He Watched It Sober.

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Confessions of an

Opium Eater

a/k/a Souls for Sale

a/k/a Evils of Chinatown

     "There is no poison in a green snake's mouth as in a woman's heart!"

-- Gilbert DeQuincey's ancient Chinese Secret    




Gonzoid Cinema




Rule #1 When Falling Into an Open Sewer:

Keep your mouth closed.

Rule #2 When Falling Into an Open Sewer:

See Rule #1.


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Sights &
of an
Opium Eater
  Albert Zugsmith
  Robert Hill
  Thomas DeQuincey
  Albert Zugsmith

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Captive Women

Port Sinister

High School Confidential

The Beat Generation

Girl's Town

College Confidential

The Private Lives of Adam and Eve

Confessions of an Opium Eater

Fanny Hill


Our fevered delirium of a movie begins along the foggy Pacific coast near San Francisco, circa 1902, where just offshore, the crew of a Chinese junk (-- affectionately known as a boat here in the States --) hastily offloads their latest shipment into a large cargo net. And this cargo in question is strictly human: Oriental women, kidnapped and brought to America to be sold, at auction, for opium. Rendezvousing with another boat, the sailors then brutally dump the women over the side, onto the other ship's deck, without much thought for the fragile merchandise.

But as the junk turns to leave, it inexplicably explodes! (I think -- I rewound it several times and Iím still not sure.) On the other boat, the prisoners are chained together and rowed ashore. When they reach the beach, the slave-traders are then bushwhacked by another group of men. And while the captives try to escape during the confusion, at this point, weíre not sure if this is a rescue or just an attempt to hijack the merchandise. One of the girls, who will we come to know as Lotus (June Kim), almost escapes by hiding high in the dunes. But she is soon spotted by one of the bad guys, who is then intercepted by the leader of the second faction. They fight over the girl, with the sailor/slaver eventually winning out. However, as he turns his lecherous attention back to the girl, in the first of many bizarre scenes, Lotus is saved by a white horse that knocks the evildoer off a cliff! (I think maybe the color of the animal is to show the second group are good guys, but who the hell knows for sure.) The slavers are routed, and this proves to be a rescue, so the girls are safe -- for now. (He typed ominously...)

The scene then shifts to San Franciscoís Chinatown, where the police hurriedly cordon off that section of the city and won't allow anyone to enter. We soon find out why, through a plot-specific midget newsie, that a Tong war is about to erupt between those who run these human auctions and those who oppose them. Enter Gilbert DeQuincey (Vincent Price), mercenary for hire, dope-addict and amateur philosopher. Ignoring the barricades, he dodges a falling seagull[?] and cautiously enters no manís land. Making his way along the deserted, wind swept streets, he enters the antique shop of his contact, Chin Foon (Phillip Ahn), and reveals his tattoo of the Moon Serpent, signifying that he and Foon are loyal to Ling Tang, who rules Chinatown with the money and opium he rakes in by holding these unwilling bridal auctions. A mysterious recluse, no one knows for sure how old Tang really is. In fact, no one has actually seen the man for over a decade ... And does all this mounting trouble in little China sound kinda familiar to anyone else? Hmmnnnnn...

When the creative tandem of Jack Pollexfen and Aubrey Wisberg's sci-fi film The Man from Planet X managed a modest profit at the box-office, they immediately wanted to strike again while the fires were still hot. And to help launch their next feature, Captive Women, they brought in a third party to help finance the film, a fella by the name of Albert Zugsmith. As a film entrepreneur, Zugsmith is kind of a gold-plated enigma wrapped up in a soiled-toilet paper conundrum. Born in 1910 in Atlantic City, after college, with a law degree tucked in his pocket, Zugsmith went to work for a newspaper. Starting out as a cub reporter, the man quickly moved his way up to editor, then publisher, and eventually owned several newspapers and radio stations; and when TV came along, the entrepreneur expanded into that medium as well. All the while, Zugsmith was still practicing law, and in 1947 he was approached by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster to represent them in a landmark lawsuit against D.C. Comics over profits generated by their creations, Superman and Superboy. The complantents lost on the former, having signed over the copyright, but won on the later character, and upon appeal, the case was eventually settled out of court.

