Larry Cohen hasn’t directed a film since 1996 (Original Gangstas), but he’s stayed busy as a writer with thrillers like Phone Booth, Best Seller and Cellular. It’s a bit of a shame as the man’s directorial touch is usually a guarantee that a movie is going to be a fun ride – think It’s Alive, The Stuff, The Ambulance – and one of his best is 1982’s flying monster movie, Q the Winged Serpent.
Scream Factory released the film to Blu-ray in 2013 complete with a new commentary track from Cohen, and we decided it was time to give it a spin. It was a smart decision as the track is a fun, informative and occasionally surprising listen.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary track for Q the Winged Serpent.
Q the Winged Serpent (1982)
Commentator: Larry Cohen (writer/director)
1. They had an early preview of the film prior to distribution, and a rumor started that it was a sneak preview of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Half the audience got up and left when they realized it was a Samuel Z. Arkoff production instead. “Nobody even gave the picture a chance. Actually except Carl Reiner and his wife. They stayed for the first scene.”
2. The opening scene is hot at the top of the Empire State Building. The window washer is played by a real window washer.
3. Cohen and David Carradine were old friends since serving in the army together. They were part of the army transportation corp although they “never did any transportation work.” Instead the duo managed to get assigned to the chaplain’s office where Cohen wrote sermons and Carradine painted the walls. “He spent most of his time at the dentist’s office getting new teeth. Except for the time he was court-martialed for shoplifting from the PX… but acquitted, of course.”
4. Cohen recites Michael Moriarty’s resume and list of awards before sharing how he first met the actor while at lunch with someone else. Moriarty was sitting nearby and heard Cohen reciting Moriarty’s resume and list of awards. The actor smiled so Cohen took the opportunity to introduce himself and share the script.
5. This film came together pretty quickly as Cohen was already in the city filming a movie called I the Jury that was slowly falling apart due to his conflicts with the producers. “I guess you could say I got fired.” Rather than leave town he moved quickly into a new project. The two films ended up opening against each other, and Q won out at the box office.
6. Cohen found Moriarty listening to music between shots and discovered it was the actor’s own music, both piano and singing, so they decided to incorporate this into the character.
7. He notes that Bong Joon-ho was influenced by this film while making The Host. Bong was excited by the idea of mixing humor with a monster picture.
8. Cohen wanted the Chrysler Building as the creature’s nesting place, but he kept it out of the script in case it ended up being unavailable. That would have disappointed the investors. He was turned down repeatedly until the production offered the management $15k. He revisited the building a few weeks before recording this commentary, and he regrets that time and terrorism concerns have closed off these upper levels to visits.
9. They couldn’t fit the egg and nest into the Chrysler Building’s attic, so they shot these scenes in an old, abandoned police building. When they were finished shooting the crew removed everything except the nest. “Close to a year later there was an article on the front page of the New York Times,” he says, detailing a flurry of activity from anthropologists flying into town to examine a mysterious nest found in the old, abandoned police building. “I wasn’t about to say anything about it, I didn’t know what the liability might be.”
10. Shepard’s (Carradine) wife is played by Carradine’s actual wife at the time. “But I don’t think she remained his wife for very long. He had many wives, but I couldn’t use them all.” He pays his respects to the late actor, acknowledging that they had a falling out – Cohen had to fire him from a film due to excessive drinking – but had made up before Carradine’s death. “I’m sorry he had such a short life,” he says about the actor who died at the age of 76.
11. He has some words about Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin’s Godzilla reboot. “They more or less stole the plot to Q,” he says. He ran into Devlin before that film was released, and apparently ran away when Cohen mentioned how they both made a monster movie. Cohen took no legal action after seeing the similarities, and believes that was a wise choice as Devlin actually bought one of his scripts (Cellular) years later.
12. When they shot the scene with people firing machine guns at the beast from the top of the skyscraper the ejected shells fell eighty stories towards the streets below, but luckily they were caught by a canopy installed to prevent construction debris. Cohen expected and hoped to get footage of real people reacting in shock to the gunfire, but the civilians barely gave the commotion a glance. That didn’t stop the New York Daily News from reporting a more colorful story about poor behavior by the production. It led to Cohen being told that he couldn’t fire any more guns in the movie.
13. Cohen thinks that whole Orson Wells/War of the Worlds nationwide panic story was blown out of proportion. “I don’t think too many people listened to that radio program and really believed it,” he says. “It wasn’t that believable.”
14. Moriarty becomes the focus of Cohen’s praise several times and suggests viewers check out his single scene in The Last Detail. “If you’ve never seen anybody steal a scene from Jack Nicholson you will see it in The Last Detail.” Cohen worked with Moriarty five times – Q, The Stuff, A Return to Salem’s Lot, It’s Alive III: Island of the Alive and an episode of Masters of Horror – and he believes there’s no one better.
15. He recalls how Carradine’s career began with hints toward stardom before becoming mired in an endless string of B-movies. “He just did every part that was offered to him, probably because he needed the money. I never went to David Carradine’s home anywhere – and he had a lot of different homes – that there wasn’t a notice posted on the door from the IRS saying the property had been seized for back taxes.”
16. Cohen made sure to have his review clippings handy for this commentary and goes on to read several of the highlights.
17. The willing human sacrifice in the third act is played by Carradine’s brother, Bruce. “I don’t think he and David had the same mother.”
18. A young actor named Bruce Willis auditioned for the role of Detective Shepard, but Arkoff insisted they go with a bankable name like Carradine instead. A young comedian named Eddie Murphy was considered for Moriarty’s role, but the investors didn’t think a black unknown would do well in overseas markets.
19. The hotel sequence towards the end was shot at the Mayflower Hotel. It was full of actors including Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Robert Duvall and offered special rates for film productions. It’s since been torn down and replaced with expensive condos.
20. Cohen credits the original stage play of Wait Until Dark for “inventing” the cliche of the supposedly deceased bad guy jumping up again to scare the protagonist (and audiences).
Best in Commentary
- “I’m Larry Cohen, and I don’t know what I’m talking about.”
- “There’s Samuel Z. Arkoff’s name which caused us nothing but trouble.”
- “The dog wasn’t in the script.”
- “I wish that Carl Reiner would have stayed to see this scene, he wouldn’t have walked out.”
- “If a bird monster was going to find a place to roost I think it would choose the Chrysler Building.”
- “Both of these actors who are playing the gangsters went on to have nice long careers playing gangsters.”
- “Surprisingly many NYC police officers are members of the Screen Actors Guild.”
- “Now, we could probably have done this bird better, but, what can you say.”
- “It’s the exact same scene as the end of the $150 million Godzilla picture. Gee, if I had that money I could have made 150 movies.”
It’s a wonder Cohen finds time to breathe as he almost never stops talking during this commentary, and it’s pretty damn amazing. He moves from production detail to anecdote to recollection to praise for his cast and crew, and he rarely stops. The result is a fun and engaging commentary that works as a fine companion to this equally entertaining little movie.
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