Next up in the Larry Cohen Collection is the monster movie “Q: The Winged Serpent,” starring Michael Moriarty and David Carradine.
“Q: The Winged Serpent” was written, directed, and produced by Larry Cohen. It was his ninth theatrical feature, following just one year after “Full Moon High.”
The cinematographer for “Q” was Fred Murphy, who has more recently provided photography for films like Stephen King’s “Secret Window” and the slasher mash-up “Freddy vs Jason.”
The effects team for “Q,” which was comprised of a number of model makers and stop motion experts, included David Allen (“Robot Jox,” “Laserblast,” “Dolls,” “The Stuff”), Randall Cook (“Laserblast,” “Fright Night,” “Ghostbusters,” “The Lord of the Rings”), Roger Dicken (“The Blood Beast Terror,” “White Dog,” “Alien”), Dennis Gordon (“Robot Jox,” “Demonic Toys,” “Shrek”), and Peter Kuran (“Lake Placid,” “RoboCop 3,” “Tango & Cash,” “Starship Troopers,” “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope”).
The music for “Q” was provided by a man named Robert O. Ragland, who has written scores for many b-movies over his career, including “The Touch of Satan,” “Grizzly,” and “10 to Midnight.”
One of the executive producers on “Q” was Paul Kurta, who has recently produced television shows like “Hell on Wheels” and “Veronica Mars.” He also produced a number of other Larry Cohen films, such as “Special Effects,” “The Stuff,” “Perfect Strangers,” “It’s Alive III,” and “A Return To Salem’s Lot,” as well as the cult classic “Empire Records” by Allan Moyle.
The cast for “Q: The Winged Serpent” included David Carradine (“Death Race 2000,” “Kill Bill”), Michael Moriarty (“The Stuff,” “It’s Alive III,” “Law & Order”), Candy Clark (“The Man Who Fell To Earth,” “American Graffiti”) Richard Roundtree (“Shaft,” “Brick”) Malachy McCourt (“Ryan’s Hope”), and James Dixon (“It’s Alive”).
The story of “Q” follows an investigation into a string of mysterious murders, which ultimately leads to the discovery of a large carnivorous creature prowling the skyscrapers of New York City. The NYPD must then figure out how to track and destroy the beast before it kills again, and figure out where exactly it came from.
Larry Cohen decided to make “Q” after he was fired from another movie (“I, the Jury”), because he wanted to be able to justify the expensive hotel room in New York City that he had already paid for. Cohen conceived of the story while admiring the Chrysler building, and noting that it would be an awesome place to have a monster’s nest. Amazingly enough, Q ultimately vastly outperformed “I, the Jury” on a fraction of the budget,
The film’s script was highly improvised, as you can probably imagine from the impromptu beginnings. David Carradine wound up accepting his role before ever seeing a script (he was a friend of Cohen’s from the army), and didn’t get to read it until the first day of shooting. Michael Moriarty improvised entire sequences of the film, such as his bar piano audition, and he has even claimed that the dog’s grumpy reaction to his performance was 100% real.
Bruce Willis expressed interest in playing the role that ultimately went to David Carradine, but it was decided at the time that he wasn’t bankable enough for the role. At the time, he had only been an extra on television, and wouldn’t reach stardom until the late 1980s. Likewise, Cohen considered giving Moriarty’s role to a then-unknown New York improv comedian named Eddie Murphy, but was convinced otherwise for the same reasons that he didn’t cast Willis.
Segments of “Q” were actually filmed on the top of the Chrysler Building, which was immensely complicated given the state of disrepair of the area at the time. Unlike the Empire State Building, the top of the Chrysler Building didn’t have a finished observation area (or even windows), was open air, and was littered with junk and supplies. The building was even having lights installed on the top during filming, which Cohen managed to use to his advantage. The baskets on the side of the building in the final shootout were not installed for the production, but were actually already there for the lighting installation.
Some foreign versions of the poster for “Q” feature the monster with feathers and teeth. This is because the posters were created before anyone had actually seen the movie, and the artists only had general descriptions of what the monster looked like.
“Q” was made on a low budget of just over $1 million, and although I wasn’t able to dig up the box office and gross information, it was undoubtedly profitable. However, “Q” had a mixed critical reception, and currently hold Rotten Tomatoes ratings of 65% (critics) and 42% (audience), along with an IMDb score of 6.1.
Unfortunately, in today’s world of ever-advancing computer special effects, stop motion has aged pretty poorly. That said, given the low budget, “Q” is about the best stop motion work that you will find in film. Still, today’s audience expects more from effects, which I think biases some people against the film.
Most reviews I have read love Moriarty’s cracked, eccentric performance, though some find it too hammy or aggravating. There’s also no arguing that the character is an unlikable scumbag, but the film seems perfectly aware of this.
“Q” is in many ways ridiculous, and has humorous elements that were not alluded to in the advertising. I imagine that people at time were conflicted on how to take that. Dark comedy is kind of like licorice, it either resonates with you or it doesn’t. Either way, you don’t necessarily want it to be a surprise.
Of all of the complaints about “Q” that I have seen, the most common one has been that the plot is too slow or dull. It is certainly like a fast-paced film, and has a couple of notable sub-plots, but I didn’t find any of it too uninteresting or distracting myself. I think that mostly comes down to whether or not you like Moriarty’s character, as he gets a lot of the screen-time.
Roger Ebert’s review of “Q” notes that much of the movie plays as a sort of dedication to Samuel Arkoff, the legendary b-movie producer whose studio produced the movie:
Arkoff has been producing films for thirty years now, and even if he was honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, his heart still lies with shots of a giant flying lizard attacking a woman in a bikini on top of a Manhattan skyscraper. He’s just that kinda guy. There are, in fact, several shots in “Q” that owe their ancestry to Sam Arkoff. I am aware, of course, that Larry Cohen gets credit for having written and directed this movie, but where would Cohen or any other director be without the rich heritage of a quarter-century of American-International Pictures made by Sam Arkoff?
Ebert’s review also brings up a significant plot hole in the story of “Q” that is glossed over in the film: “How did one Quetzalcoatl get pregnant?”
Regardless, the stop motion effects and plot both provide fantastic send-ups to both the classic Ray Harryhausen films and the famous Japanese monster movies, and is a more honest and genuine ode to those works than any of the remakes and attempted reboots that have been done over the years. “Q” is a dedication to the history of b-movies, and does so fantastically if you ask me. Not only that, but the writing and performances are entertaining, particularly Moriarty’s character. You can tell that this was a fun movie to make, and it comes across in all of the performances. I highly recommend checking it out if you are a horror and monster movie fan, because you are bound to find something to like here.