By the time the 1950's rolled around, Zugsmith had a ton of money burning in his pocket and had a notion that he wanted to get into the film business. And after Pollexfen and Wisberg gave him an in with Captive Women, Zugsmith went solo on his next feature, a paranoid Cold War hysteria piece called Invasion USA -- and in hindsight, the story of America being overrun by Communist paratroopers was pretty-damned hysterical. Then, after a few more genre pictures with Pollexfen and Wisberg, Zugsmith was lured over to Universal International, where he set his sights a little higher with Written on the Wind and a couple of really solid noir pieces, The Tattered Dress and Slaughter on 10th Avenue. However, at the same time, Zugsmith was backing Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man and The Girl in the Kremlin, where Zsa Zsa Gabor is mankind's last hope against Uncle Joe Stalin's new reign of terror (-- by apparently shaving every women bald, or something.) Also around this time, Zugsmith was dabbling with a few ideas of his own, and even took a seat in the director's chair, and it was while filming the western, Man in the Shadow, that Zugsmith gave one of his stars -- and favorite drinking buddy, Orson Wells, the script for an unrealized project of his called Badge of Evil that eventually morphed into Touch of Evil, which turned out to be the last American film Wells would direct, as no one else would touch him.

Suddenly a hot commodity, MGM came calling for a string of drug-addled juvenile delinquent pictures, including the seminal High School Confidential, Girl's Town and The Beat Generation, in which lawyer Zugsmith managed to get the copyright on the term Beat Generation before Jack Kerouac and John Holmes knew what hit them, and all three films featured Zugsmith's favorite starlet, Mamie Van Doren. As was his schizophrenic nature, the producer followed these up with a couple of hormone-fueled goofball comedies, College Confidential and the completely hair-brained Sex-Kittens Go to College, where Van Doren plays a two-gun-toting-tassel-twirler from Tallahassee, whose trying to escape her past as a stripper by becoming a college professor who likes to discharge firearms in public as not to draw attention to herself. Meanwhile, there's a refrigerator box robot handicapping the horse races; and Tuesday Weld breaks her bra strap to seduce Norm Grabowski; and two bumbling gangsters stumble around with a Thompson hidden in a violin case, but as far as I can tell they're pretty irrelevant to the plot; and there's also a monkey banging on a typewriter (-- I'm gonna assume he's working on the script); and then Uncle Fester shows up; and John Carradine is dancing the Charleston; Louis Nye is also running amok; and I think I just saw Vampira; and Martin Milner looks just as confused as we are; and, oddly enough, Conway Twitty was there, summing it all up in song. Gah.

Wanting to push things even further, Zugsmith's next sex-farce, The Secret Life of Adam and Eve, which he co-directed with star Mickey Rooney, was condemned by The Catholic League of Decency, and after that kiss of death, the major studios stopped calling. This was too bad, as the movie is pretty harmless. And if it had to be condemned, at least denounce it for being stupid -- not for being blasphemous. I mean, I ask you, How blasphemous is it to have Milner and Van Doren running around in a plastic version of the Garden of Eden in their birthday suits with Rooney's devil tempting them with an intoxicating apple, right?

Zugsmith was fairly washed up after that fiasco, but he still had one more feature left in him before he went full-bore into the burgeoning Nudie-Cutie scene. And luckily for us, that last hurrah was Confessions of an Opium Eater, a bizarre, almost avant-garde exploitation piece that Zugsmith has firing on all cylinders from the get-go that just gets weirder and weirder the deeper our protagonist gets into the underbelly of Chinatown. Scripted by Zugsmith regular, Robert Hill [Girl in the Kremlin, Raw Edge], who apparently broke into a fortune cookie factory and pasted several bits of paper together for all the dialogue, the rest of the crew is also littered with other notable genre veterans. Behind the camera, Joseph Biroc's [Kitten with a Whip, The Swinger] shadowy cinematography purposefully never lets us get our bearings; couple that with Eugene Louriť's [The Giant Behemoth, Gorgo] cheap but effective art direction, and Albert Glasser's [Beginning of the End, The Amazing Colossal Man] score, that is once more cranked up to about eleven, though Hill's dialogue and plot may be a little clumsy in spots, the film manages to overachieve into something really special that is hard to explain, let alone define. Throw in Vincent Price on top of all that as an ersatz Doc Savage, and you got yourself a bona fide gonzoidal classic on your hands. Don't believe me? Read on... 

