Q: The Winged Serpent Blu-ray Review (originally published 2013)
The New York police department is flabbergasted when reports of a giant, dragon-like creature appears in the skies above the city and begins plucking unsuspecting victims from rooftops and raining their blood upon the streets. Detective Dr. Shepard (David Carradine) and Sgt. Powell (Richard Roundtree) are put on the case and realize the creature’s sudden appearance may have something to do with a series of murders that resemble ancient Aztec rituals. Meanwhile, a nebbish criminal named Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty) that fancies himself a jazz pianist loses a fortune in jewels and finds himself hiding at the top of the Chrysler Building, where he accidentally discovers the creature’s lair…and her egg.
The ‘70s produced a collection of independent (mostly North American) filmmakers that genre fans have grouped and then bestowed the generalized title of ‘Masters of Horror.’ These writer/directors shined brightly and changed the landscape of modern horror, but they also tended to burn out quickly and most of them disappeared into the pop culture ether before the onset of the 1990s (Wes Craven had the distinction of burning out three times over his career). The exceptions to this rule were David Cronenberg, who found mainstream critical success in non-genre projects, and Larry Cohen, who never really broke out of cult films, at least not as a name director (he did, however, write a lot of A-list movies). Because his name didn’t leak into the popular vernacular, Cohen’s popularity never really waned. His reputation as one of the blaxploitation genre’s defining filmmakers has solidified, but he continues to be overlooked as a so-called Master of Horror. He may, in fact, be the most undervalued American filmmaker of the last 50 years. For the uninitiated, there are arguably four films I’d cite as Cohen’s most significant work – It’s Alive (1974), Cohen’s first horror film and a relatively straight-laced creature feature about a murderous, fanged newborn; God Told Me To (1976), a terminally weird thriller where a supposedly alien humanoid influences seemingly normal people to commit murder; The Stuff (1985), Cohen’s best comedy, which concerns a blob-like dairy treat that turns those that ingest it into zombies; and Q: The Winged Serpent (1982), his best film and the subject of this review.
Cohen worked exclusively on modest budgets and tight schedules, which is not particularly conducive to quality, but even his weakest movies share a distinctive flavor. At best, his work has a personal quality and tend to be anchored in a gritty, 1970s/’80s aesthetic (usually within New York City) and populated by natural and disarmingly charming people that counteract the strangeness of his supernatural concepts. Despite the inclusions of killer babies and alien Jesuses, most of these films feel like they’re sharing their universe with the likes of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and Frank Henenlotter’s Basket Case (1982) – though Cohen rarely dabbles in the same nihilism as either. He acknowledges the ridiculous nature of his high concepts and finds a unique comedic tone in the character’s reactions without robbing his monsters of their imposing danger. This balance between straight-faced genre trappings and sarcastic comedy is probably the most defining element of the Cohen’s essential features. When he veers too far into serious horror (Special Effects, 1984) or outright spoof (Full Moon High, 1981), the quality sinks considerably.
For all of its ragtag charm, Q: the Winged Serpent is his most sophisticated fusion of horror and comedy. Some uninitiated viewers might mistake his sensibilities for unintentionally comedy, but I assure you that he is very much in on the joke. Cohen was never a technical master on the level of John Carpenter or Tobe Hooper. He represents the blue-collar side of the Masters of Horror. His films are set in urban locations, where he and his crews were forced to steal their shots, just like their Italian counterparts Lucio Fulci, Umberto Lenzi, and Ruggero Deodato. These guerilla techniques aren’t especially obvious in the case of Q: the Winged Serpent, which, minus some less than state-of-art special effects, can appear visually interchangeable with major studio productions from the same era. The hand-held look feels organic, instead of a necessary component of zero-budget filmmaking. The mix of raw realism and B-grade special effects makes Q: the Winged Serpent is a quintessential example of the Cohen aesthetic.
Cohen’s movies are often infused with social analogies, though they’re rarely as overt or timely as the social metaphors found in George Romero or Wes Craven’s movies. Q: the Winged Serpent openly satirizes a much older idea than the American disillusionment: religion, which is also the subject of God Told Me To. But Cohen doesn’t demand you read it as a movie about religion; he instead offers the subtext for its thematic texture. Q: the Winged Serpent is still, primarily, a practice in cops & robbers vs. monsters, so the audience can feel free to enjoy it on that level alone. It can be overly busy and structurally detached, but this “making it up on the fly” storytelling actually fits with Jimmy the crook’s improvisational spirit. It also doesn’t slow the momentum. Cohen’s only real narrative problem is that he loses track of the human sacrifice subplot up until the final 15 minutes, when it creeps back in, practically out of nowhere. There’s really no way for the audience to solve this particular mystery on their own.
