Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962)

“There is no poison in a green snake’s mouth as in a woman’s heart.”

Confessions Opium Poster

Synopsis:
An adventurer (Vincent Price) in 19th century San Francisco stumbles upon a female slavery ring run by a Chinese warlord, and tries to help a captive (June Kim) escape.

Genres:

Review:
This difficult-to-find exploitation flick by producer/director Albert Zugsmith is beloved by nearly every mainstream critic who’s managed to view it, with Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader claiming it’s “not to be missed”, and Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine referring to it as a “beautiful and often bizarre little gem.” While I’m not quite sure it deserves such explicit praise, Confessions is certainly an unusual and atmospheric B-flick, one which merits a second look simply to understand what’s happening throughout its convoluted script. Based in-name-only (think AIP’s Poe “adaptations”) on Thomas De Quincey’s 1821 memoir, it follows the adventures of a mysterious mercenary (a descendant of De Quincey) who discovers a labyrinthine underworld of human slave trafficking in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and decides (we’re never sure why) to try to rescue a desperate young woman from her salacious fate. Meanwhile, he’s seduced by the allure of an opium den (he insists he “doesn’t like the pipe”, but continues puffing away anyway), which prompts the film’s most celebrated sequence: a truly surreal nightmare montage which segues into a slow-mo chase scene.

Vincent Price’s unusual turn here as an “action hero” is less flamboyant than what fans are used to, but he’s perfectly suited for intoning the stilted lines in Robert Hill’s “pulpy” script (many of which sound like fortune cookie quips): “Maybe you’re the one who should find out if you’re a side of beef or a side of man”; “Man’s view of good and evil is like water boiling in a box: open the package to the east and we flow east; open the package to the west and we flow west.” The campiest sequence by far, however, is voiced by Linda Ho as the film’s wily femme fatale, Ruby Low: while seducing Price, she alludes to sex as “swimming in the forbidden waters”, and tries to convince him that they are meant to be with each other by insisting, “It is not many times in one life a man and a woman found [sic] the other half of themselves. When I see you for first time, I felt it — as if, long ago, we… whispered to the wind… together… and the moon… shone on us… and you… and me…” Equally enjoyable is feisty Yvonne Moray (best known for her poorly acted role in The Terror of Tiny Town) as an aging “Chinese midget” who has given up hope of finding happiness outside the confines of her dungeon, but remains remarkably cheerful nonetheless; the decades seem to have mellowed Moray, and turned her into a more confident performer. The best aspect of Confessions, however, is its overall atmospheric ambiance: we really believe we’ve been submerged into the bowels of a unique form of hell, and wonder how — or if — Price’s character will be able to escape.

P.S. Click here for a preview on You Tube.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • The infamous “opium trip” slo-mo sequence
    Confessions Slo-Mo
  • Atmospheric sets and cinematography
    Confessions Atmosphere
  • Vincent Price as Gilbert De Quincey
    Confessions Price
  • Yvonne Moray as “the Chinese midget”
    Confessions Moray2

Must See?
Yes, simply for its cult-like status among those who’ve managed to see it.

Categories

Links:

2 Responses to “Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962)”

  1. A must – even if it doesn’t deserve “such explicit praise”. (“Beautiful”? What was Gonzalez puffing on?!)

    Yes, it is “unusual”, and certainly “atmospheric”. A first look is daunting since it’s so friggin’ hard most of the time (as noted) to follow what’s going on (or understand what people are saying); a second look could be the proverbial Chinese water torture.

    BUT – thank God for Vincent Price! I’m tempted to state here that anything with the man on board is a must-see. If there’s one word in an actor’s vocabulary that Price understood it was ‘professional’! In this role, he acts as though a) the story makes complete sense, b) his lines have subtext, and c) everyone else in the cast is on his level! (The last, alas, is only somewhat true in the case of Ms. Moray, who manages to, of all things, tug at our heartstrings; Linda Ho – who advised her that that was a good name to keep for a career? – gets honorable mention here for conviction, but bottom line is her performance leaves one more agog than anything else.)

    Somehow Ed Wood was not able to get his mitts on Mr. Price. Or maybe he tried but Vincent knew the difference between ‘bargain basement’ and ‘clearance sale – everything must go’. Which could explain why he squeezed this ‘film’ in between two Roger Corman flicks. Alas, Zugsmith was not a Corman – or a William Castle (who also snagged Vincent – twice!, most memorably with ‘The Tingler’). Zugsmith did produce some yummy cult flicks (‘Touch of Evil’, ‘Written on the Wind’, the always-entertaining ‘Female on the Beach’, ‘Girls Town’, ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’, etc.), but his work as a ‘director’ is just plain hideous. (Though I will say something as bad as this can be much more fun with a ‘Come on, give us your worst!’ crowd.)

    I notice I’m not actually saying much about the movie itself. I suppose I’m still surprised I’m able to sit up and type.

    Which brings us back to Vincent, and why ‘COAOE’ (deceptive title; the print’s ‘Souls for Sale’ is more appropriate, if less intriguing) is a must. It’s simply amazing what Price pulls off here and, frankly, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. You can (as here) surround the guy with something completely, ineptly bonkers…and he’ll still give off a rosy scent.

    For someone of his stature, the trajectory of Price’s career is something one would not normally expect. Still…compare the strength of his earlier work in ‘A’ pictures, follow through the still-solid work in all his years of ‘slumming’, then watch his marvelously understated turn in 1987, in Lindsay Anderson’s ‘The Whales of August’. The guy had it the entire time – Price was a prince!

  2. On thinking about it, I’d like to go on record for apologizing to Ed Wood. His rep aside, he still gave us more directorial fun than ol’ Albert. If Wood did approach him around this time, perhaps Vincent should have thought it through.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.