Cult Movie Theater: “Q: The Winged Serpent”

Today’s guest post is from Rick Armstrong, who looks back at the 1982 cult gem Q: The Winged Serpent.

A window washer is beheaded. A half-naked sunbather is snatched from a skyscraper’s rooftop. Yes, there’s a giant winged serpent on the loose in New York City. Well, technically, it’s an Aztec god called Quetzalcoatl and it’s also indirectly responsible for a recent spate of human sacrifices.

While the police try to solve these grisly crimes, a small-time crook named Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) tries to avoid getting killed by more conventional means. During a botched diamond robbery, Jimmy winds up with all the jewels…only to promptly lose them when a car hits him while crossing the street. Now, he has a bum leg and a gang of angry criminals on his trail.

Jimmy eventually seeks safety inside the Chrysler Building, hiding among the steel beams under the spire. To his amazement, he finds a giant nest with a humongous egg. Initially, Jimmy doesn’t understand the significance of his discovery. But when he does, he decides that he can turn his knowledge into a tidy profit. City authorities want to stop Quetzalcoatl before it kills again, So, why not sell that information to them…and get his criminal record wiped clean in the bargain?

Independent film auteur Larry Cohen made a number of clever, low-budget, socially-conscious movies in the 1970s and 1980s. His most famous is probably It’s Alive (1974), which somehow succeeds as both a horror tale about a killer baby and the story of an innocent child trying to survive in a scary world of “normal” people. In Q, Cohen’s traditional would-be heroes are the cops played by David Carradine and Richard Roundtree. Not only are they boring characters, they are also ineffectual when it comes to finding Quetzalcoatl.

The survival of the city’s denizens is left to a hustler with limited smarts who can play a little piano. Jimmy Quinn doesn’t have much going for him beyond a very tolerant girlfriend (wonderfully played by Candy Clark). Of course, even she decides she’s had enough when she learns of Jimmy’s extortion plan.

It can be difficult to cast anti-heroes, but Cohen was fortunate to get Michael Moriarty to play Jimmy. The actor was in high demand for much of the 1970s, appearing in prestigious roles in Bang the Drum Slowly, The Glass Menagerie (for which he won an Emmy), and Who’ll Stop the Rain. His performance works in Q because he doesn’t try to make Jimmy a likable rascal. Moriarty’s protagonist is greedy, selfish, and dense. And that is what separates Q from dozens of other big monster movies.

Due to budget reasons, Cohen limits the appearances of Quetzalcoatl, saving most of the winged serpent footage for the climax. While the serpent looks somewhat rubbery, the stop-motion animation is pretty impressive. David Allen, one of the lead animators, became an acclaimed special effects wizard. He worked on big budget films like Willow (1988) as well as TV commercials (his most famous one featured King Kong and a Volkswagen).

Larry Cohen and Michael Mortiarty teamed up for three additional movies. The most interesting one was The Stuff, a satire about a delicious gooey substance that turns people to zombies that crave more stuff.

Rick29 is a film reference book author and a regular contributor at the Classic Film & TV Café, on Facebook and Twitter. He’s a big fan of MovieFanFare, too, of course!