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'Q: The Winged Serpent' is a slasher movie disguised as a kaiju movie
The 1982 film Q: The Winged Serpent turned 40 this month, and it remains a wonderful horror oddity.
King Kong and Godzilla are the Eighth Wonder of the World and the King of the Monsters, respectively, but they’re not the only kaiju around. There’s Gorgo, a British Godzilla knock-off; there’s Gamera, a giant turtle; there’s the kaiju from Pacific Rim; the Rhedosaurus, from Ray Harryhausen's Beast From 20,000 Fathoms; and the creature from Cloverfield, to name just a few. But, there’s another giant monster that should be on the radar of every dedicated kaiju fan — especially now, on Halloween. Because Quetzalcoatl, from 1982’s Q: The Winged Serpent, isn’t just a grimy ‘80s take on the kaiju genre; it’s a classic slasher movie, only with a towering flying beast doing the killings instead of a masked maniac.
Q: The Winged Serpent, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this month, was directed by Larry Cohen, a filmmaker known for charmingly schlocky horror flicks like It’s Alive and The Stuff. Q is no different, and despite having a giant, stop-motion, people-eating dragon-like monster at its center, the film feels much more closely related to something like Jason Takes Manhattan than Godzilla.
The titular Winged Serpent is already out and about when Q begins. It’s New York City in the ‘80s, which means it's grimy, dirty, and sleazy. As people go about their day — for instance, sunbathing topless on the roof of a Manhattan building, as one does — a giant monster swoops in and devours them, dripping blood on bystanders on the ground as it flies away, back to its nest in the Chrysler building. Crucially (and bafflingly), nobody on the ground actually sees the monster, even though it’s a bright cloudless day and there are literally thousands of people on the streets.
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That the monster goes unseen for a lot of the movie doesn’t make a lick of sense, logistically, but it does succeed in giving Q a slasher movie vibe. The beast is a killer, one that comes and goes silently and that the authorities don’t believe exists at first. Tension builds and rises until the inevitable point when Quetzalcoatl’s existence can no longer be denied. (Amusingly, once people do start to see the monster, they keep describing it as “a bird,” which is wild because in no way does this giant, reptilian creature with four legs and wings resemble a bird. These people know the word “dragon.” They would just say dragon!)
Q also features a level of gore that’s much more common in a slasher movie than a kaiju flick, where typically the monster is too big for the visceral damage it causes to any one individual to matter much. Godzilla stomps entire tanks or obliterates crowds with his atomic breath. He’s not disemboweling topless women and letting their entrails drop down to street level. Quetzalcoatl is.
It helps that there also is a human killer on the loose. David Carradine of Kung Fu and Kill Bill fame plays Detective Shepard, the only cop on the force who thinks maybe there’s a link between the giant Mesoamerican serpent attacking people and a string of ritual murders they connect to a neo-Aztec cult. Q is not, like, especially nuanced in its depiction of Aztec history and culture. (There is a scene where an expert is telling Shepard about Aztecs while standing in front of a museum exhibit of what are clearly native artifacts from the Pacific Northwest. Thankfully, the expert has a line of dialog where he admits that these aren’t Aztec, of course, which seems to make it clear that this is simply the location where Cohen and Co. were able to shoot.) But, the somewhat handwavey nature of the rituals that bring about a supernatural killer are familiar to fans of slasher movies. Chucky became a killer doll due to Voodoo, for instance.
Four decades later, and Q: The Winged Serpent is indeed an oddity, and not just because it’s a slasher disguised as a kaiju movie. The other main character, Michael Moriarty’s Jimmy Quinn, is in the pantheon of unlikeable protagonists. He’s a scummy low-level criminal who really wants to be [checks notes] a jazz musician, and when he discovers the monster’s nest in the Chrysler Building, he demands $1 million in exchange for the information. (Again, he is only in this position because nobody in a borough of what-was-then 1.5 million people saw a giant monster fly into one of the tallest buildings in the city in broad daylight.) It’s the type of character who could only exist in a movie like this, made in exactly this era.
Q: The Winged Serpent then finds itself in a bit of a valley. Though it boasts a cool creature and some decent special effects, it can’t compare with the Godzillas, King Kongs, or other top-tier kaiju. Nor can it really fit alongside the Freddys, Jasons, or Michael Myerses. Instead, Quetzalcoatl nests right in the middle, a curious but entertaining niche.
Q: The Winged Serpent is streaming for free on Pluto TV and Tubi.
Looking for more giant monsters? Several Godzilla movies are streaming now on Peacock.