Friday, March 12, 2010

Q: The Winged Serpent (Larry Cohen, 1982)

It screeches loudly when excited, possesses claws the size of traffic cones, and has a constant hankering for the supple flesh of window washers and sunbathers, yet it manages to allude detection. What, pray tell, am I babbling about? Why I'm describing the lead creature in the unexpectedly awesome Q: The Winged Serpent (a.k.a. American Monster - Das Ungeheuer von New York), an urban monster flick from Larry Cohen – yeah, that's right, the same guy who brought us The Stuff. Now, back in early June, if you'd said that I'd be spending the final days of summer fully enveloped in the goings on in a movie about a giant killer bird that threatens the human residents of Midtown Manhattan, I would have told you (utilizing my world renowned Jimmy Stewart impression) that you're screwy in the head. I mean, I'll pretty much watch anything–as I have proven time and time again–but I usually draw the line when it comes to films about carnivorous flying beasts who get the guys from Kung Fu, Shaft and Law & Order all in a tizzy.

Not one to let some imaginary line prevent themselves from looking at something for a predetermined length of time, I bravely soldiered into the feathery morass that is this loopy endeavour. And aw shucks on a stick, am I glad I did (cross the meaningless line, that is), because the preconception I had about this film completely was wrong. Sure, there's a large monstrosity with wings devouring roof dwellers willy-and-a-fair-amount-of-nilly. But there's so much more going on in terms of character development, theology, human frailty, entitlement, anthropology and class warfare, that you'll forget that there's an airborne menace afoot.

Okay, the chances that you or the many sane people out there will forget about the flesh eating behemoth in the sky is slim to none. In other words, as my notorious Aunt Judy would say, "it's kooky nonsense." However, the way Larry Cohen slowly reveals the identity of the serpentine scourge a little bit at a time, while simultaneously letting the personalities of the main characters blossom, was a clever example of the properly mix serious drama with the occasional severed head.

Grafting a yarn about a massive ambulatory predator onto a detective story involving Aztec mythology and a hard luck tale about a smalltime crook who longs to be a musician is no easy feat. But there they are, all flapping their figurative wings in perfect unison. Well, since the creature has wings, the wings aren't exactly figurative. Uh, let's just say they're doing everything at the same time, and doing so quite well.

A petty thief named Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) discovers the nest of a large vulture-like bird at the top of the Chrysler Building (a name that is not uttered once) while laying low after a botched jewelry heist. Tired of being treated like a schnook, the wily criminal decides to use the nest location to settle scores – you know, bring people he don't like up to see the nest without telling them that there's a gigantic killer bird living there. When that utilization runs its course, he employs his nest knowledge for monetary gain. Unsurprisingly, his on-again, off-again lady-friend (played ably by Candy Clark) is disturbed by Jimmy's transformation from meek mook to greedy opportunist.

While all this is going on, two detectives, Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) are trying to solve a recent slew of ritualistic slayings. The former thinks the murders are connected to the spate of rooftop irregularities that have plagued the city; a window washer lost his head (call me a sick twist, but I loved the way the glass stifled the blood from spraying out of gaping neck in a torrent manner). The latter, well, he couldn't give a shit if they're connected or not. Either way, people are still being plucked from atop buildings (one guy gets grabbed out of a rooftop swimming pool) and some are having their hearts forcibly removed from their chests.

Similar to the temperament put forth by Anne Carlisle's character in Liquid Sky, Michael Moriarty imbues his advantageous lowlife with an unhinged giddiness. Akin to the manner in which Miss Carlisle wittingly and unwittingly lured rapists, junkies and judgmental acting teachers to her modest, neon-adorned penthouse to kill them with her cunt, Moriarty–a cunt-less individual if I ever saw one–alternatively uses the giant killer bird perched atop a New York City landmark to deal with his enemies.

Giving a performance that is full of that nuance junk and containing a humongous tablespoon of moxie, Michael Moriarty is all over the map in terms of emotion in Q: The Winged Serpent. Crying, receiving body blows, muttering to himself in a crazed fashion, this isn't the guy you used to see on A&E seven times a day.

Even weirder was the sight of tough guy actors David Carradine and Richard Roundtree treating Moriarty like a two bit punk. It's a tad jarring at first (after all, he's one of the city's top district attorneys), but I got used to the strange role reversal. Much in the same way I got to used to the idea that I was spending my waning summer* watching this oddly entertaining film.

* Yeah, I realize it's not summer in my particular corner of North America right now.

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1 comment:

  1. dig it - haven't seen Q in a while - but yr blog has rekindled my curiousity