Movies filmed in New York City in the ‘70’s and early ‘80’s are the best. Setting a gritty and menacing scene in pre-Giuliani New York consisted of just rolling the camera. There was no need to dress the set. New York was gritty and menacing all the time, especially to people who didn’t live there. As a kid growing up in a tiny Southern town, I remember being both scared and fascinated by New York. If movies (and TV, and the news) were to be believed, there were winos and pimps on every corner, muggers and murderers down ever alley. Everything in the city wanted to rip you off or kill you. What was more amazing was that regular people actually lived in this alien world. Kids went to school in tightly packed buildings all named with a PS, everyone shopped at tiny grocery stores run by one guy, people did laundry in the middle of the night in rooms with a hundred porthole washing machines. Their apartments had buzzers and radiators and three or more deadbolts. Everything was within walking distance, past all those dangerous corners and alleys, yet somehow, not everyone got murdered. To me, New York City was as strange and exotic as a desert bazaar in a fantasy movie. By the time I was old and brave enough to go there, that New York no longer existed. The trash was cleaned up. The rats were corralled. The grindhouses of 42nd Street were replaced by AMC multiplexes and Dave & Buster’s. I have walked drunk through Times Square at 2am and have not been mugged or murdered once. Not that I’m complaining. I still love the city, but I yearn for a glimpse of the mystic days of old. Luckily, I have the movies. Through them, I can experience the grungiest side of the city without the hassle of being stabbed. There are a handful of low budget time capsules that I love, but for me, the most quintessentially New York of all of them is Larry Cohen’s 1982 nutso monster movie, Q: THE WINGED SERPENT.
It’s 1982 in New York City, and someone is biting the heads off innocent skyscraper window washers. Someone… or something. No, it’s just something. A giant lizard-bird has set up roost in the towers of Manhattan, and no one is safe to walk the rooves. Its appearance may also be connected to a string of ritual mutilations occurring in the city. Trying to make sense of it all is Detective Shepard (David Carradine) and Detective Powell (Richard “Shaft” Roundtree). The key to the whole mess could be part-time crook and full-time loser Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty). He accidentally stumbled on the nest of the creature dubbed “Q” (because no one can pronounce “Quetzalcoatl”) high in the spire of the Chrysler Building. Being the sweetheart that he is, Jimmy holds out telling the cops about the location until he can get a big pay out from the city. Will the cops be able to stop this prehistoric beast before the streets run red with the blood of construction workers and sunbathers?
Q: THE WINGED SERPENT is a strange mishmash of a movie. On one hand, it’s very ambitious—a giant winged monster attacks New York. On the other, it’s very small—an intimate character study of a small time loser and other assorted New York weirdos. It was produced by Samuel Z. Arkoff, the B movie legend who developed other classic giant monster movies like WAR OF THE COLOSSAL BEAST, REPTILICUS, and FOOD OF THE GODS. Q itself is mostly done with stop motion, and harkens all the way back to KING KONG. Larry Cohen wrote and directed it though, and without studio interference, so it’s a trashy exploitation version of a giant monster in NYC. There are lots of bloody kills, a bit of gratuitous nudity, oddball humor, and some fantastically flawed characters.
The opening clearly establishes it as a horror movie, and a juicy one at that. It starts, appropriately, on the Empire State Building. An annoying window washer is bothering some lady in a high level office as she is talking on the phone. She keeps glancing back and fake smiling at his antics until there is a screech and a POV crash zoom into the washer. The next time she looks, his headless body is pressed against the glass, pumping blood all over the window. And it was just washed. The monster is not only murderous, but also terribly inconsiderate. There’s a reoccurring gag about how unlucky the victims are. One construction worker complains about his stolen lunch moments before being snatched off the building. His foreman is enjoying the poor guy’s sandwich as his bloody hard hat falls to the ground. There is also a great bit of Cohen humor when an undercover cop, disguised as a mime, gets so scared when he sees the monster that he can’t scream, he just gestures in horror. The monster seems to be an equal opportunity predator. It dines on luxury high rise upper crusters as well as working class schmoes. Gender makes no difference, either. Q hauls off a topless sunbather in one scene, the next time it ignores all the women and plucks a condescending jerk (almost certainly a lawyer) out of a fancy rooftop pool. My favorite bit is not a kill, but the reaction of the people on the street as blood rains down from the passing Q and its prey. No one can see it because the monster always flies against the sun, so the pedestrians totally freak out when they are randomly splattered with blood from the sky. The reactions are so weird and improvised I’m suspicious if Cohen didn’t just hide the camera and fling fake blood on an unsuspecting crowd.
