Movie: "Q: The Winged Serpent"
The Hemulen and I finally found time to sit down and watch Q: The Winged Serpent (1982). I loved it. It's cheese-tastic, both intentionally silly and unintentionally halfwitted, and sometimes brilliant. It flaps back and forth between being a stupid B-movie and a very sharp and well-written B-movie. Most of the actors phone it in most of the time, but there's one really good performance which lifts the film out of being forgettable. I loved pretty much every second of this film. My great and dorky love may bias some of the things I'm about to say. Well, you've been warned.
Quetzalcoatl, the Winged Serpent, is a real prehistoric monster worshiped by a death cult that still persist today. The death cult look like poorly-written Indiana Jones villains and kill people with knives in homage to their big flappy dragon god. Oh, and they also have a mommy Quetzalcoatl in midtown Manhattan, hiding out in the Chrysler Building and raising at least one egg, while venturing out to eat people from time to time. Humans begin to find out. Hijinks ensue.
Human criminals and cops in a heist-gone-wrong plot that doesn't have much to do with the monster until midway through the movie. Two of the cops are a hotblooded young black guy and a chilly older white guy, played by Richard "Shaft" Roundtree and David "Bill" Carradine. On a side note, Carradine seems to have had himself pickled somewhere between 1982 and the turn of the century, because he doesn't look a lot older in Kill Bill than he does here. They wind up on the case of Jimmy Quinn, a small-time crook played by the wonderful Michael Moriarty, whom I've never heard of otherwise. If this were a '30s gangster movie, he'd be the poor jerk played by Elisha Cook Jr. whose heart isn't in the whole guns-and-drugs-and-violence thing and who the other characters make homophobic jokes about. (Actually, a lot of sexualized menace somewhere between flirtation and homophobia is directed at this guy, to the point where Richard Roundtree's character was shoving Quinn around, calling him "sweetheart," and flat-out threatening him that he'd be raped in jail if he was sentenced again. It was unpleasant, both intentionally on the part of the filmmakers, and unintentionally in that I couldn't tell whether they meant us to side with the sexual harassment cop. I renamed the character Officer Slappy McButtsex to relieve my feelings.)
This is why you care
It's not that you're rooting for Quinn, exactly. He's established early on to be a crappy human being: he hits his girlfriend (offstage), he's a weak-willed criminal, he lets a couple of meaner, tougher friends pressure him into being the driver and then the participant in a robbery. But he's allowed to be three-dimensional in a way petty criminals never usually get to be. This is the performance that does it, that makes me buy everything else in the film. Quinn is weaselly and "scared of pretty near everything." He changes his mind in the middle of a heist, runs off, loses the bag full of loot in a busy street, gets knocked down by a car and limps badly for the rest of the film. He's always running from someone or something, covered in cold sweat, eyes staring out of his head. He's terrified by the monster until he fails his sanity check.
He owns the first legit suspenseful sequence in the movie, where he hides in the utility space in the top of the Chrysler Building and finds:
--A gnawed skeleton, with a gold charm bracelet still attached to one limb
--A huge nest containing
--An egg the size of a Volkswagen, to which
--A mommy monster is returning after a food trip where she ate joggers and construction workers off of the tops of buildings.
Subsequently, he flips out in a display of horror worthy of a Lovecraft protagonist, reappearing some hours or days later, filthy and barely able to stand, raving and crying in his girlfriend's arms back at her apartment. As displays of cosmic horror go, I'd put this performance right up there with the point in Evil Dead 2 where Ash loses his marbles and runs around shrieking with laughter. Some things are so terrible that the only reasonable response is madness. Think of the sailors fleeing from Cthulhu: one of them looks back and goes mad, laughing till it kills him. Yeah, it's not doing Q: The Winged Serpent any favors to compare it to much better monster/horror tales, overall, but it has its moments, and Quinn is responsible for all of them. Oh, hey--and at this point, the other criminals show up to get back at him for that lost bag of goodies, and start beating the crap out of him. In a surprising display of quick thinking, he goes, "Oh wait, I left it in a crawl space at the top of the Chrysler Building, let's all go get it," and proceeds to feed his former friends to the monster while staying well out of range. "They are no longer alive," he tells his girlfriend later, in the understatement of the year.
Then we watch Quinn try like hell to capitalize on his knowledge by trying to make the police drop his entire rap sheet and give him a million dollars in cash, in exchange for the monster's exact location. ("Wait," said the audience. "Couldn't the police just ask around and find out he'd been visiting the Chrysler building a lot lately?" "Shut up," explained the screenwriter.) David Carradine's one moment of good acting came when he sat Quinn down over coffee in a little diner near the police station, and played good cop. Carradine is one of those guys who was born middle-aged and always comes across like your kind old dad. The cop flatters and pets the petty thief until he almost admits the exact location of the monster, but Quinn is holding out because he's never, ever felt important before, and all the attention is making him feel like the king of New York City.
The middle third of the movie is almost entirely made up of humans struggling for tiny little scraps of power and social dominance, and being dicks to one another. Every so often, we get to check back in with Q the Winged Serpent, who is still out there eating people. No one does anything about this for some hours or days, because our lead characters on the police force are too busy slapping their small-time crook around, and no one else apparently cares or has any agency. ("Meanwhile, back at the Chrysler Building," I said to the Hemulen, "Quetzalcoatl is hatching her egg and raising kids in peace. Meanwhile, Quetzalcoatl is enrolling her eldest daughter at Columbia, and saying that they grow up so fast...")
