In honor of Vincent Price’s birthday (May 27, 1911-October 25, 1993), we present Sean Nortz’s thrilling exegesis of one of the actor’s most intriguing and downright bizarre films. (After this piece was written, Warner Archive released an “official” DVD of Confessions of an Opium Eater.)
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“Zugsmith’s film, unusually, takes its literary antecedents seriously and tries to evoke the opiated fog of De Quincey’s London, a literary environment that we would now call ‘cinematic.'”
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“This crude piece of claptrap has to be seen to be believed.” —Monthly Film Bulletin, October 19631
“[Confessions of an Opium Eater] later turned up on television as Souls for Sale, a title that probably best described what the actors felt like while making this dreary, low-budget film.” — From James Robert Parrish and Steven Whitney, Vincent Price Unmasked (1974)
“sheer, ingenuous, and possibly unintentional pop-poetry . . . [a] triumphantly surreal parade of seemingly inexplicable images . . . The relentlessly sententious dialogue begins to make almost cosmic sense by the end of the picture . . .” — Joe Dante in Film Comment, May/June 19832
“A claustrophobic fever dream with strange slow-motion interludes and memorable characters, this is the kind of film that you remember afterward like a hallucination; not to be missed.” — Jonathan Rosenbaum3
This movie is just so boring, and so terribly bad. I didn’t understand anything but is there anything to understand ? The only good thing is Vincent Price. If he was not there, I think that movie could be worst. Only for Vincent Price fans . . .” — “plamet,” Internet Movie Database review
As the quotations above indicate, Albert Zugsmith’s unconventional 1962 film Confessions of an Opium Eater has a bizarre and strongly polarized reputation among the few who have seen it. Featuring Vincent Price, campy racism, and hard drugs makes it a “cult classic” by default, but it is often derided by devotees of Price and little known by anyone else. However, the few modern critics who have bothered to comment hold it in high esteem. Jonathan Rosenbaum went so far as to include it in his list of the one hundred greatest American movies.4
The film has an inarguably impressive cast and crew behind it. Its director, Albert Zugsmith, produced a number of Hollywood classics, including Written on the Wind (1956) and Touch of Evil (1958). The director of photography was the veteran Joseph Biroc, who had worked on It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Kiss Me Deadly (1955), among many others. The art director was Eugène Lourié, another veteran, who previously worked with Jean Renoir and Abel Gance. The music was handled by the prolific B-movie composer Albert Glasser. It is additionally notable as one of the few American films from the period to have a predominantly Asian cast. And of course, it stars the venerable Vincent Price.
As a curiosity of cinematic history, Confessions has been ably treated by C. Jerry Kutner in a 1997 Bright Lights Film Journal feature — one of the only full-length treatments, which nonetheless is mostly about Zugsmith. What has not been explored is the film’s relation to its source, Thomas De Quincey’s 1821 Confessions of an English Opium Eater, the foundational work of modern drug literature, perhaps the text that “invented” recreational drug use.5 Before De Quincey, use of opium, while universal in an era where it was legal, ubiquitous, and necessary in the absence of alternatives, was not openly discussed as an extra-medical substance, or one with any aesthetic importance. His work transfigured opium from a simple commodity into a subjectivity-reconstituting sacrament, what Michel Foucault would call a “technology of the self.”
The film is far from being an adaptation of De Quincey’s text, as every commentator has gleefully pointed out, but this is not to say that the two should not be discussed together. I would like to think about Confessions of an Opium Eater‘s status as a descendent of the work of Thomas De Quincey and the greater body of opium literature of which he is the seminal figure. Confessions of an Opium Eater is perhaps the most robust cinematic instantiation of the characteristic symbolic language of opium this side of Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus films, principally in its mood and its imagination of space.
The Question of Vincent Price
“It’s this thing of being typecast that makes you desirable . . .” — Vincent Price6
Since this movie comes down to us as a “Vincent Price movie” more than anything else, he must be paid proper attention. Who, or rather what, is Vincent Price, and how does his presence function in the film?
