we fear. And maybe over the years we anthropomorphized god into the bearded gent we see in Bible stories when maybe it used to be some giant flying reptile that has since gone extinct? To Cohen’s eyes, there isn’t much difference between the zeal of someone consuming the flesh and blood of Christ through wine and a communal wafer and the zealotry of a high priest and a willing zealot ready to give up their hearts to feed and appease the spirit of their version of god -- which at least rewards this faith with a physical manifestation and solid proof of its existence.
Aside from the metaphysical stuff, there’s nothing better than watching a Larry Cohen movie where the director and his cinematographer -- in this case, Fred Murphy, run around New York City, capturing the last vestiges of good old Dirty NYC before the urban makeover of the 1990s as it captures the squalor, grittiness and the melting pot at the street level, but then also captures the city’s epic grandeur as it soars above and takes in the distinct skyline. And in the end, it kinda makes you wish Cohen had spent a little more time developing the film and the script (-- there’s way too many instances of Carradine nearly losing it as he stumbles through his hastily memorized lines), and a little more money to pull it off. For while Q! The Winged Serpent is a helluva lot of fun as is, one cannot help but think of how great the film could’ve been.
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Q! The Winged Serpent (1982) Arkoff International :: Larco Productions :: United Film Distribution Company / EP: Dick Di Bona, Dan Sandburg, Samuel Z. Arkoff / P: Larry Cohen / AP: Paul Kurta / LP: Salah M. Hassanein / D: Larry Cohen / W: Larry Cohen / C: Fred Murphy / E: Armond Lebowitz / M: Robert O. Ragland / S: Michael Moriarty, David Carradine, Candy Clark, Richard Roundtree, James Dixon, Larry Pine