Writer-director Larry Cohen makes exploitation look easy. His iconic Black Caesar was basically a remake of Little Caesar with a black cast; his mutant-baby flick It’s Alive amplified the generational rift created in families by the social revolutions of the 1960s and early-1970s to horror-movie proportions. Cohen is so commercially savvy that his screenwriting career has continued, in earnest, into the 21st century, placing projects like Phone Booth, Cellular, and Captivity at the Venn-diagram intersection between high-concept appeal and low-budget execution. He also has an instinct for character, and it never served him better than it did in Q, which is the story of a little criminal in a big city as much as it’s the story of a huge feathered serpent lording over Manhattan. Q was set up quickly (in two days, to hear Cohen tell it), after Cohen was fired from an adaptation of Mickey Spillane’s I, the Jury, and it features a terrific cast (Michael Moriarty, David Carradine, and Richard Roundtree) improvising many of the scenes in a screenplay that was being written as the shoot progressed to take advantage of whatever New York locations Cohen was able to secure. The result isn’t quite a great monster movie, but it gets maybe 80 percent of the way there.
The main character here is Jimmy Quinn (Moriarty), a small-time wheelman for a gang of jewellery-store thieves who refuses to carry a piece and nurtures fantasies of employment as a piano man in a dive bar, showing off the scat-singing skills he learned in the clink. Then there’s Shepard and Powell (Carradine and Roundtree), a pair of New York City cops investigating a weird series of murders (here a beheading, there a flaying) that seem unrelated. The connection between the two stories is Quetzalcoatl, an Aztec god nesting in the empty spaces at the very top of the Chrysler building who feeds on unsuspecting New Yorkers–window-washers, construction workers, and rooftop sunbathers. But the winged Q, who snaps off noggins like nobody’s business, isn’t the only fiend at work: there’s also a shadowy serial killer whose human sacrifices are engineered to bring the long-dormant supernatural critter back to life. On the run after a botched heist, Quinn discovers the beast’s nest–a secret he uses first to lead his own enemies to their doom, and later as an extortion plot against an increasingly desperate city under siege by the monster overhead.
Although Cohen’s direction is pretty deadpan, the film has a gleeful sense of chaotic humour. Q opens with a scene where a voyeuristic window-washer leering at a pretty office-worker inside the Empire State Building is taken out by Q; lest you read that as a critique of the male gaze, it’s followed fairly quickly by a vignette in which a pretty apartment-dweller obligingly strips off her bikini top before Q plucks her from her chaise lounge. The movie starts out borrowing tropes from film noir, with Quinn’s cronies hounding him over a lost briefcase full of jewels, but launches into different territory later, as Quinn demands a “Nixon-like pardon” from the city in exchange for telling them where the bird nests, name-checking New York Post owner Rupert Murdoch as he fantasizes about his new celebrity status. (“Get Rupert down here with his arm around me!” he cries as a TV crew ambushes him at a downtown diner.) Carradine and Roundtree give fine, by-the-numbers performances and hit all their marks, but Moriarty is marvellous, playing a tightly-wound sad sack who unspools, turning positively giddy at the idea that he might be able to put one over on the city that’s kept his own ambitions on ice. Late in the picture, there’s an undercover cop who appears to be disguised as a tourist’s idea of Manhattan, sporting mime makeup and an Amadeus T-shirt.
Speaking of Manhattan, the film’s New York locations are truly fantastic. The aerial photography gathered by ace helicopter pilot Al Cerullo features lots of offbeat views of the city from above. More remarkable are the sequences shot inside the crown of the Chrysler building, in a setting so neglected and junk-strewn that you just know it’s the actual landmark and not any set-dresser’s idea of what’s up there. Furthermore, the view of the buildings below clearly represents a precipitous drop and not a mere greenscreen background replacement. Other stops on Q’s whirlwind tour of New York include the American Museum of Natural History, Columbia University, Canal Street and Chinatown, a real police station, and that spot at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge where bodies seem to wash ashore in B movies. (Katy Perry is performing there for the MTV Video Music Awards as I write these words. It’s a small city, man.) It’s an oddity of film history that so many low-budget pictures from the 1970s and ’80s have such a strong sense of place due to their ambitious use of locations, and Q is no exception.
Q is compromised, perhaps, by Cohen’s accelerated style of production, since the screenplay doesn’t quite hang together. Both Quinn’s hard-luck crime story and the presence of Q overhead really capture the imagination, but the subplot about a high priest performing human sacrifices on the ground is a useless appendage. It’s hard to imagine developing any sort of emotional investment in that business, and it’s the part of the film that feels the most like a run-of-the-mill horror scenario. The special effects, too, are a little slipshod, surely a function of the speed with which the movie was put together, allowing no time for the creature team to consult on the production in advance. Still, the sometimes-dire stop-motion animation packs way more entertainment value than would its slick computer-graphics replacement.
