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DVD Review: Confessions of an Opium Eater

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I am not sure where to start with a movie like this. Watching Confessions of an Opium Eater is like entering a drug-induced fever dream where logic goes flying out the window. It is a pulpy tale of Chinese women sold into slavery by drug lords, the war to stop these human auctions, and the solitary traveler who finds himself in the middle of the war.

Confessions of an Opium Eater is loosely based on the 1822 novel of the same name by Thomas de Quincey, a lifelong opium user. His writing was influential on a number of writers, including Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Baudelaire. The story was adapted by Robert Hill (Sex Kittens go to College), doing his best to adapt the drug induced prose of de Quincey, making some of it sound like it is right out of a fortune cookie factory. Albert Zugsmith directed the film, although he is better known as a producer, having been behind such movies as Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. Here, Zugsmith shows that he has skills in the director’s chair as well, creating a rather atmospheric thriller.

The movie opens with a ship cutting through the fog. The seamen start taking Chinese women out of the hold and proceed to hoist them off the ship in a big net as a Coast Guard vessel approaches. They are unceremoniously dropped onto another boat that gets away before being spotted. On shore, the men unload the women as another group of men show up, apparently to rescue the captives. Fighting ensues and one of the women, Lotus (June Kim), gets away.

We then meet Gilbert de Quincey (Vincent Price) as he wanders along a street in San Francisco. He meets with Ruby Low (Linda Ho), an employee of Chinese drug lord Lin Tsang. She hires him to track down the escaped girl. He agrees and the adventure begins.

Before long, Gilbert finds the girl behind a hidden wall and upon meeting her, immediately switches sides and decides to help her and put a stop to these human auctions. This decision leads him into the bowels of Chinatown, through secret passageways, through dark tunnels, and through hidden doors.

The centerpiece of the movie arrives when Gilbert stumbles into an opium den and partakes of the pipe. There is a trippy sequence followed by a slow motion scene as Gilbert attempts to flee the den. It is a great looking, surreal piece of filmmaking paired with the inimitable presence of Vincent Price.

Add in women in cages, a Chinese midget (Yvonne Moray), random fights, and exotic dances, and you are getting closer to what you will find in Confessions of an Opium Eater. It is simultaneously straightforward and bizarrely existential movie.

I have to say that I like the movie, but it is mostly due to the presence of Vincent Price. There is something about the way he carries himself, the sound of his voice. Just watch him as he moves through the film, there is no denying the presence and charisma he brings to his roles. He really holds down the center of this movie and I am not sure anyone else could have pulled it off with such aplomb.

Beyond Vincent Price, the movie has atmosphere to spare. Director Albert Zugsmith gets some interesting angles and makes some nice use of the shadows. There is also a fantastic score by Albert Glasser that adds a lot to the atmosphere. You also cannot help but get a kick out of some of that fortune cookie dialogue.

Audio/Video. The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and looks pretty good. It is clearly not a recent film and there is evidence of print damage with some spots and scratches. Despite what damage there is, there is a good level of contrast and detail.

Audio is a mono track that is nice and clear. Dialogue is crisp and the score is nicely represented.

Extras. None. This is a Warner Archive release, meaning it is a movie that is burned to disk on demand.

Bottomline. This is a good movie that I had never heard of before. It is an atmospheric and weird thriller starring one of the masters of suspense.

Recommended.

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