Its name is Quetzalcoatl…
…just call it Q, that’s all you’ll have time to say before it tears you apart!
1982 was a banner year for genre films. So many nerd-oriented flicks came out in rapid-fire succession including Tron, The Thing, E.T., The Secret of NIMH, Poltergeist, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Swamp Thing, Blade Runner, Conan the Barbarian, The Beastmaster, The Dark Crystal and First Blood… just a plethora of films all geared to the sci-fi / horror / action / fantasy crowd! In the glut of all these films, some stumbled to find an audience in theaters only to go on and become popular and beloved classics in their own right in the home video market, like The Thing and…
Kind of forgotten upon release, Q is a movie that has literally everything – an ill-fated heist, topless sunbathers, Aztec ritual killings, SWAT sharpshooters and a prehistoric monster summoned to (then) Modern Day Manhattan.
Q tells the story of Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarity), a two-bit, wanna’ be career criminal who, to be honest, really sucks at it. When a diamond heist goes bust, Jimmy runs to seek advice from his lawyer (whose office is conveniently located in the Chrysler building), only to arrive and find the office closed. Fleeing a security guard whose attentions were caught by his pounding on the doors, Jimmy climbs up into the spire of building and stumbles upon a nest with a giant egg as well as the bodies of victims who’ve been disappearing from the rooftops.
Meanwhile, Detectives Shepard (David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) are busy dealing with decapitations, skinned bodies, ritual killings and disappearances of citizens from the roofs and buildings in Manhattan as sightings of a large, birdlike creature start surfacing. Jimmy’s crime partners start harassing him about where the diamonds are from the botched the heist and Jimmy, in a cruel twist, leads them to the spire claiming to have hid them there, where the goons become a meal for the creature.
Arrested, Jimmy decides to use his knowledge of the creature’s nest to swindle the city of New York into a plea-bargaining deal that would lead to immunity from all his charges, one million dollars tax free and exclusive rights to the photos, story and body of the creature once killed. Agreeing, Jimmy gives them the location and Shepard leads a SWAT team to deal with the creature while Powell gets a lead on the Aztec killer whose ritual slayings are believed to have summoned the beast.
Powell gives chase to assassin on the roof where the creature swoops down out of the sun, killing him before returning home to the Chrysler building. Opening fire, the creature tries to fight off the SWAT team (who’ve already destroyed the egg) only to be riddled with bullets during an aerial battle, dying and falling into the street below. As the film cuts out, we find that Q had not one nest, but two as a second egg hatches and the credits roll.
Q is a throwback to the monster thrillers of the 50’s. Writer / Director Larry Cohen simply shifted the genre to the then-contemporary time of 1982 and infused it with modern film tropes (language, nudity, gore) creating a highly underrated little gem of a creature feature.
All of the actors here seem to enjoying themselves in their roles, former Kung-Fu star David Carradine (son of Universal Horror legend John Carradine) gives a straight performance as Shepard, a detective trying to cope with an impossible case, as does Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree as his partner, Powell. It’s Michael Moriarity, a veteran of Cohen’s films and his go-to actor, who provides an outstanding performance of Jimmy Quinn. He gives Quinn just enough humanity so that we like him despite the fact that he is an underhanded little prick and capable of some truly despicable things.
In the early 80’s, special effects techniques as far as monsters and creatures hadn’t truly advanced very far from the previous three decades. Even George Lucas, with all his technical wizardry at his disposal, was forced to use Stop Motion Animation (SMA) for some of his creatures in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, and the previous year’s Dragonslayer relied on it for the their film’s titular beast. The problem that ALL SMA scenes suffer from is clarity. As the model is photographed and animated from a series of stills and then composited, the resulting creature has a “jerky” look to its movement due to the clarity of the image. Phil Tippett, of Tippett Studios, a pioneer in modern SMA, made one improvement to the craft, calling it “Go-Motion” which computerized the motions and added in an artificial blur which gave the animation a more life-like appearance. As a low budget picture, this style of visual effect wasn’t available and as such Q has a very jerky and unrefined look.
It should be noted that the two creature animators, Randall William Cook and David Allen, would go on to win Academy Awards two decades later for effects work in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The film features dozens of exquisite exposition shots of the Manhattan skyline, offering aerial transitions across the skies from scene to scene. It’s a shame that Larry Cohen has never been able to make a mainstream film, as he writes, produces and directs his own, original material, all of it containing an edge of satire (see The Stuff for a mock of the advertising world and consumerism), some of it being more than capable of commercial profitability.
Robert O. Ragland composes a score for the picture that is rousing, the main title containing an eerie whistling melody with the underscore of a primitive percussive beat that alludes to the Aztec cult-origin of the creature.
The monster itself, Quetzalcoatl, is a real deity of the Mesoamericans – the Aztecs, and is described in their legends as being a feathered serpent.
Overall, this is a fun, highly entertaining B-movie that was undoubtedly overshadowed by the competition of its time. With so many films that year, it’s sad but understandable how it could’ve gotten lost in the shuffle. The monster is well-conceived, the story decent and the actors delivering solid performances in a film where it would be extremely easy to cross over into camp. One fun fact is that 16 years later, in 1999, Godzilla the Series, would feature an episode where the antagonists investigate monster sightings in South America, the creature being a Quetzalcoatl, and the ornithologist who discovered it and called for the investigation being named Lawrence Cohen. It’s a nice nod to underrated and nearly forgotten creature feature. Definitely seek it out, it’s worth a watch!