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Q (United Film Distribution Company, R)

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OK, that probably sounds like something cooked up in a week by a director fired from his last job, but fortunately it's so much fun that you won't care if it makes any sense or not.

 

 

Q, also known as The Winged Serpent after the claymation beastie that drives the plot, is an inspired bit of madness from exploitation writer/director Larry Cohen (who also gave us, among other things, Black Caesar, It's Alive, and The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover).

The setup is beyond ludicrous. A religious cult in 1980s Manhattan has managed to resurrect the Mesoamerican deity Quetzalcoatl (Q for short; usually described as a feathered serpent but looking more like a garden-variety dragon in this film) and said deity has taken up residence in the dome of the Chrysler building when not munching on peeping-Tom window-washers and topless sunbathers. Q is also an expectant Mom, having laid a gigantic egg in the Chrysler dome. OK, that probably sounds like something cooked up in a week by a director fired from his last job (which is basically how Cohen describes the genesis of this film) but fortunately it's so much fun that you won't care if it makes any sense or not.

Q's cast is surprisingly good for a low-budget film. The performance of Michael Moriarty, playing a hapless small-time thief and borderline basket case who discovers Q's lair while fleeing a bungled robbery, is worth the price of admission all by itself. David Carradine and Richard Roundtree both turn in solid performances as detectives investigating a mysterious series of deaths that include the aforesaid window-washer (beheaded) and a flayed body discovered in a hotel room (part of the resurrect-Q ritual). The supporting cast includes Candy Clark as Moriarty's sometime girlfriend and Malachy McCourt as a police commissioner who is not interested in hearing stories about resurrected gods with carnivorous habits.

Cohen, who also wrote the script, calls on all the skills he honed from a decade of working fast and cheap to make this movie work. He keeps the story moving quickly so you don't have time to stop and think whether any of it makes sense. He also understands the Alien principle of movie monsters; they're scarier if you only get fleeting, partial glimpses of them. The special effects are pretty tacky but they're not overly distracting and are almost endearing when compared with the lazy overuse of CGI in some contemporary films. The cinematography is also much better than you would expect: I have no idea how the production could afford so many helicopter shots but they give you a great view Q's-eye view of the city.

The script is full of deadpan, only-in-New-York exchanges like:

            Bartender: "Did you ever find that guy’s head yet?"

Cop (David Carradine): "Oh, it'll turn up."

That's the city I know and love. There's also a cop dressed as mime, something that makes sense if you're old enough to remember the 1980s. I'm not sure if the scene in which the cops discuss Central American Indian rites in front of the Northwest Coast Indians exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History was meant as a joke or if it was just a matter of expediency, but it works either way. The unfussy cinematography by Robert Levi and Fred Murphy captures an authentic view of Manhattan that is far removed from both the highly stylized films of Martin Scorsese (which I absolutely love, don't get me wrong) and the sanitized version familiar from lighter films of the period like Splash. | Sarah Boslaugh

Q (aka The Winged Serpent) will be presented on October 5 at 8 pm as part of the Strange Brew: Cult Films series at Schlafly Bottleworks, 7260 Southwest Avenue, Maplewood, MO. Tickets are $4.00. For more information see http://www.schlafly.com/events/ or http://www.webster.edu/filmseries/.

 

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