The annoy­ing thing about being a fan of Larry Cohen’s films is lis­ten­ing to well-mean­ing but mis­guid­ed film buffs com­plain that his films would be bet­ter if he spent more time or mon­ey on them.  What such a crit­i­cism miss­es is that the mag­ic of Larry Cohen’s films — at least those from his pro­lific ‘70s/‘80s peak peri­od —  are that they move at the speed of his imag­i­na­tion.  During that gold­en era, Cohen wasn’t afraid to dive right into mak­ing a film as he wrote it.  That’s how Q The Winged Serpent was made — and it’s one of his best and most beloved films.

Q The Winged Serpent was born when Cohen was dis­missed from direct­ing his adap­ta­tion of the Mike Hammer nov­el I The Jury.  Within three weeks, he had writ­ten the script, arranged the financ­ing and cast and was shoot­ing on the streets of New York City.  The fast, fas­ci­nat­ing­ly off­beat sce­nar­io he con­coct­ed takes the giant mon­ster films that were so pop­u­lar in the ‘50s and trans­plants it to an ear­ly ‘80s urban set­ting.

The plot­ting mix­es urban grit and bizarre fan­ta­sy with sur­pris­ing ease: NYC cops Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) are deal­ing with two mys­te­ri­ous sets of crimes.  The first is a series of dis­ap­pear­ances and vio­lent deaths of peo­ple atop high build­ings.  The sec­ond is a series of mur­ders in which the vic­tims have seem­ing­ly allowed them­selves to be flayed to death by the killer.

What they dis­cov­er is the stuff of b-movie dreams: the vic­tims of the high-rise killings are being attacked by Quetzlcoatl, an ancient Aztec plumed ser­pent god that is being willed back into exis­tence via skin-strip­ping rit­u­al sac­ri­fices.  As Shepard and Powell hunt for both the bird and the human killer, they cross paths with Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty), a small time crook who has stum­bled onto the high-rise nest of Quetzlcoatl… and won’t give up the loca­tion unless the city offers him the big score he’s always craved.

Q The Winged Serpent works because it has the courage of its wild­ly imag­i­na­tive con­vic­tions.  Other film­mak­ers would get embar­rassed and try to play the premise for self-con­scious campi­ness or pan­der to b-movie fans but Cohen treats the premise with respect.  He uses the notion that the fly­ing ser­pent was once wor­shipped as a chance to muse on the dif­fer­ence between god and mon­ster, which also opens up some inter­est­ing com­men­tary on religion’s place in the mod­ern world.  Better yet, he uses the var­i­ous char­ac­ters’ reac­tions to the beast to com­ment on how real peo­ple would deal with such a cri­sis — i.e., some peo­ple would get greedy and those in pow­er would try to cov­er up its exis­tence.

However, b-movie buffs shouldn’t wor­ried that Q The Winged Serpent gets too seri­ous or philo­soph­i­cal: such thought­ful themes are couched in a col­or­ful, fast-mov­ing explo­ration of gen­re flick con­ceits, deft­ly blend­ing the police pro­ce­du­ral and the small-time crim­i­nal dra­ma into a mon­ster movie premise that deliv­ers plen­ty of col­or­ful set­pieces.

Cohen’s direc­tion has a fast, funky play­ful­ness to it, mak­ing excel­lent use of NYC as a loca­tion and orches­trat­ing the sur­pris­ing­ly com­plex plot­ting with a jaun­ty pace.  The crea­ture effects are notice­ably rough around the edges, reflect­ing the cheap bud­get, but that hon­est­ly works as part of the design here (none of the giant mon­ster flicks it pays homage to had seam­less­ly con­vinc­ing effects, either).

Best of all, Cohen replaces the usu­al card­board cutout char­ac­ters fans expect in giant mon­ster flicks with off­beat, col­or­ful char­ac­ter­i­za­tions that hold Q The Winged Serpent togeth­er.  He assem­bled an excel­lent cast to bring them to life and this the film’s most impor­tant asset.  Roundtree and Carradine are fun to watch as the cops, with the lat­ter deliv­er­ing a low-key, wit­ty turn in the kind of char­ac­ter­i­za­tion that he rarely got to play.  Candy Clark also turns up in an endear­ing­ly ham­my side-role as Quinn’s long-suf­fer­ing girl­friend and the sup­port­ing cast is full of famil­iar char­ac­ter actors like John Capodice, Eddie Jones and Cohen reg­u­lar James Dixon.

That said, Q The Winged Serpent belongs to the amaz­ing Michael Moriarty as Jimmy Quinn.  Moriarty and Cohen had one of those great actor/director rela­tion­ships where the actor could con­vinc­ing­ly inter­pret what­ev­er the direc­tor came up with and the results of their work here are stun­ning.  Moriarty dives into his role with total Method actor com­mit­ment, bring­ing all man­ner of dra­mat­ic and dark­ly comedic shad­ings to what could have been anoth­er small-time crook role as he vamps and improvs his way through the pic­ture.

The result­ing per­for­mance is mag­net­ic, dom­i­nat­ing any scene he appears in, and Cohen gives him plen­ty of room to work his mag­ic: the scene where he lists his demands to the city brass is the fun­ni­est and most imag­i­na­tive scene in the film, with Moriarty bring­ing con­fi­dence and ener­gy to Cohen’s wildest characterization/dialogue con­ceits.  The results are eas­i­ly one of Moriarty’s finest per­for­mances — and one of the most indeli­ble Cohen cre­ations.

In short, Q The Winged Serpent tri­umphs over bud­getary lim­i­ta­tions and any prej­u­dice view­ers might have towards a giant mon­ster movie with a steady, end­less­ly inven­tive bar­rage of imag­i­na­tion and quirks.  If you’re a gen­re film buff and you haven’t seen it yet, make haste to check it out.  You’ve nev­er seen a mon­ster flick like this.