(Comedian Greg Orme returns! -Ed.)
“Its name is Quetzalcoatl. Just call it ‘Q’… that’s all you’ll have time to say before it tears you apart!”
One morning in early 1982, frustrated with the direction the film he was about to fired from (1982’s I,the Jury) was taking, Larry Cohen took a walk through New York City. Somewhere along the way, he came across the Chrysler Building, looked up, and inspiration struck. “Hey, that’d be a cool place for a dragon nest,” he thought, and he got to work. Six days later, he had a shooting script, and before much longer, they were shooting. The end result: Q, a secret classic.
Quetzalcoatl, or Q, is an Aztec dragon god making a new home in the top of the Chrysler Building. Q flies around the city biting off the heads of unsuspecting New Yorkers relaxing on rooftops and generally causing bloody mayhem. Detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) are attempting to solve a series of grisly ritualistic murders throughout the city. Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) is a small-time crook and jazz musician, looking to go straight, who winds up finding a giant egg while attempting to escape his cohorts after a diamond heist gone wrong. How much do you all want to bet that all three of these threads are linked together?
This movie is a ton of fun, and a big part of that is Larry Cohen himself. He’d been writing published scripts and screenplays since he was a teenager in the Bronx, and his love for interesting characters definitely shows through here. His crown jewel here is Jimmy Quinn, an ex-junkie criminal looking to go straight as a jazz musician (an attempt at bringing Michael Moriarty’s real life musicianship into the film) who stumbles across Q’s giant egg and decides to extort the city for its location, in exchange for a million dollars and immunity in the ongoing investigation into his botched diamond heist. It’s a tour de force performance. He nails every beat of his arc, including the scene where he makes the deal with the city and he runs through five different emotions. Every single character moment feels genuine and he really makes a complicated scumbag likable.
A big part of why this movie works besides the solid performances is how much of it was shot in real locations. They shot in real police stations, in the real spire of the Chrysler Building (which has no windows, and they had no harnesses), and on the real streets of Manhattan. It feels very grounded and real, despite the preposterous plot. It did cause a little bit of a ruckus when they fired live machine guns from the roof of the Chrysler Building and the spent shells rained down. Since no one knew they were there, there was a moment of panic which was then blown out of proportion by The Daily News and the New York Post (Hollywood Comes to New York and Terrorizes the City!), requiring an eventual public apology from Larry Cohen and a ban on gunshots for the remaining duration of the shoot.
Let’s talk about Q herself. She looks fake, which is kind of charming. The budget wasn’t huge and they only had about two weeks to make and add the creature into the film, and Larry Cohen was one of the true renegades of genre cinema, so the shots he chose for the dragon to appear in were much more complicated than the effects house was used to. It’s kind of a miracle that the dragon works at all. For my money, it’s the best stop-motion creature Ray Harryhausen never made.
Should I show this to my five year old?
As I mentioned earlier, the dragon looks fake, so that’s not really a problem. If you do choose to show this to your young child, maybe talk with them about why ritual sacrifices to an Aztec god are morally unjust. It’s not common these days, but who knows what will happen if you don’t talk to your child while they’re small? Also I’d recommend talking to them about why it’s inappropriate and creepy to ogle women through a telescope on the roof of a building. This is a great movie for children because of both of those life lessons. The ritual murders are gross though so I guess look out for that.
This movie was surprisingly influential! A lot of the 1998 travesty we call Godzilla was directly influenced by Q, including the final shot, which (spoiler) might as well use the same footage. On the more positive end of things, Joon-Ho Bong claims this film was the reason he made 2005’s The Host, which is fun in a similar vein and also worth checking out. I’d also like to take a moment to recommend the documentary King Cohen: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen. It’s currently streaming on Shudder, along with this fine film. If you’re looking to watch Q there, I recommend the version presented in The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs, in which he provides fun stories and tangents that are sometimes even related to the film you’re watching. Anyway, Q: the Winged Serpent is one I go back to fairly regularly and by all means, check it out.