Friday, October 30, 2009

Horror by the Decade: Q

(As anyone who regularly reads this blog knows, each year to celebrate Halloween I post on topics relevant to that holiday. This year I have decided do something slightly different and write a post on a classic horror film, one from each decade from the Twenties to the Eighties, during the seven days preceding Halloween. This is the final post in this series, featuring a movie from the Eighties)

In 1982 there was a terrible sameness to the horror movies being released. The genre was dominated by the ongoing cycle towards slasher movies. It was the era of the endless Friday the 13th sequels, Pieces, and Slumber Party Massacre. There were a few holdovers from the occult horror cycle of the Seventies (Evilspeak, Invitation to Hell), and a few movies about ghosts (Amityville II: The Possession and Poltergeist). Very few horror movies stood out. Among them was John Carpenter's remake of The Thing (actually a more faithful adaptation of the novella upon which both were based, Who Goes There). There was also the horror comedy Basket Case and the anthology film Creepshow, a collaboration between George Romero and Stephen King. It would be another famous, low budget horror director besides Romero who would give 1982 another one of its better horror movies. That director was Larry Cohen. The film was simply entitled Q.

 In Q,  New York City is beset by a rash of murders in which the victims are skinned alive, apparently by a modern day Aztec cult. At the same time, there have been reports of a giant monster flying about the city. The police, including detectives Shepard (played by David Carradine) and Powell (Richard Roundtree) are sceptical of such reports until the monster starts eating people. Into this mix entered petty thief Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty), who stumbles upon the creature's lair atop the Chrysler Building and decides to make the city pay for the information. It is from the gigantic creature that is at once reptile and bird that Q takes its title--"Q" is short for  "Quetzlcoatl," an Aztec god and the monster of the film.

Larry Cohen had worked in television (he created the shows Branded, The Blue Light, and The Invaders) before going onto become a notable director of low budget, independent films. He worked in many genres, including comedy and Blaxploitation, but it was for his horror movies that he would become best known.  Indeed, he had directed one of the most frightening horror movies of the Seventies, It's Alive, which featured a most unlikely monster--a mutant, cannibalistic baby. While on the surface his films would appear to be mere exploitation, in truth all of them contain commentary on modern day society.

It was in the early Eighties that Larry Cohen, veteran writer and producer of TV shows and B-movie director, had been hired to write and direct another adaptation of Mickey Spillane's I, the Jury. While he did write the screenplay, Cohen was fired after one week as the film's director, allegedly because the film's budget had spiralled out of control. To prove to the film's producers that he should not have been fired, Cohen decided he should make a what could be a very expensive film for much less than the new adaptation of I, the Jury cost. As to how Larry Cohen came upon the subject for his next film, it was quite simply the Chrysler Building in New York City. He was looking at the Chrysler Building one day and thought that it should have its own movie. After all, the Empire State Building had been featured in King Kong. When he turned his attention to the gargoyles on the sides of the Chrysler Building's towers, he thought that a giant bird looking for a place to nest in New York City would surely choose the Chrysler Building.

While there can be little doubt that the Chrysler Building provided much of the inspiration for the film, another possible source of inspiration for Q may have been the 1946 horror movie The Flying Serpent, produced by Poverty Row studio PRC. In The Flying Serpent George Zucco played a crazed archaeologist who stumbled upon a winged serpent, Quetzlcoatl, and then figured out a means to use the monster to take revenge on his enemies.

Pre-production on Q only lasted a week. Fired from I, the Jury, Larry Cohen decided not to waste the hotel room in New York he had rented and set to work on the film. Not only did he have a shooting script finished in six days, but he had also cast the movie as well!  Of course, the cast could have been very different. Cohen had considered Eddie Murphy (who was still on Saturday Night Live) for the role of Jimmy Quinn, and a relatively unknown actor at the time, Bruce Willis, for the role of Shepard.