Confessions was not Price’s first foray into drug cinema. In an early starring role, and one of the finest performances of his career, he played a drug-addicted Dutch patroon during the “anti-rent war” in upstate New York in the 1830s. This film was Dragonwyck (1946), Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s directorial debut and a role thatestablished many of the basics of the Vincent Price persona.7 The associative chain which links madness, violence, mystery, and drug use is easy enough to make, but drugs are generally a repressed possibility in Price’s career, though he does portray tipplers often enough. But his playing an opium-eater is unsurprising, considering the kinds of characters he normally plays: raving madmen, deranged geniuses, pensive aesthetes. Of course, he also starred in most of Roger Corman’s “adaptations” of Edgar Allan Poe, whose tales abound with allusions to opium and opium-eaters.
Price played Dr. Warren Chapin in the 1959 William Castle film The Tingler, most famous for its use of a gimmick called “Percepto” which would deliver mild shocks to audience members at certain moments during the screening8 The Tingler is also notable, however, for being the first film to feature LSD, a substance then little understood and not yet illegal. (Zugsmith, for his part, would direct a film called LSD, I Hate You! later in the 1960s).
Dr. Chapin has a theory that fear manifests itself physically as a creature he dubs “the tingler,” which attaches itself to the spine of those in a state of terror and can only be neutralized by screaming. The inevitability of a person’s screaming when terrified makes it difficult to detect, but Chapin is convinced that he can muster the strength to keep from shouting if he could only manage to frighten himself. Unfortunately, being a Vincent Price character of the stoic sort, he is not easily unsettled. So, naturally, he decides to lock himself in his lab, drop acid, and freak out. He becomes paranoid and disturbed, and screams madly when he has a hallucinatory vision of the skeleton in the corner of his laboratory, thus damning his research by shrinking his tingler. That hallucinatory vision of a skeleton, a smoke and mirrors memento mori, will return in Confessions.
Price, whose spectral voice was already legendary after his 1950s horror films, at his best lingers somewhere between the sublime and the ridiculous, a quality that can often make one forget one is watching a low-budget B movie. Even in films as deliriously unmoored as Scream and Scream Again (1970), which makes this one seem perfectly sensible by comparison, his presence on screen provides something of an anchor. But he was a man of great intelligence, on screen and off, and certainly knew the ludicrousness of many of these productions. Indeed, he seems to have had nothing but contempt for Robert Hill’s screenplay: “On his script cover for Confessions of an Opium Eater, Vincent scratched out the author’s name after the word ‘by’ and penned in ‘Peking Noodle Co. Inc.’ Under the signature of his initials ‘V.P.’ he added ‘The Death of Me’ and superscribed an ornate flourish.”9
His career as a leading man began with The Invisible Man Returns in 1940, a role that required (almost) nothing but voiceover work. Like Claude Rains in the first Invisible Man film, Price was cast for his voice; neither actor would appear on screen until the films’ final scenes. Price’s previous roles — in the now-forgotten comedy Service de Luxe (1938), in a forgettable performance as Sir Walter Raleigh in Michael Curtiz’s The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939) and as the Duke of Clarence Tower of London (1939) — did not serve to highlight either his talents or his latent spectrality (though the latter saw his first bout of intoxication and his first brush with classic literature: it is loosely based on Richard III. Clarence is the one who drowns in a vat of malmsey). The Invisible Man Returns is where the actor’s career really begins, even if his face does not appear on screen for the first eighty of its eighty-one minutes.
But as the years went by, with the exception of the rare straight performance in a serious film like 1968’s Witchfinder General, Price began to play the camp angle for all it was worth. See The Abominable Dr. Phibes, for instance, where Price — an undead organist hell-bent on annihilating a team of English surgeons by means of, among other things, a catapulted brass unicorn — intones his ludicrous dialogue through a vocoder attached to the side of his neck. This decoupling of the voice and the (mortal) flesh is an appropriate metaphor for the actor, who, according to the great hip-hop/electro pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, was himself a vocoder.10 Phibes’s appendage was strictly unnecessary.
So what if, as one Pricean wrote, the actor, in Confessions, was merely “going through the motions” in a “bread-and-butter commission” that he himself had little enthusiasm for? If his performance qua performance compares unfavorably to many of the horror films he was doing at roughly the same time? But we should consider Price here as what he was already becoming, and what — in the age of camp, Hollywood Squares, and The Muppet Show — he would eventually resign himself to being, once and for all: a simulacrum, an overdetermined cipher, a ghostly voice only tenuously connected to its body, itself only truly existing when captured on film. Vincent Price is a weapon that is deployed, a vocoder operated through the central nervous system, a cinematic virus that eats at the frame.
