Winged

Q (aka Q: The Winged Serpent) (1982)

Q (aka Q: The Winged Serpent) first published by Move Gazette, in 2005

Police detective Shepard (David Carradine) and his partner Powell (Richard Roundtree) are investigating what appears to be a series of ritualistic human sacrifices, as well as some other, possibly related incidents – like the decapitation of a window cleaner and the disappearance of a rooftop sunbather. As blood and body parts start raining onto the streets, and there are reported sightings of a giant bird-like creature in the New York skyline, Shepard’s inquiries lead him to believe that the creature worshipped by the Aztecs as Quetzalcoatl has reawakened and set up home somewhere in midtown Manhattan. Meanwhile Quinn (Michael Moriarty), ex-con, ex-junkie, small-time crim and full-time loser, stumbles upon the creature’s nest in the topmost spire of the Chrysler building, and where others would see only terror, he sees an opportunity to make a bundle and become the kind of saviour that the corrupt, cynical metropolis deserves.

Q (aka Q: the Winged Serpent) is a creature feature with a cast to get lovers of exploitation cinema drooling – David Carradine (best known then as the star of TV’s Kung Fu, and more recently as the titular target in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films), Richard Roundtree (the king of blaxploitation thanks to his leading rôle in the Shaft trilogy), and Michael Moriarty (who became writer/director Larry Cohen’s favourite actor, and would subsequently star in his The Stuff, It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive and A Return to Salem’s Lot). As if to complete the film’s B-grade credentials, there is patently preposterous plotting, a low-budget (but highly effective) stop-motion beast, apocalyptic gore, and lots of memorably cultish lines (“New York is famous for good eating”, “I’m just asking for a Nixon-like pardon”, “Fry up about 500 pounds of bacon, we’re gonna have us some breakfast”, etc.).

Yet thanks to Cohen’s taut direction, his vibrant dialogue, and the worldweary performances of his players, the film manages to soar high above its schlocky foundations (not so much B as Q), filling the many holes in its story with both engaging character drama and a subtle allegory of the place of religion in a secular world. As the heights of civilisation come under threat from the most ancient of serpents, Carradine’s Shepard, with his priestly-sounding name, his considerate manner and his ready faith, seems the right man to guide New York’s flock through its ordeal – while Moriarty’s Quinn (the other monster in the film whose name begins with Q) exhibits a sort of gritty complexity more commonly associated with the anti-heroes of film noir or seventies drama. His deep neediness, sense of emasculation, belief in nothing besides himself, and strong streak of megalomania, might make him difficult to like, but they also make him a mirror of twentieth-century angst and alienation – and the perfect foil to the film’s winged creature.

So if you want to see a monster on the rampage in New York but cannot wait till the Christmas release of Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake, Q is well worth hunting down – and seen again now, post 9/11, the film’s combination of high towers and (un)holy slayings in a New York setting brings a whole new layer of horror.

Summary: It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s… nope, it’s a bird, in this talon-sharp exploitation flick.

© Anton Bitel