The cast is another asset. Most of the comedy rests on star Michael Moriarty’s shoulders. Moriarty, who was working with Cohen for the first time here, became a muse and personal surrogate in the director’s films. Following Q: the Winged Serpent, he took lead roles in The Stuff, It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive (1987), A Return to Salem’s Lot (1987), and Cohen’s entry in the Masters of Horror television series, Pick Me Up (2006). Moriarty’s performance is eccentric, but likeable, despite his constant whinging. Cohen also hired former army buddy David Carradine as a sarcastic, put-upon detective with a sly grin. Carradine had been waffling between B-movies, the arthouse, and mainstream at the time and Q: the Winged Serpent makes good use of his apparent exhaustion. The cast is (ahem) rounded out by Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree, continuing Cohen’s streak of working with blaxploitation royalty, including Fred Williamson, D’Urville Martin, Gloria Hendry, Yaphet Kotto, and, later Jim Brown and Pam Grier. Candy Clark isn’t given a lot of screen time, but does a good job playing Moriarty’s girlfriend and moral compass (both of which eventually leave him).
I think most fans assumed that if Q: the Winged Serpent was ever going to be released on region A Blu-ray, it would be through Blue Underground. Bill Lustig has had a hand in releasing Cohen’s genre films on DVD since his days at Anchor Bay, who released the first non-anamorphic version. But something happened and the rights for Q ended up with Shout Factory’s Scream Factory imprint. Scream Factory doesn’t appear to have any other Larco films in their lineup right now, but are coming out swinging by releasing the cream of the crop first. This new Blu-ray transfer is presented in full 1080p video and has been slightly re-framed from 1.85:1 to 1.78:1. I compared it directly to Blue Underground’s 2003 anamorphic DVD (which is correctly framed) and am convinced the two transfers do not share source material. There is an overall uptake in detail on the 1080p transfer, though this isn’t wildly apparent until you blow up the standard definition version large enough to see the comparatively fuzzy edges. Q just isn’t a particularly crisp movie. The DVD’s jagged edges and compression artifacts aren’t so much an issue here (there’s definitely some shimmer on those sweeping helicopter shots), but I did notice quite a bit more grain and a few minor chunks of print damage on Scream Factory’s version (though this could be a simple case of the Blu-ray’s clarity making these artifacts sharper).
Besides the general improvements HD allows the material, there are also differences in contrast and color between the two transfers. The DVD has the advantage when it comes to black levels, because the Blu-ray’s blacks tend to be a bit crushed, robbing some of the more even-handed tones of subtle differentiations and leaving some of the edges too harshly contrasted. This Blu-ray is notably darker, which can be an advantage at times (the darkest scenes are kind of washed out and grayish, but a hindrance in terms of even gradations. I’m guessing that the DVD’s brightness levels are probably more in keeping with what Cohen had in mind. The Blu-ray pulls back ahead when we compare its vivid colors to the DVD’s washed-out and overly yellowed hues. Scream Factory’s transfer is warmer, especially the more vibrant reds. The warmer qualities don’t damage the lusher greens or more naturalistic blues either and cross-colouration effects are minimal. At worst, there is a touch of low level noise in the heaviest oranges and reds.
Blue Underground’s DVD version of Q: the Winged Serpent was remixed into 5.1 from the original mono and presented in DTS-ES discrete sound. The effect was all right, but really unnecessary, based on the original mono roots. But BU did include the original mono track, which Scream Factory has forgone in favor of a 2.0 stereo surround track, presented here in lossless DTS-HD Master Audio. The sound is not particularly aggressive (it really sounds like a mono track for the most part), but there’s plenty of dynamic range during its busier moments, especially the final gun battle atop the Chrysler Building, where the Quetzalcoatl approaches from the stereo channels to snag cops and toss them to their death. The dialogue track is inconsistent from scene to scene, a problem shared by the DVD’s 5.1 remix, leading me to assume that the source tracks weren’t in the best shape to begin with (lots of ADR was required). Such things happen when you shoot a movie guerrilla-style, I suppose. Cohen almost always reserved some of his limited budget for a classy, symphonic, musical score. In this case, that score was provided by composer Robert O. Ragland, who made a long career out of classing up trashy exploitation flicks with his music. The music is the loudest overall element and the one that benefits the most from the lack of compression distortions. The 2.0 treatment keeps the score from being cramped into a single channel, making for a warm, subtly-separated stereo experience.
Commentary with Larry Cohen – For the record, Blue Underground’s disc also had a commentary track, but it was a different one, moderated by BU’s head honcho Bill Lustig (the same track was also used on Anchor Bay’s UK DVD). In this new track, Cohen, comes out of the gate swinging, explaining every in and out of his production and not letting up until the final titles roll. His discussion covers the film’s reception, the process of building a script around locations, shooting from the hip, his personal relationships with his cast and crew (his memory for what these people did before and after Q: the Winged Serpent is pretty remarkable), Moriarty’s weird music, and problems shooting atop the Chrysler Building. He also impresses when he discusses director Bong Joon-ho’s acknowledgment of Q: the Winged Serpent influence on The Host (2006) and later accuses Dean Devlin of ripping off Q: the Winged Serpent for the ill-fated Godzilla remake (1998). Who knew he was still paying so much attention?
Trailer and teaser
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