In Confessions, the Pricecoder mechanically processes his lines — generally pastiches of De Quincey and pulp-Confucian faux profundities along with the standard perfunctory dialogue of a B-movie — with all the expected gravitas. The character is simultaneously pure surface, pushed through the movie like a ball winding through a Rube Goldberg machine, and pure mystery. Gilbert De Quincey is a man who drifts in from the sea, who steals another man’s name, who speaks in fortune cookie aphorisms, and who has no discernible motivation to act other than the fact that he is in a film, and must keep moving. But Price’s contribution is clear when you imagine the film without him. He, like all stars, brings a web of associations with him, but Price has the advantage of bringing by means of his voice alone a sense of the mysterious, the macabre, and, yes, the campy and the absurd. It is another layer of pure affect that blooms out of the meager skeleton of this film.
And at least for a time Gilbert is a recognizably Pricean character. The “Vincent Price” type walks into the film intact, but ends up drifting down a sewer uncertain of whether he is en route to heaven or hell. He begins with his trademark charm and sense of aloof condescension, and his perspicacious self-possession, but as he progresses through the film he increasingly resembles a rat in a maze (or on a hook, or in a cage). His charm may appear efficacious, but only leads him into deeper trouble, as when he appears to seduce Ruby Low only to end up unconscious in a bamboo cage. He is forced to do things like run and fight; this is Price’s only action role,11 The Vincent Price has malfunctioned . . .
The Poetics of Opium
Can we even speak of a particular “opium aesthetic”? Yes, if only in a delineated fashion, wherein by “opium” we mean opium as a discursive object, whose pharmacological properties are not determinant but interact with a history that intersects with the spheres of medicine, law, philosophy, and art. To most people, presumably the makers of this film included, its history as an artistic trope is by far the primary way of understanding the drug’s effects and associations.
Much of this heritage was from the cinema itself. Considering the spectacular popular appeal of the opium den, it is not surprising that the earliest filmmakers quickly took up the theme. The first “drug movie” — and one of the earliest motion pictures of any kind — was a thirty second film, produced by Thomas Edison in the Black Maria, the world’s first film studio. The 1895 film, called Chinese Opium Den, is not extant, but the one existing still shows it to have prefigured the quintessential screen opium den. Two figures recline on their sides, pipes in hand, on bunk beds, smoking with appropriate languor. A third appears to be washing laundry, providing another layer of racial stereotyping and, evidently, some added on-screen excitement: the film is also known as Quarrel in a Chinese Laundry.
Opium and its milieu were not merely fodder for exploitation plots, though: filmmakers were eager to appropriate opium’s legendary associations with dreams and visions in order to experiment with special effects. The opium dream provided the narrative frame for many early films’ experimentations with the new medium’s power of illusion: Un Horrible Cauchemar (A Horrible Nightmare) (France, Ferdinand Zecca, 1901); Rube in an Opium Joint (United States, Edison and the Biograph Company, 1905) and The Visions of an Opium Smoker (Britain, R. W. Paul, 1905) are a few notable examples. France produced a large number of opium films, including one, appropriately, by Georges Méliès, entitled Le rêve d’un fumeur d’opium. This was “an Oriental phantasy of bewildering gorgeousness” according to a 1906 Biograph Bulletin, “[which] can only be compared to some of the greatest spectacles of the Metropolitan Grand Opera in New York.”12
Confessions is a marriage of these exploitation and avant-garde tendencies, which were all but suppressed during the decades of the Hays Code; most drug films of this time followed the sententious example of D.W. Griffith’s’ Broken Blossoms (1919), though few retained the poetry and subtlety of that film.
