Loosely based on Thomas de Quincey’s 1822 autobiographical novel, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, 1962’s CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER is one of the more unusual and rarely screened of the films made during Vincent Price’s 1960s horror-king heyday. Never before available on home video, it finally bows on DVD, courtesy of the Warner Archive Collection.
In San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early 19th century, Gilbert De Quincey (Vincent Price, THE ABOMINABLE DR. PHIBES) is a sailor with a tattoo of a dragon and a crescent moon inside his forearm. A vessel has smuggled in a bunch of terrified oriental girls on the beach, all to be sold at auction as slaves. The accompanying sailor captors are attacked by George Wah (Richard Loo, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN), a newspaper editor and do-gooding tong leader, along with his henchmen. But a rival ambushing gang arrives to kidnap all the girls, except for Lotus (June Kim, BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA), who while escaping, saves Wah’s life. As Wah is believed to be dead, the reports of this and the female smuggling is enough to cause a full blown tong war in Chinatown.
In the meantime, when De Quincey arrives in Chinatown, we learn that his path once crossed Wah’s on friendly terms, and he’s a willing partner against slave trade crimes headed by dragon lady Ruby Low (Linda Ho, HILLBILLYS IN A HAUNTED HOUSE). De Quincey breaks into a window (by way kite!), rescues a young woman, but in escorting her out of arm’s way, he inadvertently takes a secret elevator down to an underground world with all sorts of strange characters, some he befriends, including a wisecracking, adult pint-sized “slave child” (“little person” actress Yvonne Moray, THE TERROR OF TINY TOWN, THE WIZARD OF OZ). The young women he attempted to save is torturously drowned in a glass vault, De Quincey finds himself prisoner, encounters a secret opium den and is able to witness an out-of-control girl auction (where exotic Asian ladies in cramped bamboo cages are dangling by overhead pulleys) as he catches up with his pal Wah (disguised as an old man trading bogus opium cakes in exchange for a slave girl who happens to be his woman).
Director Albert Zugsmith also produced such classier films as Orson Welles’ TOUCH OF EVIL and Jack Arnold’s THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN, but mainly was involved with exploitation fare such as SEX KITTENS GO TO COLLEGE, FANNY HILL: MEMOIRS OF A WOMAN OF PLEASURE, PSYCHEDELIC SEXUALIS, MOVIE STAR AMERICAN STYLE OR; LSD, I HATE YOU and this epic which did nothing for Price’s career except give him some spending cash to purchase his next collectible painting. From its opening aboard a slave ship (enhanced by obvious stock footage) where a bunch of screaming girls fall to their death, to the Chinatown shenanigans and its numerous death scenes, the film is pure exploitation from start to finish with the newspaper ads exclaiming, “Take one daring step beyond the threshold of your imagination!” The film is very trippy indeed (with lots of unintentionally comical “sped up” camera work thrown in to the mix), as it partially journeys into the mind of a man after his first experience with the poppy. There was some true talent involved with the film; the art decorator was none other than Eugène Lourié (director of THE BEAST FROM 20,000 FATHOMS and THE GIANT BEHEMOTH) and the haunting, drum-driven score was composed by Albert Glasser, known for numerous 1950s B movies and monster flicks.
Dressed in black from head to toe, Price (who also narrates in character with his usual poise and is thankfully given much screen time) plays it rather cool and casual, where he could have been over the top, and this is most likely due to the fact that he was disenchanted with the substandard script handed to him. De Quincey does have an obligatory hallucination/trip scene (with Price puffing on a long pipe on a cot), and while it’s not nearly as amusing as what he survived during his experiments in THE TINGLER, it’s still one of the most memorable parts of the film. De Quincey’s mind-altering turn on has him seeing snakes, skulls, previous scenes from movie, stock footage and even a shot of the scaly monster from VOODOO WOMAN (which is ironic since the creature’s creator, Paul Blaisdell, publicized this film in a 1963 issue of his short-lived magazine Fantastic Monsters). This is followed by a slow motion and partially silent chase where the character walks on top of furniture and eventually crashes through a window (after which we see a twirling silhouette of Price!). Although the film appears to have employed nearly every working Hollywood Asian actor of the period, look for ex prize fighter Vince Barbi (THE BLOB, THE ASTRO ZOMBIES) as a ship’s captain and tiny Angelo Rossitto (THE CORPSE VANISHES, DRACULA VS. FRANKENSTEIN) who is almost trampled as a newspaper “boy”.
Never available before on home video, CONFESSIONS OF AN OPIUM EATER has remained in the Warner Brothers film catalog since it was an Allied Artists theatrical release and it occasionally showed up on late night TV under the less controversial title SOULS FOR SALE. Fitting nicely with the Warner Archive Collection’s penchant for the more obscure and offbeat library titles, the manufactured-on-demand DVD is offered with a nice widescreen (1.66:1) anamorphic transfer. The black and white image shows some wear (not to mention some badly inserted inferior stock footage) during the opening credits, but then smoothly transforms into overall sharp-looking results. The contrasts on the black and white picture are strong, with black levels being deep, and grain is minimal. Even though most viewers are used to seeing this open matte on television, the widescreen framing always appears accurate and benefits the compositions a great deal. The mono audio is also in fine shape. No theatrical trailer or any extras are included. (George R. Reis)
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