Q: The Winged Serpent (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits his favourite Larry Cohen movie on Blu-ray disc...
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 burned out quickly and 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 include David Cronenberg, who has regularly found success in non-genre projects, and Larry Cohen, who was the only member of the group to never break out into major mainstream success. Because his name didn’t leak into the popular vernacular, Cohen’s popularity never really waned. His place as one of the blaxploitation genre’s defining filmmakers has definitely been solidified, but he continues to be overlooked as a ‘Master of Horror.’ He may, in fact, be the most undervalued American filmmaker of the last 50 years. There are four films I’d cite as Cohen’s most significant genre achievements. The first is It’s Alive (1974), Cohen’s first horror film and a relatively straight-laced creature feature about a murderous, fanged newborn. The second is God Told Me To (1976), a terminally weird thriller where a supposedly alien humanoid influences seemingly normal people to commit murder. The third is The Stuff (1985), Cohen’s best comedy and last great film as director, which concerns a blob-like dairy treat that turns those that ingest it into zombies. The fourth is Q: The Winged Serpent, the writer/directors best film, full stop and, happily, the subject of this new release from Scream Factory.
Cohen worked exclusively on modest budgets and tight schedules, which is not particularly conducive to quality, but even his weakest movies share a distinctive flavour. Cohen’s best and most personal horror movies are usually anchored in a gritty, 1970s/’80s reality (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 Taxi Driver and Basket Case – though Cohen rarely dabbles in the same level of nihilism as Scorsese or Frank Henenlotter. 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 the dangers they pose. This balance between straight-faced genre elements and ironic comedy is probably the most defining element of the director’s most ‘essential’ features. Whenever he veers too far into serious horror ( Special Effects) or genre spoof ( Full Moon High), the quality sinks considerably. Again, The Stuff is probably Cohen’s funniest movie, but Q is his most sophisticated fusion of horror and comedy. Many uninitiated viewers will mistake his camp and faux-seriousness as unintentionally funny, but I’m happy to assure them that he is very much in on the joke.
Cohen was not 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 obvious, though, especially not in the case of Q, which, minus some less than state-of-art special effects, is visually interchangeable with major studio productions from the same era, like The French Connection and Dog Day Afternoon. The hand-held look feels organic, instead of necessary. Cohen’s films were never without style ( Special Effects is patterned on Hitchcock) – he just hides it beneath unassuming artisanship. Q is the quintessential example of the typical Cohen aesthetic and, even though the title critter isn’t the most convincing special effect, the director gets a lot of mileage out of his sweeping helicopter shots, which give the monster sequences a documentarian’s subjectivity.
Like most of his contemporaries, Cohen usually infused his films with social analogies, but these are rarely as overt or timely as the heavy-handed political metaphors found in George Romero or Wes Craven’s movies. Q openly satirizes a much older idea than the American disillusionment – religion. But Cohen doesn’t demand you read it as a movie about religion; he instead offers the subtext for its thematic texture. Q is still, primarily, a practice in cops & robbers vs. monsters, so the audience can feel free to enjoy it on that level alone. Q remains relatively tightly-knit and tonally even throughout its 93-minute runtime, unlike many of the director’s other genre features, which tend to be overly busy with ideas and structurally detached. Occasionally, it feels like Cohen was making up the story as he was filming, but this actually fits with Jimmy’s improvisational spirit and doesn’t slow the momentum. Cohen’s only real problem is that he loses track of the human sacrifice subplot up until the final 15 minutes, when it creeps back into the narrative out of nowhere. There’s really no way for the audience to solve this particular mystery on their own.
A whole lot of the comedic success rests on star Michael Moriarty’s shoulders. Moriarty, who was working with Cohen for the first time here, would become something of a muse and surrogate personality in the director’s films. Following Q, he took lead roles in The Stuff, It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive, A Return to Salem’s Lot, and Cohen’s entry in the Masters of Horror television series, Pick Me Up. Moriarty’s performance is weird without being unhinged and likeable, despite his constant whining. As if a career-defining appearance from Moriarty wasn’t enough, Cohen also hired former army buddy David Carradine as a sarcastic, put-upon detective with a sly grin. Carradine was waffling between cult/B-movies and mainstream releases (he even starred in a Ingmar Bergman movie) at the time and his Q casting makes good use of his apparent exhaustion. The lead cast is rounded out (excuse the pun) with Richard Roundtree. Cohen had previously worked with blaxploitation royalty Fred Williamson, D’Urville Martin, Gloria Hendry, and Yaphet Kotto, so it seems only that he’d almost complete the experience with Shaft himself (that experience would be completed when he made Original Gangstas and worked with Jim Brown and Her Majesty 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 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 looking movie. The DVD’s jagged edges and compression artefacts 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 artefacts sharper).
Besides the general improvements HD allows the material, there are some big differences in contrast and colour 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 colours to the DVD’s washed-out and overly yellowed hues. Scream Factory’s transfer is a lot 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 was remixed into 5.1 from the original mono and presented in DTS-ES discreet 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 favour 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.
The extras begin with a new commentary from Larry Cohen himself. 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). If I was a better reviewer, I’d watch the two tracks back-to-back for the sake of comparing and contrasting, but I’m afraid watching the film twice for this review is my limit. Cohen’s tone is a little bit frazzled (he sounds quite literally out of breath), but he comes out of the gate swinging, explaining every in and out of his production and not letting up until the final titles roll. He talks about 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 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’s influence on The Host and later accuses Dean Devlin of ripping off Q for the ill-fated Godzilla remake. Who knew he was still paying so much attention? The extras also feature the original trailer (with pitched-up audio, for some reason) and the original teaser in HD.
Q remains my favourite Larry Cohen film and my recommendation as a starting point for viewers unfamiliar with his special brand of genre filmmaking. Scream Factory’s Blu-ray is an upgrade over Blue Underground’s old anamorphic DVD release, though it’s not quite up to the standards they’ve been setting for themselves with some of their higher profile releases. There’s room for improvement if they ever run into more extra feature material and plan some kind of special edition release – not that Cohen’s newly recorded commentary track is anything less than great.
* Note: The images on this page do not represent the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian
Release Date: 27th August 2013
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 English
Extras: Director's Commentary, Teaser, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Larry Cohen
Cast: Michael Moriarty, Candy Clark, David Carradine, Richard Roundtree, James Dixon, Ron Cey
Genre: Comedy, Crime, Horror and Thriller
Length: 93 minutes