But Zugsmith’s film, unusually, takes its literary antecedents seriously and tries to evoke the opiated fog of De Quincey’s London, a literary environment that we would now call “cinematic.” The Chinatown of Confessions contains elements both of De Quincey’s narcotized urban geography, and of the monstrous, sublime, and often Oriental dreams which followed (the spaces of the latter were sometimes grotesque, fantastic versions of the former). The first was experienced during his early opium reveries in London, where he would walk through the East End on Saturday nights as a kind of flâneur.
upon such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and such sphinx’s riddles of streets without thoroughfares, as must, I conceive, baffle the audacity of porters, and confound the intellects of hackney-coachmen. I could almost have believed, at times, that I must be the first discover of some of these terrae incognitae, and doubted, whether they had yet been laid down in the modern charts of London.13
The quasi-colonialist language is telling. The arch-Tory De Quincey’s mistrust of the poor was profound: “To a man,” he wrote, “I look upon the working poor, Scottish or English, as latent Jacobins — biding their time.”14 This political anxiety informs his narcotourist expeditions through their city, the unknown wastes of East London which resound with a latent dread. Moreover, De Quincey, not alone among his contemporaries, cast “eastern or nautical London” as a proxy for the greater East: “Every third man at the least might be set down as a foreigner. Lascars, Chinese, Moors, Negroes, were met at every step.”15 The term “China Town” was first used with reference to a small area of the East End16, and its reputation as an internal Orient — an exotic, mysterious appendage full of opium dens and narrow passageways — would be retained in representations of the Chinatowns of North America, where our film is set.
The knotted, labyrinthine spaces of darkest London would become sublimed and extended to infinity in Thomas De Quincey’s later nightmares. He dreamt of secret rooms and drowned cities, mobs and processions, obscure vistas and “self-reproducing” architecture. To explain this architecture, De Quincey refers to the Carceri d’ Invenzione of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (which are incorrectly referred to as his “Dreams”). He only knew of the work from a description given by fellow addict Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but both men conceived of the work as the closest analogue to their opium visions.
Alethea Hayter, in her book Opium and the Romantic Imagination, gives an elegant reading of Piranesi’s etchings vis-à-vis De Quincey:
De Quincey said that he recognized in the architecture of the Carceri “the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction” that the buildings in his own opium visions possessed. These huge vaulted spaces, high and wide as they are, have always an opening to some yet higher vault; every staircase has another further staircase running beyond it to a more distant recess; through every arch you see another arch, which opens on to a third; and oubliettes open in the floor, to show that downwards too there is more and ever more space. There is no end to these prisons, but nor is there any way out. Each vast enclosure of space communicates only with another huge sealed crypt. This limitless and yet claustrophobic expansion of space is perceived and conveyed with an agony of hyperaesthesia.17
The basic (il)logic of these spaces resembles the space of the film, in which “every location . . .seems to have a dreamlike connection with every other location.”18 Naturally, the film’s spaces lack the typical “loftiness” of these visions, for we are squarely back down in those “knotty problems of alleys” (even in the grander visions, however, the loftiness is combined with an acute sense of claustrophobia and dread, as in the works of Edgar Allan Poe19 Confessions of an Opium Eater is like a hypnopompic Piranesi etching artfully if uncomfortably restrained within the narrow confines of a single Chinatown block.
With these ideas in mind, let us finally take a tour through the film.
“dreams of lakes — and silvery expanses of water: — these haunted me so much, that I feared (though possibly it may appear ludicrous to a medical man) that some dropsical state or tendency of the brain might thus be making itself (to use a metaphysical word) objectified . . . my agitation was infinite, — my mind tossed — and surged with the ocean.” — Thomas De Quincey20
We open on the sea, the oneiric mood of the film settled instantly with a serene shot of a ship coming in beneath the hypnotic intonations of Vincent Price. His body is not on screen — it won’t be for about ten minutes — and his words imply that he is simultaneously within the frame as an implied passenger, and outside the frame as an omniscient observer:
“I am De Quincey. I dream, and I create dreams — out of the opium pipe. I see sailing into our vision a junk. Its cargo: women. Women bought or stolen from all over the mysterious Orient. Their destination, and mine: the human auctions in Chinatown.”
Before progressing beyond this frame,21 we should note the obvious: the transfer is less than good. But so far from being an impediment, I think this in fact makes a positive contribution to our dream-fugue. The grain washes through like a haze of smoke, actually serving to heighten the immersive, hallucinatory air of the film. This accidental aesthetic fortuitously mimics the effect of the “crackle” the dubstep musician Burial soaks his tracks in, or the lo-fi route to dreamy hauntological nostalgia charted by musicians like Ariel Pink and his followers in the micro-scene christened “hypnagogic pop” in a now-infamous article in The Wire by David Keenan. Call our Confessions of an Opium Eater bootleg hypnagogic pulp.
