Monday, June 4, 2018

I’d Love To Turn You On At The Movies #193 - Q: The Winged Serpent (1982, dir. Larry Cohen)

Poking around other reviews of this 80’s horror/comedy cult fave I found one written by Jason Hernandez on his site The Constant Bleeder that starts out “Writer/director Larry Cohen is a huge weirdo. So is lead actor Michael Moriarty.” And though I don't generally like quoting other reviews in my own, it’s hard to get around the fact that he’s zeroed in on the key thing I like about this film, and Cohen’s work in general - this guy’s a weirdo. He’s a funny weirdo. He’s a smart weirdo. And a weirdo who understands cinema. And a weirdo whose approach to filmmaking - rough and loose as it is - is like nobody else’s.
            Cohen began his career in television, writing for many genre-based series - westerns, detective/cop shows, thrillers, sci-fi, courtroom dramas - often creating episodes or entire series from eccentric blends of genres that undercut generic conventions. And though well-paid as a writer, he wanted to direct features. But feature films are expensive, and his eccentricity made it difficult to slot his concepts into niches that would be easy to advertise and to sell. Take his first feature, Bone, in which Yaphet Kotto plays a man who insinuates himself into the home of a Beverly Hills couple who are falling apart already partly due to the fallout of their Vietnam vet son who’s become an addict. Kotto demands that the husband retrieve money (that he believes they have but they don’t because the husband has squandered it unbeknownst to the wife) while he holds the wife hostage. The husband sees an opportunity to get out of his marriage and life, the wife waits at home with her kidnapper while her husband is off attempting retrieve money they don’t have (little knowing that he may not return), and she talks to and gets to know and perhaps even fall for Kotto’s kidnapper. What kind of film is that? It’s a drama, but can hardly be put into the more exaggerated superhero types of the then-new “Blaxploitation” genre; it’s comically satirical, but not laugh-out-loud funny; it comments side-wise on Vietnam but isn’t a Vietnam film. As the studio marketing person, how do you sell this film to audiences?
            And so it is with the rest of his work - he puts so many different things in them that they never fit neatly into a niche, they’re hard to pin down, and they don’t often satisfy those coming to them looking for the simple, straightforward genre pieces they appear to be. However, those who appreciate the way he confounds category, mixes up genres, elicits great performances from actors, and generally works intelligence and humor into every frame find much to enjoy in his films. And that’s where Q: The Winged Serpent comes in. On the surface, this is a simple monster movie – the artwork shows a sinister flying serpent hovering over the Chrysler Building holding a bikini-clad beauty – but it’s so much more than that. Taking off from ideas of 50s/early 60s horror films like It Conquered the World, The Amazing Colossal Man, Monster of Terror and the like, Cohen interjects a story of would-be-lounge-singer-turned-petty-criminal Jimmy Quinn (played beautifully by Michael Moriarty) into the mix.
The film opens with an Empire State Building window washer (played by an actual window washer on the Empire State Building, naturally) getting his head chomped off by the flying lizard. Quinn then sits down with mobsters to plan a jewelry store robbery. We get more chomping action from the lizard (which rains blood down on to unsuspecting NYC pedestrians) then we see perhaps why Quinn isn’t working as a singer as he bombs an audition (with a jazzy number improvised by Moriarty himself) that Captain Shepard (David Carradine) happens to catch. Next, Quinn is off with his mob acquaintances for the robbery, which of course goes disastrously wrong, and he flees the pursuing police, running into the Chrysler Building where he discovers a giant nest at the top of the building. Shepard and his partner Powell (Richard Roundtree) meanwhile, are investigating a murder committed in what appears to be a ritualistic style reminiscent of ancient Aztec sacrifices in which the victim gives himself willingly to bring forth Quetzalcoatl, a flying serpent god. Is it possible that the ritualistic murders are connected to the flying lizard plucking victims off of New York City’s rooftops? If so, can Captain Shepard convince his superiors that an ancient Aztec serpent god has been raised and is wreaking havoc on 1980s New York City? Can Jimmy Quinn extricate himself from the mobsters who are looking for the stolen diamonds? Will there be a half dozen more absurd questions like these that raise themselves when you actually watch the film? The answer is a resounding YES for the last one, but I don’t wanna spoil any of the others for you! Watching the plot unfold in many directions at once is part of the fun of the film, but the real fun is watching the actors play it deadpan serious.
According to writer/director Larry Cohen’s hugely entertaining (and highly recommended) commentary, Moriarty got more interested in the film after learning Cohen’s way of working on the fly – only a few notes would be written about a scene to shoot, with dialogue often laid down on the spot and allowing for maximum improvisation; finding a location, showing up with cast and crew at the ready and knocking on the door to ask if it was available to shoot at – in ten minutes – and blocking out the action as soon as the location was secured, and so forth. It’s the exact opposite of every-shot-planned-out-to-the-last-detail directors like Kubrick and Hitchcock and gives Cohen the room to change things, improvise (and improve) scenes, dialogue, and ideas as the film is being created. Everywhere Moriarty seems smaller than his 6’4” frame as he inhabits this slouchy, hunched-over loser who’s very much an echo of the can’t-win characters Richard Widmark played in Night in the City and Pickup on South Street. David Carradine agreed to work with Cohen again (they’d worked together in Cohen’s TV days) sight unseen, and arrived direct from the airport for his first day of shooting knowing nothing about his character or the film he was about to make, only having been told by Cohen “Wear a suit.” And this film, with its special effects, many interlocking story threads, was put together in about a week, and shot in less than three – after Cohen was fired from a bigger budget production of I, The Jury he turned around, knocked out this script he’d been holding on to and made Q. Cohen found an ideal producer in Samuel Z. Arkoff, producer of all three of the 50’s horror/sci-fi “classics” above, and for whom the idea of a flying lizard god over Manhattan was right up his alley (upon meeting Rex Reed after a screening at Cannes and hearing him gush: “All that dreck--and right in the middle of it, a great Method performance by Michael Moriarty!” Arkoff deadpanned “The dreck was my idea.”). And the New York of 1981 is as much a character in the film as any actor – it’s as much a New York piece as any Lou Reed album.
Films like this just aren’t made any more – it’s simply not possible to get together a film for just over a million bucks and get it into mainstream theaters anymore. It’s a continuation of the B movies of the 30s – 50s –cheaper, shorter films meant to support a big budget “A” film on a double feature – that were largely given over to the “exploitation film” boom of the 50s and 60s. By the 1970s, producers like Arkoff and Roger Corman had brought these films to mainstream theaters – manufactured at a fraction of a mainstream film’s cost – but by the 80s this style of film was already being pushed out following the blockbuster successes of Jaws and Star Wars with studios’ eyes firmly set on massive money, not modest, well-crafted, profit-turners like Q. And now it’s big budget, big studio versions of films like this that seem to dominate the box office and mainstream theaters, and in this field Cohen seems to be forgotten, not having written or directed a film in over 8 years after a hugely productive 70s and 80s. But these newer films almost never have the verve, love, guts, brains, or humor of Cohen’s best work – and they *never* have the low budget!
-          Patrick Brown

No comments: