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October 30, 2013

Confessions of an Opium Eater

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Albert Zugsmith - 1962
Warner Archives DVD

Not a horror film, but this film does star Vincent Price, and there is a nightmare scene where bats and skulls appear.

While I had vague memories of the film passing through one of my neighborhood theaters in Evanston, Illinois, my interest was piqued when it was mentioned in Raymond Durgnat's monograph on Georges Franju. This was some time in the early Seventies, when I was studying cinema at New York University. I wrote a letter to Albert Zugsmith that eventually found its way to him. Astonishingly, Zugsmith wrote back to me. Sadly, I have long misplaced that letter.

Even when he was solely the producer, the films associated with Albert Zugsmith have either taken place in fantasy realms or have teetered in a nightmare reality. There is thematic continuity to be found in The Incredible Shrinking Man, Written on the Wind, Tarnished Angels and Touch of Evil with their trapped protagonists who often find that it's better to embrace rather than fight one's fate. While Confessions of an Opium Eater doesn't have anywhere near the kind of critical standing as Zugsmith's films as a producer, there are astonishing moments to be found. The film is inspired by the 1822 book, Confessions of an English Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey, but takes place in an imagined early Twentieth century San Francisco.

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Opium isn't eaten. As Gilbert De Quincey, descendent of Thomas De Quincey, Vincent Price takes a couple of puffs before finding himself in dreamland. For a low budget Hollywood film, Confessions is more experimental than most, veering from a straight narrative, with Price caught in a slow motion chase through a depopulated street, with only a few sound effects and no dialogue. The entire film is almost like Alice in Wonderland where Price finds himself stepping though a variety of hidden rooms, elevators and sewers, a Chinatown maze where the only escape seems to be death. Aided by frequent Robert Aldrich collaborator Joseph Biroc as cinematographer, and Jean Renoir associate Eugene Lourie doing the set designs, Confession looks as good as possible. Fog also helps when you have to disguise that there's not much of a set.

The film may have played on then popular notions about the Chinese and Chinatown, although in some ways Zugsmith's film isn't too much different from John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China. There are anachronisms, especially when the slave girls who are to be auctioned as wives perform dances belonging to early Sixties Las Vegas. Too Zugsmith's credit, the bulk of supporting roles were taken by Asian-American actors, with Richard Loo and Philip Ahn as the most recognizable of names. The one significant performance in "yellow face" is by Yvonne Moray, a former munchkin, quite delightful here as a former wife found caged by Price, who acts as his more informative and energetic ally.

Even when discussions about the thin line between love and hate, and dreams and reality may seem hackneyed, what is hardly a cliche is to see Vincent Price as some kind of action hero. The pretentious first person narration, a reminder of the film's literary roots, adds to the goofy charm.

Confessions can now be seen more easily with the recent DVD release. For a deeper look, there are pieces by C. Jerry Kutner and Sean Nortz.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 30, 2013 06:39 AM