Where are the state troopers? The National Guard? Where are the gun nuts, for crying out loud? This is the only plot hole that actually bothered me. Otherwise, it's a film full of ignorable inconsistencies and silly special effects that you can believe in context. This, though, is the part I had trouble believing: a giant prehistoric monster terrorizes Manhattan over a period of weeks during the early eighties, and no civilians get out their guns and try blasting away at it. Mere bullets can't stop Q, but human nature dictates that there should be militant survivalists out there having a try. Has Highlander taught us nothing?
The city is a character
The backgrounds are snapshots of 1980s-vintage filthy crime-ridden New York, back when Times Square was sleazier and Giuliani hadn't started trying to make the city tourism-friendly. (I sometimes meet people who are nostalgic for the good old days of Manhattan in the 1970s. None of the things they reminisce about ever sound appealing, so I find it a little hard to agree.) Everybody's loud and brash and self-centered, every outdoor surface looks dirty or smoke-coated. The monster feeds on a victim by flying right up into the eye of the sun, so the people directly below it can't see a thing, but there's blood falling in big splashes on their faces. Construction workers swear at each other and steal each other's sandwiches and then become monster chow themselves. Chinatown is full of meat and poultry markets, with dead birds on spits to foreshadow how a character's goose is about to be cooked. All this is legitimately cool scene-setting. The sense of reality on the ground is nice and strong, and yet every so often a huge prehistoric beast swoops down and eats someone. The camera spends a lot of time pointlessly flying around admiring the beauty of New York's urban decay. ("We rented this damn helicopter and by God we're going to get some good aerial shots in this film," said the Hemulen.)
At one point, we swoop past the central courtyard of Columbia, and I couldn't help thinking that meanwhile, Peter, Raymond, and Egon were in there torturing freshmen and brain-scanning each other with metal colander helmets.
Randomly, Quinn's long-suffering girlfriend has a beautiful apartment. Black and gold peacock paper, lots of books, couches draped in red afghans, and posters of art like Rossetti's Persephone. I suspect it may have been a real apartment belonging to someone involved with the film and they just left it as it was. Also there was a lovely, watercolor poster for a Christopher Lee-centered film of Dracula that I can't seem to find anywhere online. At first I said, "Stop making me think about better movies than this one!" but as time went on I changed my tune.
I'm just going to spoil the ending for you
Quinn doesn't die. I was sure he was merely an unusually hardy victim, at first, then I thought he would die to atone for how shitty a person he was, but partly through his own daring and partly through the cops being righteous, he survives monsters, cultists, and his own overgrown ego, and walks off at the end vowing to become a better guy. I was impressed that they didn't go the easy-morality route and kill him via avenging monster. It's so easy, when you have a morally grungy character and an amoral monster in the same script, to wipe out the one with the other. As they say on TV Tropes, redemption equals death. Quite a lot of the time, it equals death because that's easier for the good people to deal with than it would be if they had to cope with releasing a former villain back into the world. Hey, then they might even have to face difficult moral choices! But Quinn even gets one or two moments of bravery. One is when he thinks a guy is about to slit his throat and just sits up, cusses him out, and dares him to do it.
She was a fell beast before it was cool
I like winged serpents. Ever since seeing this painting by Evelyn De Morgan as a child, I've been fond of flying snakes. Here you go: Queen Eleanor and Fair Rosamund. You're welcome. I was kind of hoping Quetzalcoatl in this film would turn out to be a giant version of those cute little wrigglers, but it was just your basic dragon-shaped plastic monster flying on strings. Nothing we haven't seen before. Though there was a pleasant moment of familiarity when Q clung to the top of a skyscraper for a moment and the Hemulen and I both went, "Nazgul!" There was also an odd precursor to Pacific Rim when a baby monster emerged from its egg only to be shot full of holes and die at once. I confess I just felt sad about that. ~NOOO SNAKEBABY LET ME HOLD YOU~!
Excellent monster horror. Unusually subtle for a rubber-creature movie, it keeps the monster offscreen to a great degree. They may have schlocky production values, but they know not to shove Q in our faces except when they really make it count.
Oh, and I forgot to mention the diner
The characters have their own equivalent of Jake's. "What is Jake's?" you may ask, and rightly so. Jake's was the greasy-spoon diner across the street from the courthouse in the town where I grew up. Kind waitresses, lots of fried food, breakfast all day, big chipped white coffee mugs, and little metal creamer jugs with lids. Jake's has changed hands and raised its prices a little, but it's still around and still good, and it's also still the place where everybody from the county courthouse goes for a snack. Consequently there are always at least a few tables full of lawyers and perps. If you see men in nice suits at Jake's, they'll be arranged in pairs, and one will be old and overweight and grim. He's the lawyer. The other will be younger and loudmouthed and his suit will be really new. He's the suspect. There's a nice moment in Q: The Winged Serpent where Good Cop and Shifty Perp go to their Jake's for a coffee, and the nice old waitress is totally unfazed by all the tension in the air. It could have been my own Jake's, right down to the old creamer jug.