Hired by Ruby Lo (Linda Ho), Tangís second in command, DeQuincey had been brought in as muscle to help quash the rebellious tong factions and recover one of the girls lost at the beach -- and yes, the prized girl in question is Lotus. DeQuincey finds Ruby at the funeral of George Wah (Richard Loo). Turns out Wah was a newspaper editor who spoke out against the auctions, and apparently, he did more than just write about it. Recognizing his memorial picture, we see that it was Wah who was killed at the beach while trying to save Lotus. Curious as to why she's attending the funeral of her enemy, Ruby explains with Chinese Proverbs (-- see what I mean about the whole fortune cookie thing), and it almost makes sense, but with the way she keeps evading DeQuincey's questions about Wah, you also sense there was something more intimate between the two that, well, wanted to make love and not war.

Still waiting for a straight answer, as soon as the bickering duo set foot outside the funeral home, the Dragon Flag is dropped -- the signal that the Tong War is on, and as all hell breaks loose, Ruby ducks into passage and slams the door, leaving DeQuincey behind to fend for himself. Dodging the violence, our boy makes his way to the Chinese Gazette where Wah worked. Inside, DeQuincey finds a secret room where Wah's people have hidden Lotus. Suddenly, a sizeable chunk of Ling Tang's Tong (-- Hee-hee. Say THAT five times fast --) breaks in and finds them. Unexpectedly, DeQuincey grabs the girl and escapes to the sewers via another secret passageway. (And which side is he on again?) But the Tong soon catches up and snatches the girl back, and DeQuincey is clobbered on the head and knocked into the water. 

Left for dead, he eventually wakes up, suspended in the air, hanging from a hook snagged by his coat collar. While DeQuincey complains about being treated like a side of beef, Chin Foon and a mysterious masked man appear and accuse him of treachery. Technically, Chin Foon has little room to talk on that subject, as he reveals his allegiance to George Wah. Chin Foon also knew that Wah had hired an old gun-running friend to help break up Ling Tang's stranglehold on Chinatown -- a friend who looks and acts just like our boy. After DeQuincey admits to playing both sides to double his money, Chin Foon and his buddy vanish in a puff of smoke.

Managing to free himself, DeQuincey soon discovers he's somewhere in the catacombs beneath Chinatown; and a strange place it is (-- and is all of this reminding you of Big Trouble in Little China too?). Exploring further, he finds a room full of suspended bamboo cages, filled with three half-starved women. It seems that if a husband grows tired of his wife, and doesnít want her ghost haunting him forever, all he has to do is lock them in one of these cages and let them starve to death, and then his conscience is clear. One of them is already dead, but DeQuincey frees Lo Tsen (Caroline Kido) and Baby Doll (Yvonne Moray), a midget who tires of her husbands quickly, after they agree to show him where the auctions take place. Taken to a warehouse, and while the girls distract the guards, DeQuincey finds Lotus inside, suspended in another cage. But the Mongol guards recover and chase him off before he can free her. Taking refuge in a bathroom -- that's not just any bathroom, as the toilet triggers a door that leads straight into an opium den -- DeQuincey buys himself a pipe, lights up, and drifts off to la-la land.

Weíre then treated to an extended montage of twisted imagery meant to represent the power and influence of the poppy -- represented by a bunch of stock monster footage from almost all of American International's back catalogue. (No. Honest! I saw the Voodoo Woman, a Saucer Man's hand, Bert I. Gordon's Spider, the Screaming Skull and a whole lot more.) And then the film starts to gets really weird (-- but wasn't it weird enough already?!), when DeQuincey wakes up and finds himself surrounded by Ling Tang's men. Still under the influence of the opium, a bizarre, and eerily silent, slow-motion chase scene ensues as he tries to get away. I'm gonna get more into this sequence later, but for now, lets just say DeQuincey doesnít make it and is once more subdued and awakens in the presence of Ruby Lo, who reveals that she, too, has been playing both sides. Apparently, while she was embezzling money and munitions from Lin Tang, she was also having a love affair with George Wah. DeQuincey almost escapes her clutches, but, as usual, winds up knocked unconscious again. This time he wakes up in a suspended cage with Baby Doll under the guard of some giggling idiot, who reveals the prisoner's gloomy fate by sliding a panel open, revealing a tank of water, where a drowned woman silently floats, a massive stone tied around her neck. (I was pretty sure this was Lo Tsen -- until she shows up later during the climax). Laughing boy then torments them further by opening another peek-hole, revealing that the bridal auction is about to take place just on the other side of the wall.

