Albert Zugsmith, 1962
Starring: Vincent Price, Linda Ho, Richard Loo, Philip Ahn
“The voices I heard... were they voices of men or of some strange imitation of men in some strange writhing jungle of my imagination. Was this opium or was it reality? Was I dead or was I only beginning to live?”
Based very loosely on Thomas De Quincey’s autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), there is precious little taken from his text outside of the title and that fact that the main character, Gilbert De Quincy, is supposed to be his ancestor having opium-fueled adventures a century later. The opening is mildly disturbing and completely free of dialogue. Young Chinese women are dragged from a boat's cargo hold to be unloaded and roughly transferred to another ship against their will inside of a net-like cage. Once they reach a beach, a group of men try to save them, but they fail and the surviving women are taken away to be sold in Chinatown by the Tong, a famous Chinese gang operating in San Francisco.
Soon we meet Gilbert De Quincey, who is attempting to infiltrate the Tong in order to rescue some of the victims of human trafficking. Mysteriously, he knows their locations and passwords and has a Tong tattoo. He meets up with the lovely but deadly Ruby Low and his finds way into the underbelly of Tong activities. Here he must run from danger and befriends a tiny, but clever woman that has been sentenced to death. Can they escape and set free the other women? Or will De Quincy be their next victim?
An independent production by studio Photoplay, the weird and forgotten Confessions of an Opium Eater is the brainchild of director Albert Zugsmith. He was known for producing films like Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and much more exploitation. He also directed some forgotten exploitation fare, such as Sex Kittens Go to College, though there is nothing quite like Confessions of an Opium Eater.
This film is not for everyone, as it abandons a cohesive plot in favor of a series of bizarre vignettes and, of course, it is totally weird and eschews most conventional logic. There are some cheap special effects and schlocky camera work, but despite this, the film is atmospheric and almost noir-like, taking place in sewers, hidden passageways, Chinese curio shops, and opium dens. There is certainly some ridiculousness, such as when De Quincey breaks into a second story office during broad daylight with the cunning use of a dragon kite. There are also plenty of women in cages, a comic fight in a bath house, a wacky roof-top chase, an exotic dance, and a little of the requisite opium smoking. Of course we are treated to an opium delirium scene involving snakes, fangs, skeletal hands, spiders, skulls, masks, and laughing faces. Also keep an ear out for the wonderfully dizzying score from Albert Glasser (Earth Vs. the Spider).
A mix of fantasy, action, and crime thriller, this is worlds removed from Price’s popular horror films and is more of an ancestor to the Fu Manchu films of the ‘30s. It's certainly an echo of the “yellow peril” cinema and fiction of earlier, more questionable times. Yes, it is full of racist stereotypes, but thankfully the actors are all actually Asian (except Vincent Price), instead of white people with unconvincing make up and tape on the corners of their eyes as in Mask of Fu Manchu. And speaking of Asian actors, the real star of the film is Yvonne Moray (The Wizard of Oz), who plays the adorable Chinese midget that talks circles around Vincent Price and is responsible for some genuine humor. “And besides, I’m having so much fun!”
Linda Ho (Hillbillies in a Haunted House) is excellent as Ruby Low and provides a welcome strong female character, one who seemingly orchestrates the trafficking and acts as the film’s central villain. She and Price have a totally comedy free, un-ironic attraction to each other and even exchange a passionate kiss, after which she knocks him unconscious with a single blow. While badass ladies would become common fare in the exploitation films of Russ Meyer, movies like Switchblade Sisters, and the Japanese Pinky Violence subgenre, it’s always welcome to see glimpses of these characters in early films.
Vincent Price as the black clad, mysterious De Quincy is somewhat out of character here as a mystery-solving, crime-fighting action hero and is a bit more subdued than normal. I guess he figured the plot was insane enough that he could put the scenery chewing and teeth gnashing aside for a bit, but he is delightful as ever. He narrates much of the film, which adds to the noir atmosphere and makes this feel a bit like a detective story.
Everyone who likes weird, cult cinema should see this at least once. It is bizarre and a little bit magical, but I can guarantee you won’t see anything else like it. Thus must have been an inspiration for John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China and if you enjoyed that film and any of the Fu Manchu movies, you’re going to love this. Even if you don’t, I suspect it will blow your socks off a little. Though it was unavailable for a long time, Confessions of an Opium Eater was finally released on DVD as part of the Warner Archive Collection.