Appellate Judge Tom Becker just finished Dr. Scholl's autobiography, "Confessions of an Odor Eater."
Take one daring step beyond the threshold of your own imagination!
Lunacy in Chinatown…and opium!
Albert Zugsmith was an entrepreneur, an auteur, and a schlockmeister. As a producer, he has some fairly heavy-duty legit genre cred: Touch of Evil, Written on the Wind, The Incredible Shrinking Man, and Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, to name just a few of his better-regarded productions. When Zugsmith decided to expand his talents and direct, the results were less impressive: Sex Kittens Go to College, The Incredible Sex Revolution, and some low-grade, late '60s/early '70s porn efforts highlighted his resumé. Most of these efforts, while entertaining, were as disposable and predictable as they sound.
But Zugsmith did direct one genuine curiosity piece, something that wavered between exploitation and experimentation. Confessions of an Opium Eater is as eye-popping as it as eye-rolling; a weird, kinky, and totally politically incorrect fandango. It stars horror icon Vincent Price (The Tingler), but it's not a horror movie; it concerns itself with Asian sex trafficking in 1902 San Francisco, but it's not really a sex movie; it's based on a novel, with long passages of narration taken directly from the source, but it's not a literary movie.
What it is, mainly, is a bizarre concoction of overheated yet often obscure plot points, cheap and cheesy special effects, slow motion and speeded up camerawork, little people, fog machines working overtime, "Eastern" philosophizing for a "Western" sensibility, stock footage, a gong-and-Theremin musical score, stunt doubles laboriously covering their faces, and lurid goings on involving enslaved women and (naturally) opium smoking. It includes "trippy" sequences that predated Roger Corman's head-pleasing (and head-scratching) The Trip by five years, although it's just barely a stoner film.
Price stars as Gilbert De Quincey (presumably, an ancestor of Thomas De Quincey, who wrote the 19th Century book on which this was based). De Quincy finds himself in San Francisco's Chinatown at the behest of Ruby Low (Linda Ho). Ruby is the head honchess of a tong lorded over by the elderly Ling Tang. There is, in fact, a tong war going on, with the Ling Tang gang fighting those who oppose its main business: girls-for-opium auctions. Unfortunately for the Ling Tang tong, De Quincey's loyalties shift drastically after he meets some of the kidnapped girls-for-sale.
That's pretty much it, plot-wise, for Confessions of an Opium Eater. The bulk of the film concerns itself with De Quincey's adventures as he tries to rescue one of the girls—though, like a dog chasing a car, it's never really clear what he intends to do with her if he does save her. These adventures take place in the auction house, an elaborate structure of secret rooms, including a sort of dungeon where rejected women are kept in motorized hanging bamboo cages, an opium den, and a vault of treasures.
De Quincey encounters a wizened little "sing-song girl" ("pretty Chinese midget very rare") and matches wills with the beautiful, power-mad Ruby Low, smokes opium, dodges hatchet attacks and other indignities, and never loses his cool. We're treated to some truly bizarre bits of business, including an attack by a kite, an angry dispute spurred by a bald concubine, a daring and dangerous white horse, and a chase through the sewers of San Francisco. Much of it seems like weird for weird's sake, but it somehow holds together.
Price, pretty much the only non-Asian person here (save for a junkie he meets at the opium den, who notes, "What do you want a girl for, Mate, when you've got a pipe…and dreams?"), slips easily into the role of the wise-cracking tough guy with a conscience—sort of a low-rent Bogart type. The sometimes dreamy narration offers an appropriate point/counterpoint to the madness ensuing on screen. With everything done on the cheap, Zugsmith's visuals range from intriguing to laughable but are never less than entertaining—particularly De Quincey's slo-mo opium hallucination.
Confessions of an Opium Eater is a Warner Archive disc, meaning no supplements or tech enhancements. The image is decent, as is the mono audio; it's a shame Warner Bros. isn't putting a little more into these discs—their films are like a cult-movie fire sale, and I don't think we'd be spoiled by the occasional commentary or even an essay.
Confessions of an Opium Eater isn't for everyone. The absence of a compelling narrative sometimes makes this seem like a bunch of freaky vignettes strung a bit clumsily together. But if you're looking for something far off the beaten path—the kind of film that, had it been made by a more reputable (or foreign) director might have been hailed as a masterpiece—then this is your ticket.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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