Q: The Winged Serpent

q the winged serpentLarry Cohen has never gotten his due as an NYC auteur. Maybe it’s because his expansive vision of the City tends to neglect the tight-shot, neurotic claustrophobia of the art house darlings (Woody Allen, Cassavetes, DePalma’s early stuff, and the suffocating, interior smallness utilized by Scorsese in Mean Streets and Goodfellas). Whereas many directors linked with an NYC aesthetic share a certain smallness of scope, Cohen usually went big. He seems to be a disciple of the Alexander Mackendrick exterior approach (Sweet Smell of Success, 1957). He never skimped on the shot-size and it was this approach that informed me – an adolescent movie buff trapped between the Coasts – of the full-on scenic grandeur of the City. From his early Blaxploitation epics Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem (1973) through the psycho-horror thriller The Ambulance (1990) his singular conception of the City is one that I came to link with its reality at a very young age. His New York is big, messy, and violent. Extras (if indeed they are extras and not everyday people caught on film in an era disdainful of the legalities of “model releases”) populate and then overpopulate his scenes. They are everywhere: crossing streets, ducking for cover, making noise, for the most part ambivalent to the madness around them… exactly what I came understand constitutes a REAL New Yorker’s daily life-view.

Cohen lifts up the giant rock that covers the City and just lets the cameras roll as the ant-like people beneath go about their frenetic City existence. So much beautiful B-roll…. His main (paid actor) human characters are framed almost as after-thoughts against the scope/scale of NYC itself, which is always his main protagonist. Stories unfold and human interactions are touched on, of course, but I have always watched Cohen’s films for the non-human element, be it the City itself or amorphous alien murder-marshmallows (The Stuff, 1985) or, in the case of my favorite Cohen offering, a flying lizard from Aztec antiquity who appears in NYC to reaffirm its godhead. 

Q: The Winged Serpent (1982) is, on the surface, a typical “monster” movie. We get this from the opening scene in which a window-washer becomes decapitated mid-squeegee, leaving his arterial blood spurting neck-stump to dangle against the ichor covered window. New York’s finest are on the case (the well paired team of Richard Roundtree and David Carradine) and we are introduced to them standing under the entrance to the EMPIRE STATE BUILDING, thus establishing three of the 4 main characters: Detective (Carradine), Sergeant (Roundtree) and the City itself. Cohen gives us his driving force human protagonist – Jimmy Quinn – seconds later, thus completing the intros. We are introduced to Quinn (Michael Moriarty) sitting in a small Chinese joint around a table with other member of your standard early-‘80s robbery gang. If this was a Marvel comic, they would have undoubtedly worked for the Kingpin, or Silvermane, or the Rose…  q01

The group is (quite brazenly) planning a heist Reservoir Dogs intro-style, with Quinn being the obvious inspiration for Mr. Pink. He informs the group that “I’m strictly a wheel-man… I don’t carry a piece and my cut is 20%”. Seems our boy, Jimmy, is a non-violent, low-level hood and – to show his sensitive side – leaves the restaurant to surprise his girlfriend with a jazz piano serenade. Moriarty brings a certain quirk-atude to the role and his performance in Q was probably the single reason for his being cast in the wildly popular inaugural Law & Order (1990-1994) series, as well as subsequent VCR staples The Stuff and Troll. He gives just enough depth of character to the film and in his capable acting chops Cohen entrusts Moriarty to give the emotional display necessary so that he can focus on what he REALLY wants to do, which is show you slow, almost sexually longing overview pan shots of NYC. This is how I learned the geography and character of the City. Check it out:

5:11 – Five minutes in and we are already flying, overhead soaring, Q eye view. A seemingly purposeless circling of midtown, the beast seems to be searching for something…. We follow a balloon up past Central Park West where we find a sexy ‘80s model/hi-rise dweller slowly, slowly, slowly rubbing tanning oil onto her wonderfully proportioned breasts (she is paying special attention to the left one…). Suddenly the streets become smaller and we RUSH down to the tanning roof deck – tight shot as Q swoops down and CHOMPS! into that perfect mid-section of woman, dripping blood all over the streets below (random people run duck from the blood rain coming down).

13:35 – Nearly fourteen minutes in and Jimmy and the gang have, of course, botched the robbery. Cops are swarming, people are swarming, chaos in China Town!! Jimmy runs for his life uptown and stops uptown at the Chrysler building. The slow-pan up this gigantic City phallus lets us know this is a special place, and it is where, several minutes later, Jimmy finds the Flying Serpents nest complete with enormous egg. This beast is a momma god-bird feeding her young and The Chrysler Building is the incubator for this thousand year old evil. The seminal City cock is ready to initiate LIFE!!!

q221522:15 – We see the beast silhouetted against the NYC skyline, flapping its wings and striking fear in the swarming crowds below. Bright light, broad daylight – Cohen gives you a sunny NYC day in all its chaotic patterns, complete with a random severed leg laying in the street (naturally). Cohen doesn’t play in shadows. There is no NIGHT in this film. He shows you the city in its naked fullness. I love it.

34:12 – Wonderful tracking shot of Carradine walking with an Aztec expert across the sprawling back-drop of the Museum of Natural History. The two men are left small in the lower right corner as the full majesty of NYC is once again unfurled before Cohen’s lens. Man, I want to be there…. Oh yeah, we also learn that this flying serpent is actually a god (Quetzalcoatl) worshipped by the Aztecs in skin flaying human sacrifice rituals….

37:29 – The other robbery gang thugs find Quinn (“Where are the jewels!!!”) so he has to escape his apartment via fire escape. Wonderful city scenes enfold (the graffiti looks even more desperate in daylight) before they catch him and administer a BROAD DAYLIGHT beating after which Quinn agrees to lead the bag of gems… which sit atop the Chrysler Building. Needless to say, Q feasts and the thugs get their comeuppance. Quinn gets away.

q441044:10 – As the Chrysler Building looms behind, a woman on a rooftop is randomly doing push-ups in a bikini (YES!!) while her 2 hot friends watch the action (???). Nice skin scene AND when Q swoops in to grab the lone dude amongst the lady trio, we get the blood too. Also, Cohen gives us the first full body shot glimpse of the monster. The stop-motion is decent but not Harryhausen-great. I think the Kraken could take Q but that’s not the point. Maybe a perfect scene.

54:34 – 55:20 – A near full minute of majestic aerial ejaculation Larry Cohen-style. We glide with the beast as it soars between the Twin Towers, scans Wall Street for edibles and gives an overall grid geography of the City layout. How many 8 year-old Midwesterner’s learned NYC geography form this film? And can we discuss the score by Robert O. Ragland? So perfect in that 1930s Son of Frankenstein way. 

1:22:00 – Circling the Chrysler Building again. We get all four sides here, grey gargoyles and dull stone. Cohen sets up THE showdown that has captured the minds of monster movie-goers since Kong took Faye Wray on a vertical stroll up the Empire State Building. The shootout is intense: MAN v. BEAST. All machine guns and pistols (no flash grenades?? No helicopter support??) Men are ripped apart or knocked to the street below. The bullets fly everywhere. The Pan Am Building (remember that??) takes fire as does seemingly every edifice up and down Lexington Ave. before Q finally crashes onto 42nd street. A dead god in a hectic City, roasting in the heat like a dead rat. 

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Review by L.E.S. Cordell

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