Q – The Winged Serpent
(SPOILERS) In which an ancient Aztec god dupes a significant portion of the American – nay, global –population into inaction and so exacerbates mass depopulation. Decapitation optional. It’s curious how a letter can be appropriated and so become almost exclusively associated with one thing. X has obviously had several variants (rays, Files, certificates), but prior to QAnon, the seventeenth letter was probably most identified with tips, Spike Milligan or an abbreviated question. And also, trailing the pack by some considerable distance, this: Q – The Winged Serpent.
Commissioner McConnell: You are talking about the incarnation of some ancient Aztec god, and it’s my duty to kill it. Now, it’s much easier to think of killing a bird than a god.
It’s curious that Larry Cohen, exploitation movie maestro par excellence, should have fixated on an incarnation of Quetzalcoatl (Q) in quite this form. As much as we can trust officially approved histories, it’s said the earliest depiction of the Aztec deity was as an actual snake, but not, to my understanding, one with wings that flapped around snatching human victims before sucking their flesh off. Q was a feathered serpent, and like all Aztec deities, he was to some degree associated with honorific human sacrifice (but in some traditions was said to oppose it). Generally, it seems that, rather than a winged serpent, he was a “serpent of precious feathers” yet allegorically the “wisest of men”. He was the Aztec god of wind and air and learning, patron god of the priesthood, creator deity contributing to mankind’s inception, and also represented a priestly title and was associated with Venus, the morning star (which might lend itself to Luciferian connotations).
It seems Quetzalcoatl developed human characteristics as his worship progressed. Coming into the mix are Christ associations (virgin birth in some traditions), and from this we are eventually led into the Cortes idea, that he was greeted/worshipped as the return of Quetzalcoatl (possibly Spanish propaganda, possibly simply that he was being recognised as a returning priest of similar name). Apparently, the one-time president of the Mormon church suggested "we can come to no other conclusion than that Quetzalcoatl and Christ are the same being". So, if one were inclined to draw a line between Quetzalcoatl and QAnon, there’s a ready-made Trump/Q/saviour narrative there. I’m unsure the serpent connotations would generally be embraced, however.
In Cohen’s telling, Q has been prayed back into existence by an Aztec cult ritually murdering willing victims (including Bruce Carradine). Detective Shepard (David Carradine) and Sergeant Powell (Richard Roundtree) are investigating this at the same time a winged (featherless) lizard creature builds a nest at the top of the Chrysler Building when it isn’t flapping about the city in aforesaid manner plucking unlucky, less willing victims. Invariably with assorted splatter on passers-by below. It isn’t long before the remarkably credulous Shepard has connected the dots between the two spates of murders. Meanwhile, Michael Moriarty’s small-time crook Jimmy Quinn happens upon the nest following a diamond heist gone wrong and eventually offers up the location of the beast in return for a full amnesty (“Yeah, didn’t Ford pardon Nixon for anything and everything? I’m just asking for a Nixon-like pardon”).
Detective Shepard: It wouldn’t be the first time in history a monster was mistaken for a god. I guess that’s why I have to kill it. If you can kill it it’s not a god, just a god old-fashioned monster.
Kim Newman in Nightmare Movies has it that this style of ungodly deity is key to Cohen’s oeuvre (“Detective Shepard’s problem with the distinction between God and Monster is Cohen’s most recurrent theme"). And indeed, “the director generally interprets godhood as an urge to smite multitudes”. It’s easy to plum for such positions when plundering a religion favouring human sacrifice, something Cohen identifies: “They give themselves to the gods willingly” notes Shepard, with an arch “Nowadays, all we have to do is take the wafer and drink the wine. That’s what I call civilised”. There’s even a philosophical treatise on the subject of the divine: “What else is God but an invisible force we fear? For centuries, we’ve tried to make it into our image… Perhaps it’s only our vanity… The figure of that serpent keeps turning up all the time… Perhaps at one time, the whole world was covered with these kinds of birds and then they became extinct”.
Let’s not get carried away, though. Cohen’s designs are less than high-minded as a whole. It’s simply that he dances to his own tune, so all sorts of ideas and ruminations can end up in the mix. “I would hardly call him the John Cassavetes of exploitation movies, but he does have a certain raw, visceral, realistic style” said Joe Dante. Alex Cox when presenting Moviedrome – the first time I saw Q – called Cohen “a true guerrilla filmmaker” and Q “a combination of a slasher movie and King Kong”. He added “Cohen has very bad taste, but he knows how to keep a story moving” and has a “nice eye for detail and a perverse sense of humour”. Newman also made the monster movie comparison, referencing a “split level world that is part King Kong and part Mean Streets”.
I haven’t seen many of Cohen’s other directorial efforts (only The Ambulance springs to mind), but it’s definitely the sense of humour here that most appeals. That and the attempt at genre mashup. Looking for the head of a victim, Shepard is dismissive about its state of disrepair (“D’you ever drop a cantaloupe from forty stories?”) The monster animation is expectedly rough and ready, and there’s some hilarious model work of falling Q victims. Shepard’s boss ponders “that thing could fly miles into New York City every day. And it would do that, of course, you know, because New York is famous for good eating” (not a great distance from there to Predator 2).
The cast are also good value. Carradine, from a long line of degenerates, was a pal of Cohen’s and delivers the downbeat cop with aplomb. Roundtree definitely gets a short straw, and Q claws. Candy Clark is Quinn’s had-enough girlfriend. Moriarty takes the main honours though, particularly on form when it comes to his deal (“Get Rupert down here, with his arm around me” he requests, alluding to the Murdoch empire). Cohen referred to the performance as “Oscar worthy, I think, in this picture”.
Q – The Winged Serpent has been called Cohen’s signature film, and he waxed warmly about it on Trailers from Hell, telling of how they film “88 stories above the street with no net” and “nobody fell off the Chrysler Building, which was the most amazing thing”. They also fired machine guns within worrying distance of the UN Building, lending itself to headlines of the “Film crew terrorises downtown New York” variety. He made it in typically gung-ho style, shooting for eighteen days beginning the day after he was fired from I, the Jury.
Cohen also, of course, had a more mainstream profile as a writer (Best Seller, Body Snatchers, Guilty as Sin, Phone Booth, Cellular) and suggested Godzilla (1998) was an outrageous rip off of Q. He might have a point there. He was sanguine, however, since Dean Devlin went on to buy his Cellular screenplay, perhaps as atonement. Q – The Winged Serpent is cheerfully unfinessed, something you could never say of a Roland Emmerich movie. But then, Larry Cohen wouldn’t have it any other way.