This 1982 film from Larry Cohen is a strange one.
Q stands for Quetzalcoatl, a winged-serpent that was once worshiped by the Aztecs. In New York someone has been performing ritual sacrifices, flaying victims of their skin. As a result, Q has flown all the way to New York City and has taken residence in the Chrysler Building. She’s also laid an egg, from which a baby Q will soon emerge.
Now, I’ve always heard that it’s next to impossible to surprise a New Yorker. Apparently, living in New York City means that you’ve seen it all. And that certainly seems to be the case with this film because no one in New York seems to notice that there’s a winged serpent flying over the city. Somehow, Q manages to snatch up all sorts of people without anyone noticing. When Q beheads a window washer, Detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) aren’t particularly concerned by the fact that they can’t find the man’s head. Shepard just shrugs and says the head will turn up eventually.
Q is really two films in one. One of the films deals with a winged serpent flying over New York and killing people. This film is a throwback to the old monster movies of the 50s and 60s, complete with some charmingly cheesy stop motion animation. The film is silly but undeniably fun. Director Cohen is both paying homage to and poking fun at the classic monster movies of the past and both Carradine and Roundtree gamely go through the motions as the two cops determined to take down a flying monster.
But then there’s also an entirely different film going on, a film that feels like it belongs in a totally different universe from the stop-motion monster and David Carradine. This second film stars Michael Moriarty as Jimmy Quinn, a cowardly but charming criminal who would rather be a jazz pianist. Quinn may be a habitual lawbreaker but he always makes the point that he’s never carried a gun. He does what he has to do to survive but he’s never intentionally hurt anyone. In Quinn’s eyes, he’s a victim of a society that has no room for a free-thinker like him.
However, when Quinn stumbles across Q’s nest, he suddenly has an opportunity to make his mark. As he explains it to the police, he’ll tell them where to find the serpent and her eggs. But they’re going to have to pay him first….
In the role of Quinn, Michael Moriarty is a jittery marvel. Whenever Moriarty is on screen, he literally grabs the film away from not only his co-stars but even his director and makes it his own. Suddenly, Q is no longer a film about a monster flying over New York City. Instead, Q becomes a portrait of an outsider determined to make the world acknowledge not only his existence but also his importance. After spending his entire life on the fringes, Jimmy Quinn is suddenly the most important man in New York and he’s not going to let the moment pass without getting what he wants. Thanks to Moriarty’s bravura, method-tinged performance, Jimmy Quinn becomes a fascinating character and Q becomes far more than just another monster movie.
It makes for a somewhat disjointed viewing experience but the film still works. With its charmingly dated special effects and it’s surprisingly great central performance, Q is definitely a film that deserves to be better-known.