With pre-production taking place so swiftly, Larry Cohen did not have a clear idea of what the film's monster would look like when he started the film. Having seen Alien, Cohen was struck by how little the monster was seen in that film. He thought that perhaps he could deliver the film's frights by  only offering glimpses of Quetzlcoatl's beak or claw, with no full shots of the monster. It was after a rough cut was made of the film that Cohen realised he would have to show the monster or audiences would be disappointed. Fortunately for Cohen, Steve Neil (who did special makeup effects on the film) was friends with stop motion animator Randall William Cook. Cook made a deal with Cohen to design the movie's monster. Cook then brought  fellow stop motion animator David Allan, as he did not own his own facilities for photographing the monster. David Allen brought model maker Dennis Gordon onto the project to help with creating the miniatures. Allen had to work in a hurry to get the special effects completed in time and his facilities were somewhat limited. The end result is that the special effects are sometimes uneven.

Just as the pre-production on Q happened at a breakneck pace, so too was it shot. The film was shot in only eighteen days. With such a brief period of pre-production and  a hectic shooting schedule, with shooting sometimes lasting from 18 to 20 hours a day. Many times Larry Cohen shot the film on the New York streets without a permit. Indeed, the film used no extras--everyone in the background of the film are ordinary New Yorkers, not actors.

Ironically, Q opened in New York City on October 8, 1982, one day before the movie from which Larry Cohen had been fired, I, the Jury, did. In the end Q made four times as much money as I, the Jury, even though it only cost an eighth as much. It must also be mentioned that Q received much better reviews than the new version of I, the Jury. Both The New York Times and Variety gave the film good reviews, while Roger Ebert seemed to have enjoyed the film while only giving it two and a half stars.

For a film that was made extremely swiftly and on a shoestring budget, Q is surprisingly good. The film's strengths rest in Larry Cohen's script and the performances of its leads. As might be expected of Cohen, Q has a very intelligent screenplay, one which once more deals with social issues. At the heart of  Q is the subject of religion, as the characters ponder whether Quetzlcoatl is a god, a monster, or possibly both. While examining the nature of godhood, the film also puts in swipes at politics, petty criminals, and the city of New York. This is not to say that Q is a dead serious, message film. The movie is filled with Cohen's usual humour, featuring some of the best dialogue he had ever written. Indeed, one of the great things about Q is that the film does work on many levels. It is at once a police procedural, a black comedy, and a monster movie.

Of course, even as great as Cohen's script was, the movie would not be nearly as good if it wasn't for the performances of its leads. Nearly every critic who reviewed the movie noted Michael Moriarty's performance as Jimmy Quinn. In fact, it may well have been the best performance of his career, surpassing even the one he gave in Bang the Drum Slowly. Quinn's cowardly, scheming Quinn is matched by David Carradine's straight arrow, hard working detective Shepard. In what could have easily been a one note performance in the hands of other another actor, Carradine gave Shephard depth. Richard Roundtree also delivers a good performance as the bad cop, Powell, to Shephard's good cop. In fact, the interaction between Powell and Quinn is one of the best things about the movie, given Powell's distaste for the petty hood.

Q is also very effective as a horror movie. There are a number of scenes which will make viewers jump from their seat. And for those who like gore, there is a good deal of that in the film. This is, after all, a movie in which modern day followers of the ancient Aztec religion flay people alive.

Q does have its flaws. While the special effects are very good for the most part, there are a few moments, particularly when Quetzlcoatl comes into full view, which are not quite convincing. Here I wish to stress that there is no fault on the part of Dave Allen and his special effects crew in this. They were brought onto the picture in post-production, rushed for time, and working with limited resources and a limited budget. There are also some scenes in which Larry Cohen's direction is less than stellar. Here again it must be kept in mind that Cohen was working very quickly, and often under less than desirable circumstances. Given the swiftness with which the film was made and its limited budget, it is perhaps a testament to Cohen's skill as a producer and director that the film is as good as it is.

At the time Q was released it was an oddity among horror movies. It was in many respects an anachronism, an old fashioned, giant monster movie released in the middle of a cycle towards slasher films. Even as a giant monster movie, however, it was different from any that had come before it. The film boasted a good screenplay that had plenty of intelligence, wit, and humour behind it. If the film has become a cult classic, perhaps it is because it is a genuinely good film.


Holte Ender said...

You might find THIS interesting.

Terence Towles Canote said...

Thanks for the link, Holte! Really, I think Sir Christopher Lee deserved knighthood long ago. I even posted on it: