Remembering David Carradine and ‘Q: The Winged Serpent’

7 Jun

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June 7th, 2009-

There have been a fair number of articles and retrospectives in the past few days looking back over the career of veteran David Carradine, who died last Wednesday in Thailand. One of the most interesting was a eulogy by Carradine’s friend and fellow actor Michael Madsen which you can find HERE. Elsewhere, it’s all Kung-Fu this, and Kwai Chang Caine that and for the younger generation he’s mostly just Bill who Uma killed by edict of Tarantino. Sort of strange to be remembered for so few performances when your filmography contains over 200 acting credits.

But, that was more or less how Carradine rolled; after Kill Bill I sort of figured his star would brighten again and he’d find high profile work but I haven’t seen a thing from him since that one. As it turns out, I probably just wasn’t looking in the right places because including six films in post production, Carradine has 46(!) credits to his name AFTER he finished making Bill. I’m not so sure he cared about the overall quality of each film but he obviously cared about working and the quality of his work; I don’t think I ever really saw him phone in a performance. Sure he was bad sometimes, and considering his material(Waxwork II, Evil Toons) it would have been nearly impossible to be good, but he always took the job seriously enough. He gave the same sort of professionalism to Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (with Bruce Campbell no less!) as he did to Kill Bill and in Bill he actually managed to save the entire enterprise through his performance–so, he never lost the touch even if he heavily exploited it towards the end.

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Which brings me to Q: The Winged Serpent. As the rest of the film world addresses the man and his work, there are gonna be favorites thrown out there and discussed. In addition to the stuff he was best known for, there are others that are well worth seeing. The man worked with everyone from Scorsese to Ingmar Bergman and he was terrific as Cole Younger in the wonderful western The Long Riders. But the one I’m gonna focus on is Larry Cohen’s Q:The Winged Serpent. Why? Because it’s the one I remember most fondly and it’s the only one that has Dave fighting a giant pterodactyl with aspirations to Aztec godhood.

As everyone already knows, 1982 was a heck of year for movies. It was a break-out year for the genre picture, and some of the true classics of science fiction, fantasy and horror were released during that summer. Falling through the cracks were several smaller, but still worthy films including Larry Cohen’s Q: The Winged Serpent. Q belongs to two of my favorite genres: the giant monster flick and the noir crime thriller. Cohen has a strong resume when it comes to b-movies and he was responsible for  the blacksploitation films  Black Caesar and Hell Up in Harlem. In the late 70s and early 80s he penned and directed engaging horror films like It’s Alive, God Told Me To and The Stuff, which featured a substance from space which becomes everyone’s favorite frozen dessert. To top it all off Larry went out and got  the likes of Carradine and character actor Michael Moriarty to battle his titular reptilian creation.

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 Monsters can only go so big before there are problems. The bigger the beast, the greater the distance between the monster and the story.  This is one of the reasons Cloverfield works, but the Emmerich Godzilla does not. Cloverfield views the beast, and its impact on the city, through the eyes of its central human characters. Godzilla 98 is more concerned about the beast and the humans find themselves trailing behind, simply documenting the creature’s wake of destruction. Q finds an even better balance between these two extremes; it tells the human story with great care and detail, and it gives the monster audience plenty of solid action including a scene where the ancient pterosaur is perched atop the Chrysler building while David Carradine  leads a sniper squad intent on gunning it down. Cohen cares about both chapters equally, and at the first opportunity, he intersects the stories.Carradine is tackling a typical cop role but he does his part to ground it by playing both a skeptic and a man open to the possibility of a flying dinosaur trying to eat the city. He believes it’s a monster, he just doesn’t think it’s a god.

 There is a classic real-life exchange between critic Rex Reed and producer Sam Z. Arkoff that often gets repeated when conversations turn to Q. Reed finds Sam after a showing of the film and says “What a surprise! Right in the middle of all that dreck and a great method performance by Michael Moriarty!?”  Sam smiles widely and replies: “The dreck was my idea.” Is the story true? The tale sounds plausible, and it goes a long way to explaining the appeal of Q: The Winged Serpent. One can appreciate the method and the monster, and if one is so inclined, they can also enjoy the way the method and the monster intertwine and give us an honest to goodness compelling movie. Few giant creature features are this funny, this odd and this entertaining.

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 Playing the trickster to Carradine’s cop is Michael Moriarty (who very well might have been Cohen’s muse during the 80s). He is very good in his role, and Cohen has created a character for him who might as well have stepped right out of a 40s crime novel. Moriarty plays Jimmy Quinn, alcoholic, petty thief and all around no account. He gets mixed up with some mob types and ends up playing the getaway man for a bank robbery (the place in question is called Neil’s Diamonds-har-har!) Moriarty adds a lot of strange ticks to his character. He flops his lanky frame back and forth, and waves his hands as if he had suddenly gone off some serious and important meds; when interacting with anyone who would dare question him, he lashes out and then folds like a house of a cards. At one point he simply exclaims “I smell and I want to cry!” When Quinn gets chased into the attic of the Chrysler building he finds a gargantuan nest complete with monstrous eggs. Eventually mommy comes back, and Quinn realizes he has stumbled upon something both greatly important and possibly useful.

 Elsewhere in the city, Carradine’s Detective Shepherd and Sergeant Powell are trying to figure out why random body parts are raining down from the Manhattan skyline at the same time that murder victims are showing up in hotel rooms with their hearts cut out. Since David Carradine and Richard Roundtree are playing the detective and the sergeant, we pay attention to their investigation with great interest. It pays off. Carradine (who seems to be really enjoying himself here) discovers that the monster is a possible manifestation of the serpent god Quetzacoatl, although he doubts it to be anything other than a very dangerous animal.

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Eventually,  Shepherd and the tricky Q  cross paths and the result is an epic shootout; one that takes place not in a darkened alley or a smoky jazz club but atop the Chrysler building with an enemy that might just crush half the city in its death throes. Meanwhile, Quinn runs into  the aztec cult who worship the great bird and decides that while his heart ain’t what it should be, he’d still like to keep it in his chest. Carradine’s Shepherd skulks about during the investigation scenes, and then does a macho swagger through his mega-battle with the flying lizard. And that’s exactly what the movie needed. An actor committed to humanizing a fire-fight with a giant monster. Few actors since then have been able to do something like that convincingly.  

 The acting is strong and the script goes places we don’t expect a reptilian bird opus to go. Still, make no mistake; this isn’t a cop/criminal buddy flick with a monster for seasoning. Every piece is a vital ingredient. The dinosaur-like Q is a poor man’s Harryhausen creation but it gets the job done and the climactic sequence at the Chrysler building is nothing short of magnificent. The cinematography features vertigo inducing angles high above the New York streets and then it takes us into the seedy heart of the city; dark, smoky bars and the squalor of Quinn’s grimy apartment. This is a horror film with a sense of style and geography.

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 Often times we try to excuse movies like Q, by saying things like “well, it was entertaining” or “it was good for what it was” which are all back-handed compliments and reveal a high-minded approach that I don’t really think is fair. Q is successful in what it sets out to do and it’s very entertaining. There are several Oscar winners I can’t say the same for. If you get the opportunity, check this one out. If you can get behind the premise, then the rest is smooth sailing and its a fitting testament to the talents and charms of David Carradine.

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