Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. And yet others thrive on a tone not easily marketed in Hollywood. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these films for what they get wrong — when they get it wrong — and what they right do in spite of the wishes of the studio or the director.
This week: Q (or Q: The Winged Serpent)
With his passing last week, it is time to talk about filmmaker Larry Cohen. Like Paul Verhoeven and handful of other directors, Cohen masterfully wielded the cheesy tone to create some beloved films like The Stuff and the It’s Alive series. Unlike many of the cheesy movies we discuss here, they are not outwardly bad films. Instead, they take the trappings of typically bad movies — drive-in fluff, exploitation, and creature features for example — and buoys those tropes with some skilled writing and good performances. It is the sort of magic trick he pulls off with this weekend’s cheesy movie, Q.
The story centers on New York ne’er-do-well Jimmy Quinn (Micheal Moriarty). After failing to secure a legitimate job as bar pianist, he agrees to be the wheelman for a bunch of jewel thieves. But as he’s well known on the streets for cowardice, the main thief takes the car keys within him into the jewelry shop and orders Jimmy to join him. The heist doesn’t go as planned and Jimmy ends up with a satchel of diamonds worth $500,000. Still lacking the car keys, he runs out into the Manhattan streets, where he promptly gets hit by a taxi and loses the satchel. Trying to evade the heat, he makes his way to the Chrysler Building to talk to his lawyer, but instead finds himself in its dilapidated top floors where he discovers an enormous bird egg.
Meanwhile, NYPD Detective Shepard (David Carradine) and Sgt. Powell (Richard Roundtree) are investigating a series of bizarre mid-air beheadings and some ritual flayings. Shepard is convinced they are connected. And after a visit to the natural history museum, he comes to believe the flayings are meant as offerings to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl; which has been reborn. None of his superiors believe that, of course. In fact, they’re unwilling to believe a giant bird creature is responsible for the beheadings and rooftop disappearances until a gaggle of bikini-clad babes turn out to be credible witnesses.
For his part, Jimmy gets rousted by the cops for his connection to the robbery — and the apparent deaths of the jewel thieves — but overhears Shepard talking to his captain about the giant bird creature. Realizing he found the nest in the Chrysler Building, he forces the NYPD to drop all charges against him and given him a $1 million reward for his essential information. What follows has to be the strangest forty minutes of any cop movie ever made.
And if it seems like the cops easily accept the existence of a dragon in Manhattan, that’s part of the charm. Because Cohen was very comfortable with a certain amount of satire in his films, characters take on board the strangest ideas with just a gentile push. In the case of Q, Shepard makes the leap with that visit to the museum and a late night study session with a book on Aztec cosmology. It happens so early in the film, in fact, that it sets Q apart from a lot of cop movies; in which the lead detective needs physical proof before accepting an outlandish aspect of the case. For many viewers, this immediate flight of fancy — and the questionable creature effects — make Q a feast of cheese.
But Cohen grounds that fantasy element in the grime and heat of early 1980s Manhattan. His camera captures a verisimilitude of the era thanks to supposedly guerilla production techniques and the people of New York standing around to watch a movie get made. In fact, this might be the cheesiest element of the film for some viewers. Whenever the scene hits the streets — like Jimmy running from the jewelry shop — Manhattanites can be see congregating on sidewalks and in nearby windows to catch a glimpse of the action or maybe even a Carradine. It’s painfully obvious once you’re aware of it and indicative of a production without the cash for crowd control. Nonetheless, it makes the film feel more homemade and more like the sort of Saturday creature features Mystery Science Theater 3000 would riff on six-or-so years later.
Beyond the spectators caught on film, the movie also catches the city at one of its low periods. Blight is omnipresent from the alleys to the high-rises. The helicopter shots of the Chrysler Building reveal it to be in a state of disrepair with busted windows at the top of the dome and a whole floor just gathering dust and old paint cans. It is an amazing thing to see, but like the crowds on the street, it makes the film feel all the more real. Combined with those dodgy special effects, it creates a collision of styles that is at once cheesy, but oddly credible.
Elevating the film, though, is the performance of Moriarty as Jimmy. The actor commits to playing the part as a small-time criminal, offering the character are rare sort of pathetic nuance before he gets arrested and a stunning ego when he realizes his knowledge could get him everything he wants. He also leads the jewel thieves up to the nest to be Quetzalcoatl’s lunch early on, so he’s not exactly noble — but that moral ambiguity makes him all the more compelling. Whether extemporizing a scat song, having it out with his girlfriend Joan (Candy Clark), or smugly leading the police to the creature’s lair, Moriarty makes Jimmy an irresistible screen presence. It is no accident Cohen would continue to work the actor throughout the 1980s and into his last directorial effort, the 2006 Masters of Horror episode “Pick Me Up.”
Carradine, Clark, Roundtree and a gaggle of NYPD officers also do good work — except when some of these characters end up in the maw or claw of Quetzalcoatl, of course — and continue the film’s overall sense of verisimilitude.
Which is a testament of Cohen’s own self-assurance. He knows the creature effects look silly, but he’s still going to superimpose a stop-motion animated dragon over some fantastic aerial footage of midtown Manhattan. His actors believe in the monster, so why shouldn’t the audience? Make no mistake, though, there are technical flaws in the film which could prevent a viewer from enjoying it, but Q proves to be an appealing monster movie for those open to its charms. And even then, it still might make you laugh in inappropriate spots, but even then, the film will prove to be cheesy goodness as only someone like Cohen could deliver.
Q is available to stream with an Amazon Prime account. It is also available on disc-based media.