Our review of Q: The Winged Serpent, published October 12th, 2001, is also available.
You'll just have time to scream…before it tears you apart!
Fortunately, the tagline refers to the creature and not the movie itself. Technically speaking, Q: The Winged Serpent is a "bad" movie that will not readily be mistaken for Citizen Kane, yet Q is the quintessential B movie, original and ambitious.
The marketing for Q would have you believe it is a serious horror film made to scare the P out of you. Watching in that mindset will rob you of Q's true merit: a wild venture into improbability rendered with quirky humor and piercing social commentary. Sit back and watch the absurd confluence of big politics, small time hoods, and a centuries-old Mesoamerican deity.
Facts of the Case
A cult of dedicated New Yorkers has prayed an ancient Aztec god back into existence. Quetzalcoatl (the half reptile/half bird deity) builds a nest atop the Chrysler building and goes on a spree of head-chomping vengeance.
While jaded cops Detective Shepard (David Carradine) and Sergeant Powell (Richard Roundtree) ponder the bemusing evidence, small time crook Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) makes a bid for the big time. He finds himself on the run and takes shelter atop the Chrysler building. Guess who Jimmy meets there?
When faced with the gaping fanged maw of an ancient god, most guys would run. But Jimmy knows a break when he sees it. Can this slobbering instrument of reptilian destruction lead Jimmy to the cash and respect he craves?
My esteemed fellow Judge Patrick Naugle has already covered the film in a previous review. Thus I will not dwell overlong on the movie itself, except to point out the audacious attitude and humor that power this film. The idea that New-agey New Yorkers prayed to life a flying serpent is inspired. The serpent takes up residence in the Chrysler building and begins feasting on blue-collar types. Do I sense the faint odor of political commentary? Moriarty gives a performance that by all rights should annoy, yet he holds the screen with authority. Throw in a realistically antagonistic relationship between Richard "Shaft" Roundtree and David "Caine" Carradine, and you get three watchable performances.
Special effects are hit or miss. Given the budget, they are impressive, but ultimately unconvincing. Q is a riot, which is high praise for a stop-motion clay figure. The special effects go south when the shootout occurs: this scene is even more poorly integrated than the other soft-focus effects.
The biggest flaw in this movie is the rambling integration of subplots, a mishmash that derails momentum once too often. The base is a standard horror plot of "gargantuan beast on the loose chomping heads and raining blood into the streets." Cohen adds a mystery subplot where David Carradine's bookish detective hunts for the truth and confronts a psychotic adversary. But wait, there's more! You also get the Jimmy Quinn Life Story, wherein a smalltime paranoid crook tries to make it as a heavy playa. These subplots mostly succeed in the beginning and middle, but when it comes time to wrap them up, the burden on the viewer is just too great. Overall, Q is deliciously enjoyable in that "bad" way.
Judge Naugle reviewed a 2001 barebones Anchor Bay release. The Blue Underground version eliminates the shortcomings of that uninspired release. This DVD is superior in terms of visuals, audio, and extras. If you are a fan of Larry Cohen's unique spin on cinema, this is the release for you.
The biggest improvement is the audio. Blue Underground digitally remixed the soundtrack, and I am stunned at the results—absolutely stunned. Q was originally released with a mono soundtrack. This release gives us four audio options that mirror the evolution of discrete channel sound: the original mono, a stereo track, a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track, and a 6.1 DTS-ES mix. Let's hear how they stack up.
For the purpose of comparison, I listened to the first death scene in all four audio versions, leaving the volume knob untouched. In this scene, a comely professional enters her office and gossips on the phone about the voyeuristic window-washer. Said window washer swipes his squeegee across the glass in that inimitable warbled squealing. Fortunately, Q is a feminist vigilante of sorts. She soon rids the harassment victim of her stalker by screeching through the air and chomping the creep's head clean off. The dispatch is perhaps more brutal than the damsel in distress was seeking, because she shrieks with all of her B movie might.
Mono—This track isn't bad for a mono track. The dialogue is often muddled, but the track is ambitiously dramatic. The serpent screeches and beats her powerful wings; the street continues its oblivious cacophony. This track is mainly for purists, but it contains enough raw material to mine for the surround tracks.
Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo—It is amazing to behold the leap from single to dual channel sound. I actually jumped when the window washer's squeegee arced across the screen, panning through the mains. Stereo is a great improvement, and I can see why people got so excited by the format back in the day. For those without surround sound, you will not be disappointed with this track. There is clear separation and good use of discrete channels.
Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround EX—After the 2.0 leap, I was prepared for an equal sonic boon with the added four channels. Alas, I found this 5.1 mix muddy and hazy. The surround channels sluggishly echoed some of the front information. Yes, technically there were surround effects, but this track lacked oomph. I'd almost rather listen to the 2.0 track for its retro goodness.
6.1 DTS-ES—The DTS-ES track was simply amazing. It would hold its own against many newer 5.1 tracks. The mix was loud and sparkling (some might say overbright, but you need to make some concessions in a 6.1 mix from a mono original). Remember, I'd seen this same scene five times already: once in the original viewing, once in listening to the commentary track, and three times in a row for the previous audio tracks. Yet I got completely spooked when old Q screeched across the screen and did her "bobbing for noggins" shtick. Maybe it's because I was specifically listening for audio quality, but still I knew exactly what was coming and I was still spooked. That's how dynamic this track is. I don't have a rear center channel, so those with may find the track even better. I can't fathom how the Blue Underground engineers pulled it off.
The video is an improvement as well. Blue Underground has re-transferred this film and presented it anamorphically. This is as good as Q is likely to get. The image quality isn't stellar, but as Cohen points out in the commentary, the movie looks good for a non-studio effort. It has a bohemian "whip out a video camera and take some shots" aesthetic that gives away Q's independent roots, but the outdoor lighting is clear and the interior shots passable. No transfer is good enough to mask the soft effects shots and jerky stop-motion clips. The effects don't really matter because the whole thing is a riff on the monster movie instead of a literal monster movie. In any case, there is little to quibble over regarding the transfer.
The best extra is a commentary by Larry Cohen, moderated by Blue Underground head honcho Bill Lustig. If Q seems to meander through diverse subplots at times, this commentary will immediately clear up why: Larry Cohen thinks at hyperspeed. Bill Lustig gets right to the point in a recent interview (linked at right):
"I love and respect Larry even though there were times many years ago when I wanted to strangle him. Larry is one of the most talented, intelligent, bright people I have ever met in this business and God Told Me To, Q, and Bone are three of his finest films."
Larry's commentary is dense, wild, and intriguing. He bestows many pearls of B movie wisdom; I would feel guilty were I to deprive you of hearing them yourself.
Rounding out the extras are a somewhat lame teaser, a thorough stills gallery, and a bio of Larry Cohen. With improved video, fantastic sound, and a nice volley of extras, this DVD leaves Anchor Bay's release decapitated, wriggling in the dust.
You can take Q at face value, or you can appreciate a tongue-in-cheek dose of fun with zealously engaging acting performances. From the stars to the lowliest extras, everyone hams it up with admirable glee. Q is deeply flawed, yes. But the pure verve and intricacy show us what B cinema is capable of.
How can this court deliver a verdict on a god? Especially when that god is a vindictive Aztec reptile. Case dismissed. Note to Larry Cohen: topless sunbathers are always welcome additions to horror movies. Well done!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Blue Underground
• Audio Commentary with Writer/Director Larry Cohen
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