And so, on our dirty, grainy sea, we begin our journey. Already, the territory is De Quinceyan: water and the sea are recurring motifs for him, and aquatic imagery comprises one of the three categories into which he divides his initial opium dream-world (the others being dreams of architecture and human faces).22
Out of the mist and fog, the ship comes upon a beach, with enemies lying in wait. Here we have our first action scene. Confessions of an Opium Eater is an action movie in the way Flaming Creatures is a pornographic movie. The bodies just move about and collide in something resembling combat, where neither the combatants nor the audience are very clear about what is going on. There’s something entrancing, though, about this five minute fight sequence, which numbs you into submission with its torpidity. It’s not unlike the feeling one gets watching a long Béla Tarr shot: narcotized submission to the image.
Forget it, Jake . . .
“With the same power of endless growth and self-reproduction did my architecture proceed in dreams. In the early stages of my malady, the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural . . .” — Thomas De Quincey23
At about the eleven-minute mark, we finally meet our narrator, who introduces himself as Gilbert De Quincey, of unspecified relation to Thomas; the progression, and the plot, of the entire film from this point can be narrated by following De Quincey’s movements through, below, and above Chinatown. Chinatown is almost a character in the film: opaque and exotic, an orient within which reproduces all of the classic Orientalist fantasies, but as manifestations of an internal contagion within the metropolis. The opium den, the center of the film’s labyrinth, is the womb of this gothicized city, its degree zero.
De Quincey arrives, from China, as a kind of mercenary, hired to find and retrieve a woman who has escaped the sex trade for a man named Ling Tang. He says he agreed to the job because he was penniless and drunk, but doesn’t seem to have any moral qualms with it, and when his allegiances become confused it is difficult to say why or in what fashion. This seeming absence of motivation, aside from possibly being evidence of sloppy writing, is crucial to the film’s mood. We follow Vincent Price through this labyrinth without knowing why, or even really caring. We just want to see what’s behind the next door; the plot, such as it is, only takes shape as the rooms are traversed.
On a first viewing, the layout of the spaces was altogether unclear; the detailed outline I have here required immoderate reliance on the pause button. This is the key to the film’s ambiance. Its space is like a Russian nesting doll; it is Alethea Hayter’s archetypal “buried temple,” the enclosed space, infinite yet claustrophobic, interred and abysmal, that is the defining space of opium. We can find such spaces in all of De Quincey’s works (even the ones with nothing to do with opium; as John Barrell showed in his brilliant study, The Infection of Thomas De Quincey, the man’s mind obsessively, perversely returned to the same spatial metaphors and configurations).
The idea of the city as labyrinth is an ancient one, but the particular idea of Chinatowns teeming with tunnels and trapdoors utilized for illicit purposes dates from the late-nineteenth and twentieth-century in the western cities of North America. The fantasy of Chinatown as literally and figurative subterranean is the proximate source for the bizarrchitecture of Confessions of an Opium Eater.
In cities from Vancouver to Mexicali, locals spread rumors of tunnels dug by the Chinese, for dwelling, smuggling, smoking, gambling, and kidnapping. One William Zimmerman, in an interview conducted for the Federal Writers’ Project, spoke of “mysterious Chinese tunnels” which ran under Tacoma, Washington.24 He said:
Several opium joints were known to be operating in Tacoma. And there was no question in the minds of many people that the narcotic was smuggled in through tunnels from their dens to cleverly hidden exits near the waterfront. They were also convinced that the tunnels were dug by Chinese, either as a personal enterprise or at the behest of white men of the underworld, as no white workmen would burrow the devious mole-like passageways and keep their labors secret.25
There are also the famous “Shanghai tunnels” under Portland, Oregon, where Chinese were said to drug and kidnap victims in order to whisk them away to a ship and send them as slaves to China. Even stranger stories grew around the tunnels under Mexicali, on the Mexican side of the border with California: “The clandestine nature of the tunnels lent itself to supernatural evocations. About thirty years ago a rumor had settled on Mexicali that the Chinese were harbouring a vampire down there.”26
Not surprisingly, similar catacombs were thought to exist under San Francisco, the West Coast city most closely associated with Chinese immigration; Dashiell Hammett made good use of them for his 1925 story “Dead Yellow Women.”27 And in Confessions of an Opium Eater, the San Francisco Chinatown underworld is used for shanghaiing in reverse: here, slaves are taken from China to America. Conveniently, these human auctions are both sex and drug markets — the women are purchased with opium.
