Legend has it that in the early eighties, respected horror director Larry Cohen (It’s Alive) looked up at the Chrysler Building in New York City and said “that would be the coolest place for a nest.” The legend goes on to say that Cohen, fired from the directing job on another film and not wanting his New York stay to go to waste, quickly wrote, cast and shot Q, one of the greatest monster movies of the decade.
Q is the story of a couple of New York cops, Shepard (David Carradine, or Bill from the Kill Bill movies) and Powell (Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree), who find a rash of dead bodies in their jurisdiction. Some of the bodies are missing the heads, others are skinned and still more are found missing internal organs. Shepard and Powell soon begin to suspect a cult of committing the murders in an attempt to summon the Aztec winged serpent god Quetzalcoatl, a ridiculous theory that gains some credibility when citizens around the city start seeing a huge flying creature that has been abducting people like construction workers and sunbathers from the tops of buildings. An out of work, two bit pianist-turned-jewel thief named Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty from T.V.’s “Law & Order”) happens upon the lair of the beast, hidden up at the top of the Chrysler Building, while on the run from a heist. Quinn tries to cash in on this knowledge by demanding money and immunity for his crimes from the police in exchange for the monster’s whereabouts. Knowing the city is under siege, Shepard strikes a deal with Quinn, hoping that he and the NYPD can stop the flying snake before it kills any more innocent people.
With his ability to make a cheap film look expensive, Larry Cohen is a master of walking the thin line between cheese and steak. As crazy and out-there as his concepts and stories are, they never come off as low-budget, even when they are. Whether Larry Cohen did all of his pre-production for Q in a single week like the rumors say is irrelevant – the film is a benchmark of modern monster movies, tying the old stop-motion model technology with the blood and guts of the eighties splatter flicks. Executive producer Samuel Z. Arkoff was definitely no stranger to monster movies (Earth vs. the Spider, Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) or horror films (Dressed to Kill, The Amityville Horror), and Cohen enlisted the help of David Allen (Twilight Zone: The Movie) , Randy Cook (The Thing) and Peter Kuran (Star Wars) to construct the titular winged serpent. Add in the stellar cast and ambitious score by Robert O. Raglund (Grizzly, 10 to Midnight), and Q hits the mark, even if it does so a bit clumsily.
In the scenes where the full creature is seen (and it’s seen quite a bit, not like in hide and seek monster movies), the monster is created with stop-motion models, giving it a sputtery, jerky feel not unlike the old 1933 version of King Kong. When just a head or claw is shown, a prosthetic is used, usually to attack a victim, and the old rubber-suit Godzilla style movies come to mind. And when the creature shrieks, it gives out a screech that can curl someone’s hair. The creature looks about as realistic as a mythical creature can look, and, for the time and technology (and budget), the monster is freaky.
The suspension of disbelief is tested in the final reel of the film. The creature effects during the final standoff with the monster appear rushed, not as slick as the earlier scenes of the picture. The sub-par visuals would be more forgivable if they were consistent with the rest of the film, but the downgrade is a little distracting. Not that the first two acts are completely believable, but the final battle is the only part of the film that really looks cheap. Even with the flaws in the last fight, Q still would not be better looking with today’s CG animation; the stop motion modeling is both a tribute to past films and a look ahead to the future of practical effects work.
Michael Moriarty is brilliant as Jimmy Quinn. He plays the reluctant but desperate criminal perfectly, with just the right touch of humor. Moriarty even shows off his musical talents a bit, contributing a cool, improvised piano and scat piece that seems to annoy the other characters rather than impress them. David Carradine’s Shepard is the yin to Quinn’s yang, verbally sparring with him every time they interact, knowing that they need each other but hating to admit it. The rest of the cast is hit and miss, but with those two heavyweights anchoring the film, the inexperience of the bit players is hardly a distraction.
As one of the unsung heroes of the horror genre, Larry Cohen has always made creative and innovative films that look great and don’t break the studio bank. And, if the stories are to be believed, he can be counted on to produce a classic like Q on a moment’s notice.