And how the hell did it ever get released? By now, Vincent Price was entrenched in low budget, factory-formulaic yet memorable and mostly enjoyable B flicks for the Corman / Zarkoff stable over at International; how he ended up here is both uncertain and welcomed, as his typically overly-theatrical narrative gave William Shatner something to aspire towards yet provides a coherently campy eccentricity that actually adds much to this surrealistic fever dream. And just what was anyone thinking when they came up with this title? No one in the early 60's was familiar with DeQuincy's 'Confessions of an English Opium Eater' from 1821 (acknowledged as the first serious literary work concerning drug use so prevalent then). It wasn't taught in colleges and didn't enjoy resurgence until ten years later when drug use was in vogue and most professors were themselves experimenting. This film has oddities to the tenth power written all over it. This is probably why I enjoyed it.
There's no dialogue for the first eleven minutes, it's more like a graphic novel than film, ripe with pulp novel imagery regarding Chinese slave women abducted for auction at the turn of the century San Francisco, mythic Tong wars running rackets, seaports, opium and slavery, and Asian stereotypes from said time-frame (which is excusable at the time the film was made as well as what little we Americans knew of Asians back in the early 1900's, as they were known for both furtive secrecy and non-assimilation, like most immigrants then). And there's that symbolic, surreal white horse that plays a pivotal role in that first beach scene; later recognized as a well-known metaphor for heroin, derived from opium. Whew. And from here it only gets stranger. Much stranger.
Enter Price, a sea-faring roustabout both penniless and on an odyssey, sorta like a turn-of-the-century Charles Bukowski spewing cryptic Charlie Chan-isms to rightfully untrusting Chinese comic book characters each more deceitful than the last. But I don't insinuate for a second that these remarks are unbecoming, rather they add a flavorful flair of the phantasmagoric that lends much to what would otherwise be a dreadful viewing experience. Equal parts film noir, pulp novel, theatrical drivel, racy melodrama, European fumetti and no budget action flick - if it was made a few years later, it would have been a great Jess Franco flick.
So as Price, a descendant of Thomas DeQuincy's a hundred years later (and the only thread of continuity to the film's title), attempts to save a young woman from the impending slave auction that takes place later that night where women are bartered for opium, he encounters more trap doors and secret passageways than a hundred spy films while meeting odd characters and savage henchmen brandishing huge swords, bamboo cages with slave girls who must dance provocatively for their potential buyers while a few red herrings are tossed our way, none believable but all enjoyable. Does any of this make sense? `Doesn't much matter, you'll either love it or hate it, the latter group probably ceased reading a while ago.
It's a two star film for the Criterion snob, four stars to those who appreciate cinematic oddities, cult, camp and the transgressive taste buds. A poppy for your thoughts...