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Gilbert de Quincey is an early 19th-century adventurer involved with helping runaway slave girls and victims of a tong war in San Francisco. Garbed in black from head to toe, de Quincey narrates his adventures. At the slave auction where beautiful Oriental girls are displayed in hanging bamboo cages, de Quincey befriends a tiny wisecracking female Oriental dwarf. Written by
Gilbert De Quincey:
In that first instance of her image passing the lenses of my eyes, I felt that I was hanging in the immensity of space and she was floating with me - chained, locked inextricably together; arms, brains, heart pulsations, unable to flee, unable to break apart; sinking, sinking through the inexhaustible depths of time. I forgot the long journey by the sea. I forgot the pain. I forgot my mission. Was it the heavy, drifting perfume of the incense or some feverish fantasy searing my brain...
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Enter a world of hidden rooms, sliding panels, secret passages, narrow sewers and opium dens; a world where, at the Hour of the Rat, pretty Chinese girls are auctioned off to the highest bidder. When Gilbert De Quincey (Vincent Price) arrives in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1902, he is quickly embroiled in a viscous Tong war between two rival factions. The seductive Ruby Low and her followers organize the picture bride auctions on behalf of ancient Ling Tan. The supporters of the Chinese Gazette's murdered editor, George Wah, oppose them. De Quincey bears the moon serpent tattoo, aligning him with Ruby Low, but his actions suggest he may have other motives.
Albert Zugsmith, better known as the producer of Orson Welles' "Touch of Evil", produced and directed "Opium Eater", a black and white b-grader hastily dismissed by reviewers. It has genuine merit to those who like offbeat cinema. Although it uses Thomas De Quincey's 1821 book title, (actually called "Confessions of an English Opium Eater") it conjures up its own story of deception and murder. Price as Gilbert De Quincey, who also narrates the film, suggests he is an ancestor. "Opium Eater" actually has more in common with the Fu Manchu mysteries or the yellow peril pulps popular in the 1930s. Add to this its fortune cookie dialogue and ramblings about dreams, reality, death and destiny and you have one very strange movie indeed. There is no doubt "Opium Eater" is bizarre, but it is also literate and genuinely mysterious.
Albert Glasser's spooky soundtrack is one of the films great strengths. His eerie electronic score endows it with an ambience of unease and dislocation. In one scene, after Price awakens from his opium-induced nightmare, axe-wielding henchmen chase him across rooftops. Here the music drops right off the soundtrack and we are left with only an unnerving silence. Zugsmith's direction is clumsy at times but many intriguing moments make up for this, including his creative use of slow motion and the nightmare montage in the joss house. This drug scene must have been quite controversial in 1962 and I wonder if it was snipped from certain prints or caused the film to be banned in some areas.
The love/hate relationship between De Quincey and Ruby Low suggests their fate is predetermined and leads to a quite unexpected, but oddly satisfying outcome.
It's a flawed film, but remains a curious, haunting experience deserving of a cult following. >
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