Q: The Winged Serpent

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Q: The Winged Serpent
"The scale of what Cohen achieved with his monster on a low budget remains impressive to this day."

Low budget monster movies are ten a penny; there's always another one about to hatch. Many of them are passably entertaining, some quite endearing, but only a very small proportion have any staying power. What is it about Larry Cohen's Q: The Winged Serpent that has given it cult status and maintained it as a genre favourite for over three decades?

The Q, in case you don't know, stands for Quetzalcoatl - the creature in this feature isn't the Aztec god in person but is suggested as its possible inspiration, and her presence in New York City may be linked to a series of ritual murders with stylistic elements associated with ancient Aztec culture. It's these that bring her to the attention of homicide cops Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) - not that she's exactly keeping her presence secret, snacking on local residents as they sunbathe on their rooftops. Even in New York, a giant winged serpent is enough to get people talking. But petty criminal Jimmy (Michael Moriarty), who stumbles on her Chrysler Building lair whilst trying to escape from his underworld enemies, knows that one giant winged serpent is a comparatively trivial problem - because in that lair is a gigantic egg.

Copy picture

Jimmy isn't stupid. The city's population is large; the chances of him personally being dinner, as long as he steers clear of the things, is small. A bigger deal is the fact that he's desperately short of money and on track to lose his girlfriend permanently. So he comes up with a plan. Somebody is going to get rich of this monster and that somebody is going to be him.

In a genre where corrupt mayors and CEOs are constantly dismissing monster problems in an attempt to get richer, it's nice to see one of the little guys take his shot. Moriarty delivers a deeply committed performance and makes Jimmy a rounded, often unpleasant but nevertheless sympathetic figure whom we can believe in despite the unlikeliness of his situation. Alongside him, Carradine and Roundtree display a kind of weariness that suggests they see saving the city as just another thankless task that inevitably involves dealing with scumbags. The action scenes, however, are dramatic, and there's further human villainy to complicate matters so that not everything depends on the monster.

As you might expect, that monster looks a bit rubbery to audiences used to CGI - in fact, she looked a bit rubbery even back in the Eighties, but she's much more impressive than most of her peers. Cohen's confident direction means it's still possible to connect with the fear of being preyed on by such a creature. With several scenes shot from her point of view, however, that's not the position we're generally invited to take. Q is part of the long tradition of sympathetic monsters that dates back to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and, onscreen, to the likes of King Kong and the Creature From The Black Lagoon. After all, she really isn't doing anything wrong. It's tough to be a single mother living downtown and she's only trying to make her way.

The scale of what Cohen achieved with his monster on a low budget remains impressive to this day. This is a film whose ambition equals that of its characters, and it has a pace and personality that grip right from the start. Cohen knows exactly when to play it straight and when to introduce an element of fun. As observational comedies about New Yorkers go, it's a long way from Manhattan but there's no real surprise that fans still romanticise it out of all proportion.

Reviewed on: 06 Oct 2018
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Q: The Winged Serpent packshot
Quetzalcoatl moves to New York City and takes up residence atop the Chrysler Building.
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Festivals:

Fantasia 2017

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