Written by: Thomas De Quincey (book), Robert Hill
Directed by: Albert Zugsmith
Starring: Vincent Price, Linda Ho and Richard Loo
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"Buying dreams, tonight, mate?"
"That stuff buys nightmares."
"That stuff buys nightmares."
If you’re the type of person who gets hung up on genres, it might behoove you to know that Confessions of an Opium Eater isn’t what you’d call a “straight horror movie.” Instead, it’s a bewitching brew of drama, crime, noir, and adventure that’s certainly masquerading as a horror film for much of its runtime. While it may not be a typical horror film in terms of content, it’s a tonal fit: hallucinatory, bizarre, and mind-bending, it also features a fine performance from horror titan Vincent Price.
Price is Gilbert De Quincey, an unspecified descendent of the 19th century author whose biography inspired the film. The original text sprawls throughout the author’s life, but this loose adaptation is an intimate, apocryphal yarn that sees his progeny caught up in the human trafficking market of early 20th century Chinatown, where a tong war is set to erupt between two conflicting factions. De Quincey is caught in between; initially in league with the slave-traders, he has been summoned by Ruby Low (Linda Ho) to track down a girl (June Kyoto Lu) who was rescued by local crusader and newspaper editor George Wah (Richard Loo). When faced with the inhumane tortures the girls endure, he shifts allegiances and attempts to lead the captured to freedom.
De Quincey’s adventure sends him onto a labyrinthine path that finds him swinging, jaunting, and skulking through the Chinatown underworld. Hidden passages, doorways, and chambers abound as the film swirls and twirls into every nook and cranny of this seedy underbelly that’s presided over by the mysterious Ling Tang, an ancient lord who hasn’t been glimpsed for years. If that (and, hell, most of this setup) sounds a little like Big Trouble in Little China, it probably should; in fact, Lu’s apperance in that film all but confirms that this was a likely influence on John Carpenter’s genre-blending effort. Confessions of an Opium Eater is almost like that film played more seriously, with the overt, fantastical wizardry switched out for drug-induced fervor and surrealism. A mystical, Oriental air still hangs over the film, but it’s more sinister and foreboding than it is in Little China.
Interestingly, both protagonists are similar; though De Quincey isn’t a bonehead like Jack Burton, he’s ineffectual all the same, caught up (sometimes literally) in the shifting tides and winds that carry him through the mazelike structure. Sometimes, he’s guided by a female dwarf that he initially mistakes as a child, one of the many tricks that he encounters on this strange trip. The convoluted architecture is a fine mirror for De Quincey’s inner psychological turmoil; he doesn’t seem morally conflicted so much as mentally, as his noir-like monologues reveal a man who is constantly questioning reality and longing for a human connection that goes beyond furtive, superficial interactions. For De Quincey, life is seemingly an extended fever dream or perhaps an out-of-body experience; that he’s presented to us as a disembodied voice seems appropriate, as he seemingly observes the film’s long, haunting prologue that he plays no physical part in (he’s not properly introduced until we see him stroll into Chinatown about ten minutes into the film). Price apparently wasn't fond of the script when he took the role, but it hardly shows. He’s in full-on tortured, haunted Price mode here, as if he’s found himself in another Poe adaptation for Roger Corman. Indeed, Poe’s musings on dreams within dreams would be appropriate here, especially when De Quincey questions the intertwining relationship between nightmares and reality.
His adventure climaxes with a literal trip when De Quincey visits an opium den that is somehow buried deep in the heart of the place. He insists upon indulging even though the den master insists it’s just a phony tourist trap, and, perhaps through the power of pure self-suggestion, he’s transported into a frenzied nightmare in the film’s signature sequence. Reciting passages from De Quincey's novel, the protagonist narrates this surreal odyssey that’s full of bizarre, exotic imagery; at the heart of it is a deathly skull, and its cacophonic nature echoes The Mask. Once De Quincey comes down from his high, things only get more strage, as the next five minutes or so are entirely shot in slow motion as he attempts to flee from the den. Nothing is quite as it seems, though, as time and space collapse into a frightening and frustrating incoherence that perfectly mimics being trapped in the low levels of a paralyzing dream state.
Even when De Quincey is able to come up for air, the film doesn’t relent. Sent back down into the bowels of this criminal world, he only encounters more doors, more elevator shafts, and more deception. It’s entirely possible that the entire thing’s just another drug-induced fantasy, as if De Quincey’s mind and soul were attempting to rectify and reconcile his failures (another opium-fuelled film, Once Upon a Time in America, lends itself to a similar reading). While the film’s early sequences are certainly strange, the events are successively heightened after the opium trip, filled with twists and turns as De Quincey circles further down the drain. Whether all that’s seen and seemed is but a dream is crucial to the film’s reading, and Zugsmith’s manipulation of geography and the generally dreamlike atmosphere--realized by gorgeously hazy black and white photography and a warbling, moody score--makes it difficult to ignore such a possibility.
The film carries an interesting pedigree; while Zugsmith’s most prominent productions include Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil and Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind, he was primarily a B-movie maven, and Confessions of an Opium Eater feels like elevated pulp that masterfully blends De Quincey’s philosophical musings with a two-fisted adventure that becomes increasingly subversive as it wears on. One of the godfathers of exploitation, Zugsmith forged an impressive genre résumé that was ahead of its time in its tackling of taboos and socially relevant material. Similarly, Thomas De Quincey can also be considered a forbearer since his work anticipates the soulful, macabre mediations of Poe, and Suspiria de Profundis inspired the work of Dario Argento.
Despite all of this, the film has languished in relative obscurity during the digital age, but Warner Archive has thankfully rescued it. Though the release is (expectedly) bereft of extras, the presentation is quite pristine. Zugsmith frequently employs shadows and fog that are well-reflected by the transfer, and the mono track adequately relays the often eerie sound design. Confessions of an Opium Eater is a total mood movie, the likes of which would come to populate the horror genre around this time period, and it slowly burrows into your mind. It might not immediately take hold, but it gradually absorbs your mind and leaves a lingering impression after it fades to black, much like a weird, half-remembered dream you can’t quite shake. Buy it!
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