Something is flying around Manhattan and snatching sunbathers, window washers and construction workers from the tops of buildings. Detectives Shepard (David Carradine, Safari 3000) and Powell (Richard Roundtree, Brick) investigate the deaths and disappearances and a series of murders in which the victims are skinned alive. Safe cracker and getaway car driver Jimmy Quinn (Michael Moriarty, The Stuff) gets sucked into a diamond robbery that goes wrong and finds the nest of the creature in the Chrysler building. Will Quinn do the right thing and let the authorities know where they can find the creature? Will Shepard and Powell figure out the connection between the murders and the beast?
Writer/director Larry Cohen’s (Black Caesar) signature is a great opening and/or concept for a story with mixed execution, often due to the very small budgets he works with as an independent. When things come together in a Cohen film the story will go in directions you would never see it go in a more mainstream treatment of the same idea. In a more traditional “giant monster on the loose” story, for example, the monster would be in some far off, rural location, and hiding out in the wilderness or deep in the ocean. In Q, Cohen audaciously puts a giant reptile/bird right in the Chrysler building, attacking victims when they are blinded by the sun! Similarly, a more mainstream film would feature a monster that is the result of genetic engineering, radiation, brought to the city from an isolated area, or even from outer space. Here we get the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, willed into existence by a cult!
This is not to say that all Cohen’s ideas work. Cohen often allows his actors to improv dialogue and bring their own ideas to the table, and Michael Moriarty goes hog-wild, bringing us a ex-junkie ex-con who rants, plays jazz piano while scatting, and moves around the screen nervously. Some of the rants work, but a lot of it feels like Moriarty’s jazz performance: random, shitty noodling which hurts the pacing of the film. It doesn’t help that he’s paired with the often very stiff Carradine, making their scenes feel like two very different films. Q is sometimes also hurt by that other Cohen problem, grand ambitions on a tiny budget. Some of the stop motion photography is excellent, but some of it is quite goofy looking, and there’s the little matter of a media blitz and flurry of creature sightings that are barely conveyed by the film, probably because Cohen didn’t have the budget to stage press conferences, TV news reports, or to print more than one newspaper headline. Monster movie fans can fill in the holes, but one suspects that, if he only had a budget, Cohen’s take on this material would be a lot of fun, and featured more of his skepticism about the political, law enforcement and media establishment.
Q is not one of Cohen’s best movies, but it’s not one of his worst, either, a fun but flawed monster movie with flashes of brilliance and a real departure from typical entries in the genre.