Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962)


(director: Albert Zugsmith; screenwriters: Robert Hill/from the book Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey; cinematographer: Joseph Biroc; editors: Robert S. Eisen/Roy V. Livingston; music: Albert Glasser; cast: Vincent Price (Gilbert De Quincey), Linda Ho (Ruby Low), Richard Loo (George Wah), June Kim (Lotus), Philip Ahn (Ching Foon), Yvonne Moray (Midget), Caroline Kido (Lo Tsen), Terence de Marney (Scrawny Man); Runtime: 85; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Albert Zugsmith; Allied Artists; 1962)

“Leaves you high for at least a half hour after viewing.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Albert Zugsmith before becoming a producer of such classy films as Touch of Evil, The Tarnished Angels and Written on the Wind, was a director of cheap exploitation films. Confessions of an Opium Eater is one of them; it’s surprisingly almost as enjoyable as those great classics. It’s very loosely based upon the 1822 book by British essayist Thomas DeQuincey, an avowed lifetime opium user whose literary influence reached the likes of Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire. Robert Hill scripts it as a substantial work of pulp fiction. It’s set in San Francisco during the Tong Wars of the late 1800s and turn-of-the-century, where Oriental women are sold as slaves in an auction by an evil drug lord named Ling Tang.

The film opens on the foggy coast near San Francisco. The crew of a Chinese junk unload in a net their human cargo of kidnapped Oriental women brought to America to be sold at a slave auction for opium. A girl named Lotus (June Kim) escapes and is almost caught, but is saved by a white steed that knocks one of the kidnappers off a cliff. Soon the rest of the girls appear to be rescued, as a raiding party appears and kicks ass.

In San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1902 we learn through newspaper headlines that a Tong War has begun between those who run the slave auctions (the aged Ling Tang who hasn’t been seen for a decade) and those who oppose them (such as George Wah (Richard Loo) the crusading editor of the Chinese Gazette, who was supposedly killed on the beach during the rescue). Gilbert De Quincey (Vincent Price) arrives in town sporting a snazzy moon serpent tattoo on his forearm, which identifies him as being on the side of the slave traders. Gilbert’s been hired by the beautiful Ruby Low (Linda Ho), second in command of the Ling Tang gang, to find a woman who escaped on the beach from the slave traders. We already know her name is Lotus, and she’s being hidden in Wah’s secret room at the newspaper. Gilbert discovers Lotus in the room and instantly switches sides to escape with her by a secret elevator shaft to the sewers, as the slave traders give chase. They soon recapture Lotus and leave Gilbert for dead in the sewer after giving him the business. The bizarre adventure kicks in as Gilbert returns from the dead and roams around the bowels of Chinatown until he comes to a warehouse where he finds a room full of suspended cages, filled with half starved women, and frees the women after learning they were put there by their husband’s who tired of them. Gilbert ends up in an opium den, where he indulges himself and nods out in a poppy high. The rest of the tale takes on the look of a drug hallucination and the absurd dialogue seems right out of a B-film as Gilbert precedes with his rescue attempt and to win the cold heart of Ruby Low, who it turns out is playing both sides as it’s revealed she had a love affair with Wah. Aided by a midget (Yvonne Moray) he freed Gilbert, after upsetting an auction where Lotus appears, heads for the sewers and possible freedom with those he rescued and Ruby Low. But then again, he’s not sure at this point what’s real or a pipe dream as the conclusion is entered into with a few clever twists.

It satisfies as a fun way of presenting Asian stereotypes and sleaze, along with unforgettable characters and a story that leaves you high for at least a half hour after viewing. It’s a one of a kind of weird flick that no one should mistake for great art—but it makes for a fascinating watch.