Friday, April 13, 2012

MOVIES MADE ME #42: Larry Cohen Double Feature

This spring, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is featuring an exhibition entitled “Children of the Plumed Serpent: The Legacy of Quetzalcoatl in Ancient Mexico” (see photos below)... which naturally got me thinking of Larry Cohen’s movie Q: THE WINGED SERPENT.

Yes, I’m reducing a significant cultural event to a movie reference. Because that’s what I do.

For the uninitiated, here’s the quick history lesson: Quetzalcoatl is an ancient Aztec deity, worshipped for hundreds of years in the Mesoamerican region. The name means “plumed serpent”... but, as Cohen advises, you can just call it Q... because “that’s all you’ll have time to say before it tears you apart!”

I didn't discover this movie until I was in college. I'd seen the VHS box a few times when I was a kid, but I never rented it because I thought the monster looked cheesy. And it does. But that doesn’t mean that Q: THE WINGED SERPENT is a cheesy movie. Let me put it this way: Either you like stop-motion animation monster movies or you don’t. If you do, you’re in hog heaven. If you don’t, there's still plenty to love about this film, because Q is a surprisingly intelligent satire on religion.

At the center of the story is Michael Moriarty -- surely Larry Cohen’s most charismatic leading man. Despite very different personal politics (check this out), the actor and director established an instant rapport on this film, before moving on to THE STUFF, IT'S ALIVE 3 and A RETURN TO SALEM'S LOT. Cohen says, “We do have a very similar sense of humor. And he’s very tuned in to me. When I’m working with him on a picture, I can make up new dialogue, I can make up jokes, I can make up new lines and I can give them to him on the set while we’re working, sometimes even while we’re shooting. And he won’t even blink an eye... He’s such a completely disciplined actor that he can take these ad libs and work them into the scene and make them feel organic to the scene.” No doubt this ability to improvise was particularly helpful in the making of Q: THE WINGED SERPENT, since the project was hastily put together in a matter of weeks... and by a writer/director with pretty high standards for monster movies.

When I interviewed Larry Cohen in 2008, he confessed that he never particularly liked the monster movies he grew up with (minus rare exceptions like THEM!). He said, “To me they were awful because the actors were so bad. I mean, they always had some broad with big tits and they’d say she was a nuclear physicist and you’re supposed to believe that this actress who’s obviously screwing some studio executive to get the job was right for the part…. And then the leads were always these dull men, John Agar types that had no personality. And it was a stage wait until the monster decided to show up. Then, after you saw the monster for a couple of minutes you said, Now what? And there was nothing else.”

“When I made those kind of films later on, I tried to instill them with characters that were rich and vibrant and had many levels of emotion, so that in my monster movies, the monsters were the least important thing in the picture. The actors were the most important thing in the picture.”

This is certainly true of Q: THE WINGED SERPENT. What works for me is the story of Moriarty’s savvy, cynical and emotionally vulnerable thief. The actor’s humanity and humor (not to mention his scat-singing) helps to sell the reality of story about a prehistoric monster in midtown Manhattan... because his character reacts the way any sane person would react: by going a little insane. Once he has stumbled onto the nest of Quetzalcoatl at top of the Chrysler Building, Moriarty gets downright loopy. White jazz gives way to the high-strung mania of a man who’s seen more than he can take. In any other film, a character this eccentric would be relegated to a supporting role, but Cohen keeps him front and center and makes him seem even more eccentric by pairing him with two straight men, David Carradine and Richard Roundtree.

Carradine is this monster movie's Roy Scheider and he gets to deliver most of the expositional dialogue -- as well as a few digs at organized religion. Confronted with the possibility that the “giant bird” is being worshipped as an Aztec deity, he casually responds, “Wouldn’t be the first time in history that a monster was mistaken for a god.” Roundtree is equally sarcastic. Standing over a body that has been “peeled like an orange” by Q worshippers, he champions modern religion: “Luckily all we have to do these days is take the wafer and drink the wine. That’s what I call being civilized.” A relatively minor character delivers Cohen’s ultimate statement on religion in Q: “What else is God but an invisible force we fear? For centuries we’ve tried to make it into our image. Give God two legs, a pair of hands, lips, eyes. Perhaps it’s only our vanity.” In other words: Maybe God is really a monster. That’s a pretty hard-hitting theme for a nostalgic monster movie. But then Cohen is no stranger to high-concept genre films.

A few years earlier, he explored the same idea in GOD TOLD ME TO -- a brilliant sci-fi thriller about alien abduction and the Second Coming. In Tony Williams’ woefully out-of-print book Larry Cohen: The Radical Allegories of an Independent Filmmaker, the director explains that his original idea for the film was to tell a variation on the Superman myth: “Imagine a creature from another planet born and brought up here, not knowing his origins, realizing that he has supernatural powers enabling him to control people. This alien might begin to believe that he is God, particularly in a Christian society like ours where it is preached that God came to Earth in human form with unique powers.”

