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30 Years On: Q - The Winged Serpent Revisited
Andrew Stimpson , September 5th, 2012 02:48

Andrew Stimpson flies back to 1982 and Larry Cohen's cult creature feature, which is screening as part of Scala Beyond in London this week

Frequently described as a maverick and an auteur, Larry Cohen is the type of filmmaker who is a poor match for Hollywood's modern, risk-averse corporate culture, but the 1970s were made for him. Equally at home with television and cinema, in the director's chair or as a scribe, his output is the stuff of cult film lovers' dreams. After creating the phenomenally successful sci-fi serial The Invaders and writing for numerous high profile TV shows, Cohen branched out into exploitation cinema. He made his directorial debut in 1972 with the social situation comedy Bone (aka Dial Rat), then helmed the blaxploitation classics Black Caesar (aka The Godfather of Harlem) and its sequel Hell Up In Harlem, both released the following year.

Shortly afterwards Cohen made a significant impact upon the horror genre with It's Alive. This creepy, violent and effective picture was first released in 1974 to little notice but, following the modest success in 1976 of his next self-produced, written and directed project, the science fiction-tinged thriller God Told Me To, Warner Bros re-released the killer baby shocker on the back of a high profile marketing campaign to great reward. It's Alive 2: It Lives Again followed in 1978, then in 1981 came Full Moon High: a dubious but strangely familiar sounding comedy about a young football player who strives to keep his lycanthropy a secret from his sweetheart and schoolmates.

Q: The Winged Serpent was conceived in 1982 after Cohen was replaced as director on his Mickey Spillane adaptation I, the Jury. Ever resourceful he managed to draft a script, gather his lead actors, and source a modest budget from legendary AIP producer Samuel Arkoff, all in the space of a few days. Back in business scarcely a week after being fired, Cohen went on to shoot Q in just three weeks.

On the face of it, this is a relatively straightforward monster flick in which a voracious predator swoops down from its tower of glass and steel to prey upon ordinary New Yorkers. In less skilled hands, clumsy analogies and hackneyed genre staples would dominate proceedings. However, as in God Told Me To, Cohen is masterful in his shorthand portrayal of his teeming hometown menaced from above by an unknown terror.

Persistently embellished by litter and peeling paintwork, and drawn on a canvas of run-down streets and a Hogarth-like backdrop of real denizens of Lower Manhattan, Q: The Winged Serpent offers a truthful vision of New York, by a native New Yorker. In fact Cohen's best films, Q and God Told Me To, tackle science fiction and horror themes from a solid foundation of truthful, character-driven drama in a fashion that has been largely forgotten.

Cohen's clinical visual style and honest, character-driven values as a writer are a strong part of his work's appeal, and a far cry from the 21st century treatments of Cohen scripts by the likes of Joel Schumacher (Phone Booth) and Roland Joffé (Captivity). Granted, Q features a slew of flying monster shots, beak-inflicted decapitations and Aztec sacrifices, but the story is rooted in Michael Moriarty's intense performance as a petty criminal and all-round loser who spots an opportunity, and ably reinforced by the presence of B-movie stalwarts Richard Roundtree and David Carradine as a pair of well-seasoned detectives taking all the monstrous mayhem in their stride.

Even in scenes without the general public in the background, Cohen's casting choices for supporting roles reflect the same wonderful aesthetic shared by other highly individual and independent directors, notably Abel Ferrara and George A Romero, in that they all use interesting faces that would struggle to get near a camera in today's superficial, image -obsessed industry. Q is also genuinely unsettling, despite some creaky special effects, and few movies have ever utilised the towers of the New York skyline so effectively as a nauseatingly three dimensional landscape that regularly induces vertigo in the viewer.

After Q: The Winged Serpent, Cohen continued to direct but much of his oeuvre is largely forgotten today, with just occasional highlights such as The Stuff (1985), It's Alive 3: Island of the Alive (1987) and The Ambulance (1990) making an impact upon the home video market. His most recent big screen directing job was the retro-blaxploitation feature Original Gangstas in 1996. He continues to write prodigiously for film and television, but his true legacy is the '70s and early '80s output. If you haven't done it already then a Larry Cohen moviethon of God Told Me To, Q: The Winged Serpent, The Stuff and the It's Alive trilogy is just a damn fine time.

The Exploding Head Film Club presents a New York Nightmares of Larry Cohen double bill comprising Q: The Winged Serpent and God Told Me To at the Roxy Bar & Screen this Thursday September 6, as part of the ongoing Scala Beyond season. The movies will be be introduced by Time Out critic Tom Huddleston and bookended by DJs spinning “era-defining NYC sounds”. The event starts at 7pm and tickets are a mere £4; more information here.