Following the box office success of Conan the Barbarian, the early 80s saw a slew of low-budget action movies that mixed ‘sword-and-sandal’ epic with weird science fiction vibes. If you grew up in the 80s, you probably remember cult movies like Krull, The Sword and the Sorcerer, or The Ice Pirates. If you look at the promotional materials for Q the Winged Serpent you’d assume it falls into that same subgenre of early 80s ‘sword-and-sandal’ B-movie knock-off. Except it doesn’t. From cult-film writer, director, and producer Larry Cohen, Q the Winged Serpent is one of those movies that’s hard to categorize and defies its own advertising. Yet this odd early 80s entry has earned a bit of critical praise.
In New York City, NYPD detectives Shepard and Powell are working a case of bizarre murders characterized by Aztec rituals. Meanwhile a series of strange rooftop murders are plaguing the city. City residents are describing something akin to a winged prehistoric creature preying on the city. And small-time crook Jimmy Quinn inadvertently stumbles on the lair of the very winged Aztec monster. But Quinn sees it as an opportunity to finally ditch his ‘loser’ image – will his maneuvering jeopardize the lives of thousands of New Yorkers?
Q The Winged Serpent Mixes Genres Into an Oddly Compelling Feature
Nothing about Q the Winged Serpent should work. In the 1980s and early 1990s, audiences just weren’t ready for 50s monster movie nostalgia. Neither The Blob remake nor Joe Dante’s Matinee struck much of a chord with audiences. At its core, writer and director Larry Cohen has made an old-fashioned monster movie albeit one adjusted for 80s sensibilities. There’s certainly a bit more blood and some nudity that you wouldn’t find in Them! or The Beast From 20 000 Fathoms. But it’s also the odd mixing of genres that shouldn’t work. In addition to its B-monster roots, Q The Winged Serpent is a police procedural and a character study of a failed smalltime crook. No one would accuse Cohen of lacking ambition.
At its core, writer and director Larry Cohen has made an old-fashioned monster movie albeit one adjusted for 80s sensibilities.
Of course, this isn’t to say that this genre mixing completely works. Though the pacing isn’t sluggish, the winged Aztec monster often plays a supporting role in its own movie. Some of this is just Cohen hedging his bets and opting to limit the monster’s appearance due to budgetary constraints. It’s also in keeping with the narrative structure of 50s B-movie creature features. Contemporary audiences may find this movie to be a little too slow. Yet even today one of the most common complaints about monster movies, like Godzilla vs Kong, is the inability of big budget movies to find something useful to do for its human characters. Here, Q The Winged Serpent actually offers a surprisingly effective story that extends beyond its monster origins.
Q The Winged Serpent Compensates for Lower-Budget Monster With Character Focus
Regardless of when it’s released, any monster movie worth watching needs a convincing monster. For its time period, Q The Winged Serpent wasn’t going to win any awards for special effects. Maybe it falls a notch or two below what you might find in Clash of the Titans. Younger horror fans may not be impressed. Nonetheless, Cohen puts something on screen that’s not nearly as bad as you’d expect based just on the movie’s promotional materials. In fact, for much of its runtime, Cohen impresses with his ability to stretch dollars and cents. Not surprisingly, Q the Winged Serpent struggles more as the movie requires more of its titular monster. It’s an unavoidable problem – no matter what subplots you develop, a monster movie necessitates some big monster moments.
Nonetheless, Cohen puts something on screen that’s not nearly as bad as you’d expect based just on the movie’s promotional materials.
Where Q the Winged Serpent really diverges from similar movies is its commitment to its characters. For better or worse, Cohen leans heavily on Michael Moriarty’s (The Stuff, Along Came a Spider) smalltime crook, Jimmy Quinn. Certainly, Moriarty rewards Cohen with a performance that probably shockingly exceeds expectations. Whether it’s want audiences wanted, Moriarty gives a lesson on how to use human characters in monster movies. At the very least, there’s a story arc in the movie that extends beyond its monster. Along for the ride, David Carradine (Massacre at Central High) and Richard Roundtree (Shaft) are perfectly fine in spite of the screenplay’s disproportionate focus on Moriarty’s ‘Quinn’.
Q the Winged Serpent Worth a Watch for Diehard Fans of 80s Horror
Simply put, Q the Winged Serpent is an absolute oddity of a movie. Everything from its picture quality and aesthetics to its cast just screams early 1980s. On the other hand, its promotional material while not completely misrepresenting the movie, certainly doesn’t do it any justice. Cohen blends seemingly disparate genres – Q the Winged Serpent is an old-fashioned monster movie with 80s sensibilities. But it’s also a quirky character study of a small-time crook looking to finally cash in. What we ultimately get is an odd, if not largely effective, creature feature that overcomes many of its own limitation. Pacing issues may preclude younger horror fans from appreciating it, but Q the Winged Serpent is a worthwhile flick for horror enthusiasts.