Befixed for Centuries in Secret Rooms
De Quincey’s first stop is the room of Ruby Low. He is instantly transformed upon meeting her, as if she were a sorceress. It is a moment of destiny, an epiphany:
“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 free, unable to break apart. Sinking, sinking through the inexhaustible depths of time . . .”
We laugh, but a lot of this language is a faithful pastiche of De Quincey. For instance: “Space swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity. This, however, did not disturb me so much as the vast expansion of time . . .”28 The grafting of his prose style onto an exploitation film reminds one how theatrical the Mancunian essayist’s “impassioned prose” could be, for all of its intricacy and allusiveness.
After his meeting with Ruby Low, the Tong war begins in earnest, and the film proper begins. A flag falls over the frame like a theater curtain, and Ruby rushes into an alley and through a door, which mysteriously closes with a shutter in front of De Quincey. He crosses the street and finds another door similarly locked, but comes up with a solution: he constructs a makeshift kite, and uses it to attach a rope to a roof ornament and climb up to the building’s second floor, and breaks in through a window.
This is our departure from classical or smooth space, in which one enters and leaves rooms through clearly marked and defined thresholds. Once Price breaks in through the window, each space is connected to every other space by an altogether different logic.
Upon entering this room, he hears cries, coming apparently from a closet. When he enters this, he can see from closet into another room. The man talking to this prostitute leaves through a door hidden in a kind of wardrobe, rather like the hidden door in The Bat, a film Price made several years prior. Another man comes through the first window, behind Price, and so he flees into the room with the girl. A door closes behind him, blocking the way back. (The number of doors that have closed by their own volition in the films of Vincent Price is incalculable, and these motifs seem to stalk the actor through his career). Soon, men crash in through both the window and a skylight, so Price takes the girl into the wardrobe, which we now learn contains . . . an elevator!
Now we proceed into the depths, the subterranean world with all the mythological and psychological associations it brings with it. Moreover, it is a sewer, which reinforces the water motif. But the men come here too, from both directions. Price, feeling inventive, builds a bridge, and seems to escape, but is hit on the head with a board. This prompts the first of his several bouts of unconsciousness. He drifts in and out at times, further confusing his and our relationship with the space around him. This is also a brutal relative of the liminal states of consciousness and sleep associated with opium.
He wakes hanging from a hook, but manages after a little chat to get down and follow his captors down through a trap door, which he has to go up a short flight of stairs to get to. Here, he finds the slave women locked up in bamboo cages. The dwarf — Yvonne Moray in a delightful performance — leads him to a view of another room. He asks a question which encapsulates the entire film: “How do I get in that room?”
He is led down a hall, up a set of stairs, and through a door — which, as always, is not differentiated very sharply from the surrounding wall — into the bath house, which resembles that old stand in of Sino-exploitation cinema, the Chinese laundry. The door to the auction house is pointed out, but it is guarded by two men with swords, as if this were an 8-bit RPG (the spatial configurations, on the whole, are highly comparable to those in fantasy video games, which try to establish similar moods and states of consciousness).
Via a not-very-subtle ruse which involves another brawl, Price manages to access the room while the guards are distracted, and leaps onto an ascending cage, which lifts him up to another level. Here, he fights off one of the swordsmen, and ducks into a bathroom. As he hides, another man comes in, and enters a room, which has a secret entrance in the back of a bathroom stall. This is our opium den, which if I count correctly, required the passing of no fewer than eight doors, not to mention the more unusual methods of traversing thresholds we have witnessed.
