Q: The Winged Serpent springs from a fantasy that could have been cooked up by a broke and desperate drunk pleading for a gift from God. That’s no accident either, as the film offers precisely such an antihero in the form of Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty), a shifty reformed addict and wannabe jazz pianist who spectacularly botches a diamond heist and finds himself unsurprisingly up to his eyes in water that’s hot even by the standards of his wayward dog-eat-dog mode of living. Quinn’s wanted by the mostly indifferent police as well as, more urgently, the other participants in the heist, who assume that he’s fibbing about the loss of the goods. Luckily, Jimmy soon stumbles upon the location of the nest of the ancient flying monster that’s beheading New Yorkers, and he isn’t going to let that information go without some serious compensation.
Legendary cult writer-director Larry Cohen understands that the best monster movies are often staged with a strong whiff of satire or parody, and Q is obviously a riff on the stereotypical notion of New York City as a crime-plagued wasteland inhabited by brash lunatics who are too monstrously desensitized to properly recognize true atrocity, even as manifested by the emergence of something as fantastical as the titular giant killer thing, which could even potentially be a god. All that the people in the film see is their own puny problems, and the potential for their cut of any new action.
Despite that thematic potential, Q is mostly a good-natured lark that’s only occasionally energized by the director’s characteristic social outrage and despair, and so it pales in comparison to Cohen films as deranged and provocative as God Told Me To, It’s Alive, or even the goofy The Stuff. Q feels slight and sketchy in relation to those other films, and it tends to stall when Moriarty isn’t on screen performing his one-of-kind mixture of satirical, self-amused, experimental vaudeville. The pairing of David Carradine and Richard Roundtree as officers investigating the flying serpent’s murders sounds like a cult-movie fan’s dream come true (one wonders how many times Quentin Tarantino has seen this film), but their performances are remote and—sometimes intentionally—disengaged from their surroundings. The point, of course, is that nothing fazes a couple of cops who’re pointedly less heroic than typical movie lawmen, but that’s a feeble excuse to limit the screen time of a performer as enjoyable and original as Moriarty. People remember Q for the wonderfully cynical notion of an infinite loser who briefly holds the city’s fate in his pocket (a conceit explored more daringly in God Told Me To), but that’s only a portion of a sporadically lively, gnarly little film that doesn’t fully reap the potential harvest of its premise.
The image is clean and generally respectable, but altogether unremarkable. Softness abounds, and the colors are drab and forgettable. In fairness, these issues almost certainly reflect the conditions of the original film, which was shot on the fly for a little amount of money, but it’s reasonable to hold the typically superb Shout! Factory to a higher standard of balancing the truth of a film’s production roots with the modern standards of aesthetics. The sound mix provokes roughly the same reaction: It’s passable, but one wishes for a richer soundscape that still manages to honor the film’s agreeably spartan design. This presentation isn’t a disgrace, but it’s far from definitive.
The terrific new audio commentary with writer-director Larry Cohen elevates this Blu-ray’s desirability considerably. Cohen discusses the film’s premise, which was hastily invented after another project fell through, and proceeds to offer a variety of interesting details that informed the decisions dictating each scene. David Carradine, for example, is an old friend of the director, and agreed to work on the film without a script after a phone call from Cohen. The director also, in the tradition of many old-school monster-movie makers, rues the present-day market saturation of computer-animated monsters that, he correctly notes, are almost always "too smooth" to suggest an element of dangerous tangibility. Otherwise, only a trailer is included, which is a disappointment. Cohen is a director that the new generation of cinephiles would be advised to familiarize themselves with, and the inclusion of a scholarly documentary would’ve been an ideal way to get that ball rolling. Surely the late, great Robin Wood wasn’t the only critic alive to the subversive energy of Cohen’s work.
It’s nice to see the old killer bird serpent come out of hiding, but one wishes that Shout! Factory had thrown a more ambitious welcome back party.