Moreover, Q is just a lot of fun. It has integrity, amounting to an emotionally coherent sketch of a city where lower-class hoods dream of making it big, or at least of finding a sharp and friendly beak to dismember and disembowel the hooligans hounding them for cash. Moreover, it holds its own among other fantastic movies of the era that created a kind of new New York mythology: cannibalistic humanoids live in the sewers, Manhattan Island will one day become a maximum security prison, and also there’s a giant Aztec bird nesting in the top of the Chrysler Building. What more can you ask of an evening’s entertainment?
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray is inarguably the most accurate transfer of Q to date, though some viewers will question the value of a high-definition upgrade to such a fundamentally primitive-looking film. Q was shot quickly, on the cheap, and it shows. There are several shots where the focus is off by a margin–in one close-up, only Quinn’s ears appear in sharp focus, with the rest of his face rolling into softness–and the high resolution of Blu-ray accentuates the error. And many of the optical process shots, such as the ones where Q appears in frame with live-action photography, look lousy, frankly, in HD. All that aside, much of the film is quite competently photographed, especially many of the exteriors, which gain a lot in both historical interest and general atmosphere thanks to the increased visible detail. The more controlled interior shots tend to look pretty good, too–see the texture of Carradine’s suit jacket in the excellent diner scene where he spars verbally with Moriarty late in the film, or the details on the Chinatown storefronts early on during the heist.
The overall quality of the image is variable. Film grain is convincing in some shots, but an indistinct meshwork of mush in others. I really started giving this transfer the stink-eye when I stepped through sequences and watched details on walls, for instance, flicker in and out of visibility from frame to frame as the camera moved past them, a type of artifact I’ve always associated strongly with injudicious quantities of digital noise reduction. Having said that, I don’t think the presentation is that bad for a low-budget title of this vintage. I’m pretty sure it could look more filmlike–but maybe not without a heavy trade-off in terms of the quantity of grain that’s visible on screen. If I were being picky, I’d complain that the 1.78:1 aspect ratio should be 1.85:1, but why quibble? Since Q probably isn’t on Criterion’s radar, this Blu-ray will have to stand as an adequate HiDef version of the film.
The quality of the movie’s original audio recording is variable, but it’s reproduced as well as you could ask on a 2.0 DTS-HD MA track that boasts a reasonable amount of dynamic range–again, taking into account Q‘s status as a Sam Arkoff production from 1982. There’s some depth and atmosphere in the soundstage, clarity in the music and most of the dialogue, plus a reasonable amount of low-frequency impact in the sound-effects department. While I’ve seen this audio track described elsewhere as mono, that’s incorrect: there is definitely some directionality to it. I listened to it in Dolby Pro-Logic II mode, which generated a mildly enveloping surround mix that at least kept all my speakers busy. Since IMDb describes the original soundmix as “mono,” I’m going to assume this is an adulteration and dock the Blu-ray half a grade for not offering a mono option.
What is included is a Larry Cohen commentary. This is not the same as the Bill Lustig-moderated yakker featured on Blue Underground’s 2003 DVD, although it is mostly a rehash of the stories Cohen told on that track. I can’t complain too much, since Cohen is always a hoot to listen to, and his instinctive defensiveness when it comes to Q is endearing. At one point, he starts reading from a long list of positive reviews to bolster his claim that the picture was a critical success, contending at one point, “Even The New York Times liked it.” Wait, what? Cohen seems to have misread Janet Maslin’s typically contemptuous piece on the film (no fan of genre pics, she proudly claimed to have endured only 15 minutes of Dawn of the Dead before writing her non-review), in which she couldn’t be bothered to summarize the plot correctly. In fact, there’s no indication she stayed in the theater beyond the 22-minute mark.
In a more self-deprecating mode, Cohen notes happily that half of the first preview audience for Q bolted when it realized the new Spielberg movie wasn’t screening as rumoured. Cohen says the audience was expecting to see Close Encounters of the Third Kind, but he definitely has that wrong, since CE3K came out in 1977. (I have to assume he meant E.T..) I was a bit surprised to hear Cohen lament the inclusion of gory violence in Q, citing the (relatively mild) human-sacrifice scenes as the worst offenders and offering a kind of apology: “It was supposed to be a horror picture of sorts, so we had to have some horror in it.” Finally, he muses, “We could probably have done this bird better, but what can you say? For the million bucks we had, I think we did pretty well. If we had more money, I don’t think we could have made as good a picture.” Indeed.
Shout’s Blu-ray was apparently assembled in the same spirit, with an average video bit budget of just 27.9 Mbps, keeping the disc firmly in single-layer BD-25 territory. A two-and-a-half-minute theatrical trailer was sourced, shamelessly, from a crappy YouTube encode (the clip was cropped on the bottom edge to keep the user’s watermark out of frame) and then, hilariously, upres’d to 1080p, chewing up nearly half a GB (!). At least the 30-second teaser, also in HD, is presented in marginally higher quality, if not anything approaching true 1080p. Finally, if you care about such things, there are no subtitles, which rankles. Q has already been around the digital block a couple of times, on DVDs from both Anchor Bay and Blue Underground, and that easy availability likely figures into Shout! Factory’s obvious decision to spend as little on Q as possible.