Before Peter Jackson re-invented Middle Earth when it came to cinematic dragons the only ones that readily came to mind would have been such examples as the animated Disney classic Sleeping Beauty and that of the live-action Disney/Paramount fantasy epic Dragonslayer, which had Phil Tippet’s amazing go-motion technique to bring the dragon Vermithrax Pejorative to life, but in 1982 cult film producer/director Larry Cohen gave to the world a startling entry in the form of Q: The Winged Serpent.
When a winged creature begins to prey on the inhabitants of New York City, biting the heads off window washers and snatching up beautiful rooftop sunbathers, we first might assume were about to see your standard monster movie but that couldn’t be further from the truth as Q: The Winged Serpent owes more to films like The French Connection and Dog Day Afternoon than it does such standard monster fare as King Kong or Godzilla because not only is a large aspect of the film a “police procedural” but one of the key players is a two-bit criminal who wouldn’t look out of place in a Dirty Harry movie. This particular character is a wannabe jazz pianist named Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty), a hyperkinetic loser who takes a job as a wheelman for a diamond heist that goes decidedly wrong which results in him fleeing the scene of the crime and ending up at the top of the Chrysler Building. As to why the spire of a skyscraper appeals to a man on the run, you got me, but it does lead to him coming across the nest of our titular creature.
New Yorkers losing their heads isn’t the only strange and disturbing thing going on in the Big Apple as there is also the slight issue of someone performing a number of Aztec ritualistic sacrifices, flaying the skin off of a body and cutting out the heart, enter NYPD detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) who attempt to discover whether or not these series of murders have anything to do with sightings of a large winged dragon snatching up people. Funnily enough there is, as it turns out that an Aztec priest has been performing these sacrifices, upon willing subjects, to awaken the winged Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and he is surprisingly effective in doing so.
• An Aztec priest can somehow flay an entire body in a hotel room without even getting a drop of blood on the bedsheets, now that’s talent.
• Jimmy Quinn takes the job as a wheelman for a diamond heist but then his employer forces him to take a gun and enter the jewelry store, does that man not understand what a “wheelman” is supposed to do?
• Jimmy finds the bloody skeletal remains of one of the dragon’s victims, which is strangely still wearing its wrist bracelet, which means that the monster must have insanely nimble teeth.
• Detective Powell makes the classic blunder of being a black man in a monster movie.
With a meagre million dollar budget at his disposal writer/producer/director Larry Cohen produced a film that looks easily worth ten times that price, even though we don’t get a huge amount of monster action, but with such a fantastic cast, which includes a wonderful performance by Candy Clark as the long-suffering girlfriend of Moriarty’s character, and then there are those great Manhattan locations which all go towards giving this film a solid and realistic setting for its rather outlandish premise. You may have a hard time believing an ancient Aztec god is flying unseen through the skies of New York City but Moriarty’s brilliant portrayal as a three-time loser who tries to be the “Big Man” with a blackmail scheme against the powers that be is the heart of this monster flick and it has a great beat to it. The creature itself is a nice design and is wonderfully animated by special effects wizards Randall William Cook and David Allen, but the star of the picture is clearly Moriarty and he steals every scene he’s in.
Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent is a delightful 80s monster movie that turned out far better than it had any right to be, it had a ridiculous premise and an even more ridiculously low budget but not only did it become a huge financial success it also achieved massive cult status over the years, which is nothing to sneeze at in this game. So if this genre mash-up of a crime drama and a monster movie has somehow escaped your notice do yourself a favour and track down this little gem, you’ll be glad you did.
Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)
Movie Rank - 7/10
Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent is not the only move to stick the monster genre in an urban setting but his skillful writing and Michael Moriarty’s improv skills as an actor elevated the proceedings which resulted in a very special horror movie.