Director, producer and writer Larry Cohen has, over the course of a long and varied career in movies, perfected the art of, and created the blue print for how to succeed in independent film making -- inspiring people like Bill Lustig ("Maniac") in the process. He has proved himself extremely good at thinking up original and imaginative ideas, has the skills to bring his vision to the screen with minimal financial resources, and displays a quick and confident director's eye for detail. These qualities probably explain the fact that Cohen has consistently masterminded a larger than average number of cult favourites over the years. The word "cult" gets bandied around a great deal these days and has become almost a genre tag in itself. Where once the word was reserved only for movies that didn't fit comfortably into any bracket, yet had gradually gained a following, it is now often used to describe movies which are being made specifically to appeal to a certain type of "cult" audience in the first place.
Cohen's films are cult items in the true sense of the word though: small films that have developed a big reputation through word-of-mouth over time. Cohen continues to write screenplays such as the excellent "Cellular" (2004) and the Joel Schumacher directed "Phone Booth" (2002), but "Q: The Winged Serpent" is a good example of his abilities as a film maker: put together in a week after he'd been sacked from "I The Jury" (which eventually opened on the same day as "Q" to considerably less acclaim), and shot in eighteen days, the film still looks like a slick, well-made television movie from the eighties and boasts several standout performances from a wonderful cast, despite an, almost, guerilla approach to its production. With a small crew and an interesting premise at his disposal, Cohen manages to forge a weird alliance between the well-loved stop-motion animation monster movies of Ray Harryhausen, gory Gothic horror flicks and seventies TV cop shows, coming up with an imaginative and quirky little treat that works all the better for Cohen's pragmatic approach to movie making and the film's endearing rough-around-the-edges style.
The NYPD have a baffling series of murders on their hands: office-window cleaners, topless sunbathers and rooftop construction workers alike are being snatched from the skies -- resulting in a rain of blood and severed limbs descending on the residents of the Big Bad Apple! While hard-bitten detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) struggle to deal with bizarre sightings of a winged serpent over the city, a spate of horrific ritual murders are also pressing on their limited time. Flayed bodies are being found scattered all over the place, showing all the hallmarks of being sacrificial offerings to the Aztec serpent god, Quetzalcoatl! Meanwhile, ex-jazz pianist and small-time criminal Jimmy Quin (Michael Moriarty) is on the run from both the police and his criminal colleagues after a bungled diamond heist (at "Neil Diamond’s" no less!) results in him losing all the stolen loot! While attempting to find a hide-out in the spires of the Chrysler building, Quin stumbles upon a giant bird's nest containing a huge egg! It seems a real winged serpent has, indeed, been raised by the Aztec murder-sacrifices and, attracted by the towering temple-like skyscrapers of the New York skyline -- in particular the baroque bird ornamentation of the Chrysler building -- Quetzalcoatl is now making the people of the city his prey! A loser all his life, Quin now finds himself holding all the cards when Shepard and Powell need his help to track down the winged killer.
Despite all the enjoyable quirky elements Cohen brings to the script, it is the time & attention spent on characterisation that has probably ensured the film's longevity. A noteworthy cast consisting of stars, David Carradine and Richard Roundtree -- who bring a great deal of wit and charm to, what could be deemed, fairly standard "TV cop" roles -- and introducing some up-and-coming talent in the form of Candy Clark ("The Man Who Fell To Earth") and Michael Moriarty ("Law & Order"), helps to give it much more authority than such b movie material would normally be thought to deserve. In fact, Moriarty (a regular of Cohen's films with a reputation for being difficult) steals the show with his portrayal of small-time hood Jimmy Quin – it’s a performance that strikes a delicate balancing-act between the dramatic and the comic and perfectly encapsulates the ironic tone of the movie. Candy Clark is also charming as Quin's long-suffering and sympathetic girlfriend.
Director of photography, Fred Murphy manages to make the film look a great deal more expensive than it actually is, and, with the help of "Superman" special-effects man Al Cerillo, Cohen comes up with some of the most dizzying and fluid helicopter shots of New York ever shot (including some poignant shots of the Twin Towers), which really create a unique atmosphere when combined with the strange sound effects and some ingenious "serpent shadow" special effects work! This helps the film avoid having to rely on the rubbery model creature stop-motion effects too much -- although even they are done with such panache and energy that, despite being rendered completely obsolete by today's CGI methods, they are able to engender a marvelous sense of excitement precisely because of their innocent naivety. It's this attitude, combined with the usual b movie requirements of gore and nudity, and real locations rather than sets, that gives the film its unique sensibility. A fantastic orchestral score by Robert O. Ragland provides the icing on the cake of this clever and well-made classic.
Scream Factory releases "Q: The Winged Serpent" in a solid 1.78:1 transfer that, while a bit on the soft side, is quite the improvement over previous DVD releases. One has to assume the source materials are not in the best of condition and that, barring a full restoration, this is about the best we can expect this low-budget gem to look, so, in that regard, Scream Factory have done a fine job, here. The accompanying DTS HD 2.0 Master Audio track is also much improved over its lossy cousins, with a richer, fuller sound than its DVD ilk.
As for bonus features, Scream Factory only includes one of any consequence, and that's a new feature-length commentary track with writer/director, Larry Cohen. Rounding out the bonus features are trailers/teasers for the film (SD).
"Q: The Winged Serpent" seems to have had a very large influence on many other films for such a small scale affair: everything from "Reservoir Dogs" (check out the heist scene) to the remake of "Godzilla" owe it some sort of debt. It now looks set to expand its cult status thanks to this nice Blu-ray release. Well worth checking out.
Read more from Black Gloves at his blog, Nothing But the Night!