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[It Came From the ’80s] An American Kaiju: ‘Q- The Winged Serpent’

With horror industry heavy hitters already in place from the 1970s, the 1980s built upon that with the rise of brilliant minds in makeup and effects artists, as well as advances in technology. Artists like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and countless other artists that delivered groundbreaking, mind-blowing practical effects that ushered in the pre-CGI Golden Age of Cinema. Which meant a glorious glut of creatures in horror. More than just a technical marvel, the creatures on display in ‘80s horror meant tangible texture that still holds up decades laterGrotesque slimy skin to brutal transformation sequences, there wasn’t anything the artists couldn’t create. It Came From the ‘80s is a series that will pay homage to the monstrous, deadly, and often slimy creatures that made the ‘80s such a fantastic decade in horror.

Compared to Japan’s vast selection of Kaiju films, there are very few giant monster films stateside. Larry Cohen’s 1982 film about a winged serpent terrorizing the Chrysler Building belongs in that small club. At first glance, it looks more like a Ray Harryhausen throwback with its stop-motion Claymation beast, but this cult film is every bit of Cohen’s brand of ballsy filmmaking. A gritty New York police procedural centered around a couple of NYPD detectives, a crook, and ritualistic Aztec murder that just happens to have an Aztec god nesting in one of the most recognizable skyscrapers in America come together in one strange film that can only be attributed to Cohen, in another story of the behind the scenes becoming more fascinating than the film itself.

Initially, Cohen didn’t set out to make Q. At least, not yet. He was in New York to direct I, the Jury, a film on which he wrote the screenplay. He didn’t get along with the producers however, and the film went over budget very quickly, so he was fired only a week into production. Instead of leaving town, he decided to stay and make another movie. So, after a mere few days of pre-production, including preparing a shooting script, he began shooting Q. He sent a telegram to David Carradine telling him when to show up, and that he would be playing a New York detective. Carradine had always wanted to make a movie with his longtime friend, so he showed up only becoming aware that he’d signed up for a monster movie right as he was to begin filming. Michael Moriarty, who plays crook Jimmy Quinn, was hired simply because Cohen was a fan of his and happened to bump into him at a café in New York during pre-production.

It summed up Cohen’s approach; he’s a director who knows what he wants and he’ll find a way to get it regardless of opposition or obstacles. He refused to take no for an answer when seeking permission to shoot in the Chrysler Building, but after the sixth or so time of asking and offering them enough money, they agreed. Even then, they didn’t realize just how high up Cohen intended to go. The unsteady spire atop the building wasn’t the most secure place for the crew to go, but Cohen reasoned that the budget didn’t really allow room to build a safer duplicate to shoot.

After wrapping up the shoot in a few weeks, it was then that he approached Randy Cook (The Lord of the Rings trilogy), who then pulled in David Allen (Ghostbusters, Fright Night), on the special effects with a concept for the monster. Understandably, they weren’t thrilled with having to animate a modeled creature after the film had already been shot, considering the method typically required shots to be blocked out on where the actors and monsters should go before actually shooting. That the shots were often moving, not frozen in place, made Cook and Allen’s job even more difficult. Considering the parameters they had to work with and the budget, the human eating, flying Quetzalcoatl turned out really well.

Compared to most horror films of this decade, Q- The Winged Serpent looks a bit more dated and of its time due to the stop-motion effects. But it’s so strange and so very Cohen that it makes sense that it would gain a cult following. Cohen took a job firing and turned it into a brand-new project, and it gives a whole new perspective on the work produced by special effects teams.



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