Since this is a Larry Cohen film, the monster angle is just the framework. The real focus of the movie is the brilliantly peculiar cast. David Carradine and Richard Roundtree are leading the hunt for the head chopping lizard-bird as Detectives Shepard and Shaft (okay, Powell, but I dare you to not just call him Shaft). These are Cohen cops, disheveled (Shepard), hot headed (Powell), and not terribly effective at their job (both). When pondering what happened to the window washer’s head, a disinterested Shepard says “Maybe it got loose and just fell off.” The detectives shout at each other as much as they do any criminals. It isn’t LETHAL WEAPON, they don’t become buddies. Shepard pursues the giant lizard-bird angle (to the point of blatantly doodling it on a notepad while in a meeting with the police commissioner). Powell wants a non-prehistoric suspect.
Before the movie even starts, they were already trying to chase down a serial killer who skins and cuts out the hearts of his victims. It seems like a weird, unconnected subplot at first, but it turns out to have an even weirder, possibly-supernatural-but-maybe-just-coincidental relation to the monster. The murders are actually sacrifices to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, intended on bringing about its return. Now, I must admit, the timing is suspicious, but Q never acts like anything other than an animal. It makes a nest (with a giant egg inside), it hunts for convenient roof dwellers, it can be hurt by regular old bullets. As a predator, it’s impressive. As a god, it’s pretty lackluster. There’s no evidence the sacrifices have anything to do with it. The weirdest thing is that the sacrificial victims all have to be willing, and they have all been middle aged, white businessmen. Not the kind of people I would imagine volunteering to have their chests sliced open (while still awake) for an ancient Aztec god. Was there some kind of Ivy League Quetzalcoatl secret society going on in the Sixties, like Skull & Bones? Is that how they became successful? It leads to a great climax, where the cult priest nabs one of the main characters and intends him to be the next sacrifice. The priest is dumbfounded when the guy refuses to die willingly. Shit, he never considered that. He’s at the point of saying “Aw, come on!” when the police bust in.
More than the monster or the cops, the star of the movie is Michael Moriarty. The sniveling two-bit crook Jimmy Quinn is not a hero, or even an anti-hero. He has zero redeeming qualities. He’s an abject coward, a horrible boyfriend, a casual racist, and complete sad sack. Yet, Moriarty plays him in a way that is almost charming. Quinn seems like a man who wants to do right, but doesn’t know where or how to begin. Right is not in his skill set. In a sole attempt to go straight, he auditions for a piano playing gig at the bar where his long suffering girlfriend, Joan (Candy Clark), works. Instead of playing a standard crowd pleaser to impress the blue collar boss, he can’t help but start noodling away on some kind of freeform jazz scat that gets him the boot. For Quinn, screwing up is instinctual. When he is strong-armed into participating in a jewelry heist (at Neil’s Diamonds), not only does he blow it by walking out mid robbery, he also loses the loot thirty seconds later. He discovers Q’s nest completely by accident, it just happens to be in the spot where he’s trying to hide out. In any other movie, the main character would do the decent thing by telling the cops (who wouldn’t believe him), but Quinn sees it only as an opportunity. He finally has something important, something people really need. Suddenly, for the first time ever, Quinn is a big man. He very clumsily uses the information to extort 1 million dollars from the city, taunting the cops and generally being a huge prick as the deal is being drawn up. Being who he is, he manages to screw that up, too. Only at the very end, when he’s at his lowest, does he make any effort to become a better man. I’m sure it lasted about fifteen minutes.
The City, in all its grungy glory, is just as much of a character as the major players. There are certainly sleazier depictions, MANIAC or BASKET CASE, for instance, but I don’t know of one that is both as sleazy and iconic at the same time. This is because the movie’s key location, Q’s nest, is in the top of the Chrysler Building. This structure is a legitimate architectural wonder, probably the best example of Art Deco style in the world, and it is second only to the Empire State Building as far as New York landmarks. On the outside, the building is marvelous. On the inside, it is a shithole. At that time, the spire was totally unmaintained, and was filled with trash, plywood, and makeshift scaffolding barely holding it together. When I first saw the movie, I was sure the internal shots were filmed elsewhere, but no, that was really what the Chrysler Building looked like inside. There were huge openings on the sides that led to a straight drop, covered only by billowing plastic sheets. Moriarty has a scene right beside one. If he had lost his balance, they would have had to make some hasty script changes. Back then, that was New York in a nutshell, beautiful and ugly at the same time.
Q: THE WINGED SERPENT did quite well for its meager budget, and Larry Cohen went on to direct the equally fantastic THE STUFF (killer yogurt) and to finish up his IT’S ALIVE trilogy (killer babies). He still keeps busy these days, mostly as a screenwriter. Michael Moriarty continues to take bizarre Michael Moriarty roles (he recently played Hitler in HITLER MEETS CHRIST). Richard Roundtree is still, and will always be, Shaft. New York City has done well for itself in the ensuing years, having become cleaner, brighter, and more Disneyfied, but under all the LED screens and Segway tours, it retains its grimy charm. Come for the shopping, the theater, and the museums, stay for the giant lizard-birds.