The finished film muses on the psychic fallout of this scenario. When ordinary people commit acts of murder in the name of God, they feel a sense of pride and satisfaction... even peace. A father kills his wife and young children without remorse, because he believes that God “wouldn’t ask me to do anything that wasn’t right.” He even invokes the Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac to justify his actions -- a speech that challenges the individual viewer’s religious beliefs. For Christians, it begs the question: What kind of God would ask us to kill our own child? For Christians and non-Christians alike, it begs another question: Is this kind of faith a serious threat to law and order?

In 2008, the director said, “People thought that GOD TOLD ME TO was kind of touchy because it dealt with religion… but I always say, ‘Hey, look at THE EXORCIST. Here’s a movie where the little girl’s masturbating with a crucifix. I mean, this is really disgusting stuff. And they had real priests on the set as technical advisors. What the hell were they doing there, lending credence to this movie... just because it was a bestselling book?” THE EXORCIST, of course, is a very different film with a very different agenda. Author William Peter Blatty’s tale is practically evangelical: he wanted to scare people into believing in Ultimate Good and Ultimate Evil. Director William Friedkin was obviously more concerned with scaring people than converting them, but the effect was the same. GOD TOLD ME TO, on the other hand, doesn't make the distinction between Ultimate Good and Ultimate Evil. One character asks, “What do you think would happen if people believed that God was actually exercising His will on the city streets?" Whereas THE EXORCIST sent moviegoers scrambling to church, GOD TOLD ME TO shows the people of New York scrambling aimlessly in the streets, with nowhere to run.

When I re-watched GOD TOLD ME TO last night, I realized that Cohen had mimicked one of the final scenes in THE EXORCIST. In Friedkin's film, Jason Miller finds Max von Sydow lying dead on the floor, and promptly throttles the possessed Linda Blair, ordering the devil to “Take Me!” In GOD TOLD ME TO, Tony LoBianco’s character aggressively interrogates a fatally-wounded killer who seems to be (in a less literal sense) possessed by the alien Christ-figure. As the dying man struggles to utter the words “God told me to,” LoBianco pounds on his chest, saying, “Fight Him!” When the killer slips away, the detective screams (at the invisible demon), “Kill Me!” The staging of two scenes is almost identical, but Cohen has turned von Sydow's righteous priest into a homicidal madman and Miller's guilty priest into a self-loathing alien.... which I guess is one way of summing up his position on organized religion. It goes back to that very simple concept: If God's followers can do such monstrous things in His name, then maybe God is really a monster.

Cohen says he got the idea for Q while wandering the streets of Manhattan. “I was looking up at the towers of New York,” he said, “and I thought, These things look like temples. If our civilization was suddenly destroyed by some cataclysm, and then unearthed a thousand years from now, and archaeologists began to dig it out and they found the Chrysler Building, they’d say, Obviously, people worshipped these things. The whole side of the building is covered with images of birds and the top of it is kind of feathered. And it gleams in the sun. So I said, ‘If some giant bird came to New York, it would want to nest at the top of the Chrysler Building, because it looks like it’s been built to be a nest.’ Then I said, 'What kind of giant bird would it be?' Well, there’s Quetzalcoatl, the ancient bird god of Mexico... What’s he doing in New York?”

The director fell in love with the idea of placing a monster in mid-town Manhattan -- not just because it gave him a chance to create his own version of King Kong on the Empire State Building, but because it gave him a chance to play out a feature-length Hitchcockian scenario. When I spoke to Cohen about his filmmaking influences, he admitted that he had always been impressed with Alfred Hitchcock’s knack for making the most unlikely people and places seem dangerous. That simple concept became the basis for many of Cohen’s films, as he himself explains: “If you’re going to have somebody killed, why not do it in the midst of 5,000 policemen... in the middle of the biggest parade that New York has? [see GOD TOLD ME TO] If you’re going to create a monster, why not make it a baby? [see IT’S ALIVE] If you’re going to sell something dangerous, why not make it ice cream? [see THE STUFF] If you’re going to show something terrifying, why not make it an ambulance? [see THE AMBULANCE] If you’re going to have a killer, why not make him a cop? [see MANIAC COP].”

GOD TOLD ME TO provides the ultimate example: If you’re going to tell a story about a mind-controlling terrorist, why not make him Jesus Christ? Richard Lynch plays the part as a glowing, unisex hippie with unsettling burn scars. (The scars were real -- permanent reminders of a day when the actor set himself on fire in the midst of a bad acid trip.) Taking this concept one step further, Cohen’s hero is the man who eventually kills “Christ.”

When was the last time you saw a monster movie with that kind of chutzpah?

1 comment:

  1. Love this movie. I discovered it the first time it became available for VHS rental. The video clerk talked it up and I immediately saw why. It's been in my DVD library ever since. I admire all the things you say about the film. Fine write-up, Joe. Thanks for this.