Q: THE WINGED SERPENT (1982) Blu-ray
Director: Larry Cohen
Shout! Factory

“Q is coming! Its name is Quetzalcoatl...” and for home viewers it’s bigger than ever courtesy of Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray.

Detective Shepard (David Carradine, KILL BILL) and his partner (Richard Roundtree, SHAFT) are investigating a series of mutilation murders including a man who flew across the country to New York for seemingly no reason other than flayed alive by the killer. The handy museum curator informs Shepard that the killings resemble the blood sacrifices of willing victims made to the Aztec god Quetzacoatl, which may have something to do with the rooftop disappearances of various sunbathers and construction works that have the sky raining with blood and body parts. In a parallel story, small time crook Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty, TROLL) falls in with gangsters planning to rob a jewelry store. The heist is botched and Quinn is the only one to get away. When he is sideswiped by a car and loses the case of jewels, he heads to the Chrysler Building to see his lawyer and discovers a massive skeleton-strewn nest with a giant egg while hiding in the long-disused spire. Quinn hides out in the apartment of his girlfriend Joan (Candy Clark, THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH). When he’s caught by his buddies, he leads them to their deaths by claiming to have stashed the jewels up in the spire where the nest is. When he gets picked up by the police, he offers to lead them to the monster – as well as a plan on how to catch and kill it – in exchange for a million dollars, photo rights, and “a Nixon-like pardon”.

Simply titled Q onscreen (although Roger Ebert’s review says the film played at Cannes under the film’s poster subtitled THE WINGED SERPENT), Larry Cohen’s film harkens back to the classic big creature features of the 1950s and 1960s rather than the De Laurentis KING KONG remake made a few years pervious (although it does share some stylistic and thematic threads with the contemporary WOLFEN). The special effects – courtesy of stop motion artists David Allen (PUPPET MASTER), Randall William Cook (I, MADMAN), and optical effects artist Peter Kuran (DREAMSCAPE) – will probably be laughable to newcomers but charming to classic monster movie fans, with Quetzacoatl a particularly Harryhausen-worthy creature (although it’s too bad the creature’s face couldn’t have been as cool as its rendition Boris Vallejo’s poster artwork). If the compositing sometimes looks a bit ropey, it’s because Cohen shot all of the aerial footage early on so the effects artists had to match their work to moving backgrounds at various scales. Some of the monster’s victims once picked up – as well as some of the cops during the climax – are painfully obvious animated clay figures, and various figures hurled off the skyscraper do not so much fall as recede into the background of shots; but Cohen’s tongue is firmly in cheek during the obligatory attack sequences (with humorous setups and false scares prefiguring them).

That said, the film would be forgettable – as forgettable as some of producer Samuel Z. Arkoff’s other post-AIP 1980s efforts – if directed by anyone else other than Larry Cohen. His idiosyncratic approach to the monster movie/crime film mash-up balances deadpan humor with some thought-provoking discussion on whether Q is a monster or a god (when Carradine suggests to a university professor that modern day New Yorkers are less likely than ancient civilizations to mistake such a creature for a god, the professor quips “Why not if they fear it enough?”). Carradine’s detective believes it to just be a rare species, but Cohen creates tension with the question – thanks in part to Robert O. Ragland’s rich score emphasizing the beast’s fantastical nature – even suggesting that Moriarty’s fearful small-time crook might half-way believing it (even if his feeding the creature was a desperate act) and leaving it for us to guess whether the human perpetrator of the mutilation killings sighted the creature and decided to serve it or may possibly have summoned it with his sacrifices. Despite Cohen’s loose direction and a good performance from Carradine, I get the feeling that Q would have been just a B-grade monster movie mashed up with a gritty low-budget crime film if not for Moriarty’s genuinely inspired “Method” (as Ebert described it) performance that makes lines like “Eat ‘em up! Crunch! Crunch!” and “Get Rupert [Murdoch] down here with his arm around me” as organic as his scat-singing. The photography of Fred Murphy (THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES) – with additional photography by Daniel Pearl (THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE) isn’t as refined, but the gritty look recalls Lucio Fulci’s contemporary NEW YORK RIPPER (shot on some of the same stomping grounds).

Released theatrically by United Film Distribution – who also brought us the latter two of Romero’s original DEAD trilogy pics and SLEEPAWAY CAMP among others – and then on tape by MCA, Q made its digital debut in 1998 through Anchor Bay Entertainment in a barebones non-anamorphic letterbox transfer (released simultaneously with a letterboxed Elite laserdisc). That was followed by a 2003 special edition by Blue Underground sporting a new anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer with a multichannel remix in DTS-ES 6.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and 2.0 surround (as well as the original mono mix in 2.0), and a commentary by Larry Cohen (moderated by BU’s Bill Lustig, who was also making low budget genre features in New York during the same period). This edition was later repackaged as part of a Larry Cohen box set with BU’s special editions of BONE and GOD TOLD ME TO. Shout’s 1080p24 MPEG-4 AVC-encoded Blu-ray doesn’t look great, but only in that it likely represents faithfully the hastily put together film (with some stolen street shots looking worse than the back projection). The Blu-ray loses the BU’s sonic enhancements in favor of a good lossless 2.0 rendering of the mono mix and the Cohen/Lustig commentary – the former is particularly regrettable since the 6.1 track had a more enveloping presentation of the music, swooping wings, and an almost tactile feel to the bone-crunching sound effects – but they have recorded a brand new track with Cohen going solo.

Cohen starts things off a little shaky saying “I don’t know what I’m doing” but quickly launches into a free-wheeling narrative covering the entirety of the film’s production with occasional asides to discuss the careers of Moriarty, Carradine and Roundtree (who also appeared in Cohen’s MANIAC COP and ORIGINAL GANGSTAS). He begins with getting fired off his adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s I, THE JURY – the producers did not like his improvisational style with the actors – and putting together the deal for Q within twenty-four hours. His aforementioned improvisational style extended not only to Moriarty’s performance but working in scenes built around locations, props, and what he learned of the actors (Moriarty’s singing prompted the early scene where he auditions in the bar where his girlfriend works). The top of the Chrysler Building machine gun climax came to Cohen when he saw the baskets on the sides of the spire used to install lighting (he dressed up the steeplejacks in police uniforms and gave them machine guns). He cites Roland Emmerich’s remake of GODZILLA as drawing most of its plot from Q, and that screenwriter Dean Devlin later purchased his script for CELLULAR. Cohen also calls ones attention to all of the bird imagery in the film, from the Chrysler Building’s eagle gargoyles and swooping aerial photography all the way to the bird kite that figures into a character’s fateful encounter with the beast. His comment about how people thousands of years from now stumbling upon the ruins of New York mistaking some of the skyscrapers for churches or temples also calls one's attention to his use of some of the city’s most stunning architecture (even those rooftops and spires only glimpsed in the aerial shots). The trailer (2:32) and the “Q is coming!” teaser (0:33) have been carried over from the BU edition. The end result isn’t really a special edition – it’s also not one of Shout’s Scream Factory line – but pre-order pricing should make it an irresistible double-dip or an impulse buy for the uninitiated. (Eric Cotenas)