Halloween Every Day (for a Month)
By Andrew Neil Cole
Day 27: Q: The Winged Serpent (1982).
Q: The Winged Serpent is a monster movie that constantly oscillates between the old and the new, with results that oscillate between surprisingly effective and terribly cheesy. For example, the story concerns an ancient terror being visited upon a modern metropolis; the old-school Ray Harryhausen-style stop-motion creature effects are employed to create the kind of gore-soaked decapitations and eviscerations that more modern-minded horror audiences have come to expect; and the classic monster-on-the-loose storyline shares narrative space with contemporary crime subplots that include a police investigation of apparent human sacrifices and a botched diamond heist attempted by a small-time criminal outfit. This bringing-together of “what was” and “what is” can be an effective horror/sci-fi device when properly applied. One could argue that the most compelling moments in Jurassic Park owe a debt to this very device. After all, it’s not simply the reintroduction of dinosaurs that is terrifying, it’s the idea of these prehistoric predators existing in an extrinsic era and environment that generates the film’s suspense. A T. rex stomping through the jungle is cool, but a T. rex attacking and dismantling a fully loaded, rail-guided tour car is much cooler. Similarly, velociraptors stalking prey is cool, but those same raptors stalking ’90s-era children in a state-of-the-art kitchen, their claws clacking on stainless steel prep tables, is much, much cooler. Regrettably, director Larry Cohen didn’t have anywhere near the resources available to him on Q: The Winged Serpent that were available to Steven Spielberg on Jurassic Park.
The titular Q in Q: The Winged Serpent is actually Quetzalcoatl, a vengeful Aztec god with giant wings, a beaklike mouth full of pointy teeth, a serpentine tail, and four sets of razor-sharp talons. Q swoops around Manhattan chomping on New Yorkers in a series of rather impressive aerial POV shots. There is also a climactic shoot-out that takes place in the spire of the Chrysler Building that is clearly meant to conjure memories of the final moments of King Kong. This sequence, which features scores of cops firing machine guns at the circling monster, works as another example of the film’s penchant to marry the old with the new; however, this time the monster attacks the building filled with armed men, the reverse of Kong, where the monster swats at circling biplanes from its perch atop the Empire State Building.
Unfortunately, for all the fun there is to be had with Q: TWS, the cockamamie story and outdated special effects drench the film in the unmistakably sticky sheen of B-movie stink. The film’s frequent attempts to portray its outrageous subject seriously are always undercut by laughable F/X sequences and/or absurd story revelations. But then again, don’t we watch movies like this precisely because of laughable F/X sequences and absurd story revelations? I know I do.
While it’s easy to nitpick the many faults of Q: TWS, it’s also not quite fair. This is a low-budget monster movie that completely succeeds as a low-budget monster movie. It is exactly what it is supposed to be. It could be argued that the film suffers most from a simple case of poor timing. Let’s not forget that Q: TWS was released in 1982, a time when monster movies were defined by more expensive studio projects like Jaws (1975), Alien (1979), and John Carpenters The Thing, a film often regarded as the best creature/monster movie ever, which happened to be released the same year as Q. All of these films, as well as the original Star Wars trilogy, whose creatures and monsters have been universally praised, had significantly more financial and material resources at their disposal than a film like Q.
In the end, like so many great B-movies, this film’s enduring charm will continue to endure precisely because of its shortcomings rather than in spite of them. People don’t still watch Plan 9 from Outer Space or Troll 2 because they’re perfect works of cinema; they still watch them because they’re fun. Genre fans would be wise to forgive the film’s smattering of annoying cinematic peccadilloes and enjoy it the way it was meant to be enjoyed—with a few slices of cold pizza and a beer, and without cynicism.