As the auction begins, we get to watch a bunch of old men ogle a cache of nubile young women, who they force to dance before they'll open the bidding. This provocative display also provides enough of a distraction for DeQuincey, who manages to kill the guard, allowing he and Baby Doll to escape. They immediately head for Ruby Loís secret stash -- along with her stolen loot, her vault is full of fireworks, munitions and gunpowder. Breaking open a keg of power, DeQuincey  begins to spread it all over the rest of the explosives. Meanwhile, back at the auction, one of the old coots gets a little too curious and discovers that the latest girl is bald. This triggers a massive snit amongst the buyers over the merchandise being damaged, and they all demand to see Ling Tang -- for only his personal assurance will prove that the auction is on the level. So, for the first time in ten years, Ling Tang finally makes a public appearance. His elderly features hidden behind a mask, he calms everyone down and introduces Lotus -- the prize lot of the auction. This quiets the crowd, and eventually, the old badger who doesnít like bald chicks has the highest bid until it's discovered that the opium he uses for payment isnít real. With that, the old man removes his disguise, revealing that he is really George Wah -- back from the dead!

At almost the exact same moment, DeQuincey blows the explosives in the vault. Turns out he and Wah had the whole thing planned out this way from the beginning. [...Right.] Fighting their way out as Ling Tang's compound goes up in smoke, the group escapes to the war-torn streets. Too exposed, with their only chance to get away down through the sewers, Wah, Lotus and DeQuincey scurry down a manhole, but Baby Doll is killed bringing up the rear. In the sewer, Ling Tang himself confronts them. Now, the sharp eye will notice that Ling Tang is sporting a nice pair of pumps, and as DeQuincey and Tang tangle, allowing Wah and Lotus to escape, he knocks the mask off, revealing that Tang is really Ruby Lo! Seems the old guy actually died over a decade ago and she just assumed his role. After a brief struggle, they both fall into the sewage water and are swept away, locked in each otherís embrace. And as they tumble off toward the unknown, DeQuincey ponders whether his current predicament is fate, destiny, or just another drug-induced dream.

The End

Have you ever had one of those films where youíre not sure if itís the booze or the movie thatís dragging you into a hallucinogenic quagmire? Believe me, by the end of Confessions of an Opium Eater, you, yourself, might be confessing to having hit the pipe a few times too many. Itís that weird. Based on Thomas DeQuinceyís sort of biographical book of the same name, in the film Price plays his sort of biological son, Gilbert. And I say "based on" in the same way those aforementioned AIP pictures were based on other author's works. Yeah: They were both in English.

I honestly donít know where to begin to try and decipher all the strange imagery and symbolism in this film. I mean, Whatís the white horse all about? And the dead seagull? Or that whole kite thing? (You'll know it when you see it.) But the best and most startling images comes from DeQuincey's attempted getaway while under the phantasmagorical influence of the opium: Glasserís eerie, electronic score suddenly drops out, a talking bird is shot, and then after a slow-motion stalk and chase segment, brace yourself for the scene in the butcher shop and the decapitated boarís head. Again, what in the H-E-double-hockey-sticks was that all about? 

Now, I realize the film promotes some pretty rotten stereotypes, but if you can manage to take all of that into context, the only real problem I had with the film was that ending. It seemed a bit contrived and was kinda disappointing after such a great build up, where being forced to really pay attention as to who was double-crossing who goes all for not. Vincent Price does almost seem out of place as an action hero, but handles it rather deftly -- Hell, anything the guy does is good; and he would do it again a couple years later in The Last Man on Earth, which I still think is the best adaptation of Richard Matheson pulp-classic, I Am Legend. And though Confessions of an Opium Eater was marketed by Allied Artists as a horror movie, in truth, it is more of an action-adventure yarn straight out of the old Republic serials. Iím also convinced that this film helped inspire John Carpenterís Big Trouble in Little China. And this is not a slight, nor should it be construed as such towards Carpenter's film. No sir. I enjoyed the heck out of that movie, too, but there are just far too many similarities to deny the obvious, right down to the earnest but completely in-over-his-head hero.

I still can't believe this thing hasn't had a legitimate release on DVD yet. I taped my copy of Confessions of an Opium Eater about twenty years ago off of TNT late night, where it was part of a triple-feature with The Giant Behemoth and The Hypnotic Eye ... and I treat that tape like it was a museum piece. Man ... Does anyone else remember when TNT and TBS would show movies instead of the NBA and reruns 24-hours a day? I mean, Monstervision is dead, and 100% Weird is missing in action. So I have to ask, Mr. Turner, on behalf of the B-movie Brethren everywhere, What happened? Did Jane get all the weird movies in the divorce settlement or what?

Posted: 04/28/00 :: Rehashed: 12/15/09

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.
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