"A plumed serpent? Whadda ya mean, that fucking bird?" So stammers small-time hood Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) when told by a cultist his sacrifice will allow the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl to be reborn in Larry Cohen's 1982 stop-motion extravaganza Q the Winged Serpent. Who else but Larry Cohen, the low-budget wunderkind behind such cult favorites as It's Alive and The Stuff, could take a cheesy, Z-grade creature feature and turn it into something with that kind of sardonic humor?
The plot: after a botched jewelry heist in New York City, Quinn, who just got out of jail, winds up in the top of the Chrysler Building where he finds a massive egg and the skeletal remains of a woman who disappeared while sunbathing on her roof. Turns out, this is the nest of a giant, flying serpent that has come to the city after a series of human sacrifices conducted by an Aztec cult, and it's killed many people. When threatened by his partners in crime and in a moment of desperation, Quinn lures them up to the nest, and the beast makes short work of them. For the first time in his life, Quinn sees his chance to be something big and decides to use his knowledge of the nest's location to blackmail the city.
Okay, it's silly, but there's really no better example of Cohen's appeal as a cult filmmaker: an admittedly schlocky plot with a dark streak of humor mixed in with social, philosophical subtext and serious dramatic acting. In It's Alive, Cohen used a homicidal mutant baby rampage to showcase a character study of the terrifying tyke's affected parents, an examination of abortion, and how man's poisoning of the environment has lead to the creation of a monstrous new race. In Q, Cohen has a giant flying monster to illustrate the lengths a nobody in life will go to become somebody while discussing the differences between gods and monsters (the latter can be killed). The effects are stop-motion (reminiscent of producer Samuel Arkoff's body of work), old-fashioned but well done. They have a charm CGI can't match.
Moriarty is terrific. It's really a performance it doesn't do justice to describe, but I'll try. He's a nervous, sweaty, little coward, always trying to talk his way out of everything, and he has a chip on shoulder about everything: cops, lawyers, crooks, his girlfriend Joan (Candy Clark). He tries to get a job playing piano in a bar, but he's so bad, the bartender doesn't tell him to stop; he just turns on the jukebox. Then, he stumbles upon the nest and sees an opportunity to clear up his legal problems and make a little money. The scene where he lays out his terms to the police and city is really something to behold. In short, Moriarty is hilarious as this two-bit loser.
The relationship with his girlfriend is well written. She knows his past and recognizes he's trouble, but she feels sorry for him, and deep down, she loves the guy and wants to help him. But when he thinks he finally has a shot at the big time and exerts the power he thinks he has, she's crushed.
I can't forget to mention David Carradine and Richard Roundtree as detectives investigating both the monster and the killings. Carradine is as much the protagonist as Moriarty, but he's much drier and serious, which makes him an effective foil. However, he's pretty funny in a deadpan manner. While investigating the Aztec rituals, he notes modern society merely breaks a cracker and drinks wine. "That's what I call being civilized." Meanwhile, Roundtree is in Shaft-mode as Carradine's partner who would rather rough up Quinn than pay him, and it's fun how that persona interacts with the silly monster movie aspect.
Cohen is obviously working with a low budget. The editing feels haphazard at times, and many scenes lack establishing shots. Still, he's pretty inventive, getting a lot of good aerial shots of the city and working real New York locations into the plot. There are logical lapses. Based on what the police know about Quinn, they should have been able to figure out where the nest was when he came forward. The nature of cult killings is weird (I suppose that's a given). It's said the victim must be sacrificed willing, so how does this priest keep finding so many people for the job that would allow him to skin them alive? That's never addressed. And how often must there be sacrifices? Quetzcoatl is already resurrected. Cohen also hides the priest's identity for no apparent reason. There's no mystery; he's just a weirdo that pops up at the end out of costume. And I don't care how fast it is, people would be able to see where a giant flying lizard goes.
Overall, Q is a silly monster movie but knowingly so. Cohen's inventiveness holds it together, and some good performances anchor it. This really is Cohen's finest film.