Nonetheless, when De Quincey requests a pipe, he is met with incredulity; the den-master even proclaims, “This tourist trap, all phony!” (Yesteryear’s tourists were evidently far more intrepid than the modern breed). Even as absurdly tucked away as it is, the den can be put forth as a phony imitation. The specter of the ersatz was present even in the early British accounts, as a modernizing London public increasingly unfamiliar with their rapidly sprawling metropolis searched for concrete bastions of authenticity, trying to find the real in the strange, and hoping not to be disappointed by imitations.
He reclines on the bottom of a bunk bed, the one necessary bit of furnishing in an opium den, and a mainstay in cinematic representations from 1895’s Chinese Opium Den to 1984’s Once Upon a Time in America. The opium bunk-bed represents idle sensuality, masturbatory indulgence, and asociality, but with a latent sense of homoeroticism (or of a sort of impotent polyandry, since there is usually one female, often a white woman among Chinese, in dishabille but not actively engaged in sexual activity). The opium experience absorbs sexuality and partially substitutes for it. One could illustrate this process with many examples, but a passage from a 1924 London newspaper article is the most elegant: “Recently two girls in the Tottenham Court-road district disappeared for four days. They came back at the end of that time with their clothes torn almost from their backs in the wild frenzy produced from Chang’s opium pipe.”29 As the opium smoker above Price’s bunk, a Cockney just as stereotypical as the film’s other characters, says: “What do you want a girl for mate, when you got a pipe, and dreams?” This radically unproductive, solipsistic form of sensuality provides much of the allure and the scandal of opium smoking, and drug use in general.30
“Buying dreams, tonight, mate?”
“That stuff buys nightmares.”
“Could you spare me a nightmare, then?”
As the opium begins to do its work, the film reaches its aesthetic climax, the brief hallucination montage and the slow-motion sequence in the den which follows. This is perhaps the only time when Thomas De Quincey’s actual language is used, though it is rearranged and spliced in with original material:
When the dreams of the dark, idle, monstrous phenomena move forever forward, wild barbarous, capricious, into the great yawning darkness . . . Befixed for centuries in secret rooms: De Quincey the idol, De Quincey the pagan priest, to be worshipped, to be sacrificed.
The source is the famous passage in the Confessions where De Quincey relates his “Oriental” dreams, particularly the line: “I ran into pagodas: and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed.”31 This is followed by a crude bit of pulp-philosophy typical of the script, but which grasps the basic interstitial nature of the opium experience:
What is a dream? And what is reality? Sometimes a man’s life can be a nightmare; other times cannot a nightmare be life? Those voices I heard: were they the voices of men or of some strange imitation of men in some strange writhing jungle of my imagination? Was this opium, or was it reality? Was I dead, or was I only beginning to live?
The full significance of Thomas De Quincey’s visions is lost in translation to the screen, but the influence of his nightmares of prolonged interment and persecution, of sepulchral architecture and dark chinoiserie is obvious. The source passage is also relevant for revealing De Quincey’s contempt and fear of the Orient and Orientals, particularly the Chinese: “I could sooner live with lunatics, or with brute animals.” “The causes of my horror lie deep,” he wrote, and this horror finds its most elegant expression not in the many political diatribes he wrote for the press advocating all manner of grandiose punishments for the Chinese, but in his fevered dreams of a nightmarish Orient boring its way through his unconscious, infecting him from the inside. Price’s De Quincey, who is almost more Chinese than the Chinese, is possessed of the same condition.
The opium reverie itself is a smoke and mirrors affair reminiscent of some of Roger Corman’s special effects, with warped images floating across the screen, a human skull which proceeds toward the foreground, and the sound of monstrous, multi-tracked laughter echoing in the background. The images are of three sorts: recent memories (i.e., recycled bits from earlier in the film); writhing human faces (or Oriental masks); and monstrous animals. The first is a universal of dream representation, but the latter two derive clearly from De Quincey. The human face, or seas of human faces, tyrannized De Quincey in his dreams, stirring up feelings of guilt and persecution, reviving memories of his fruitless search in the crowds of London for the face of “Ann of Oxford Street,” the prostitute he credited with saving his life, and whom he would lose forever in a devastating repetition of the death of his beloved sister Elizabeth. In his dreams, the faces seek him out; similarly, Price is taunted with grotesque Chinese masks and menacing faces, chasing him even in his hour of repose.
The ferocious tropical beasts that populate this interlude — snake, panther, lion, crocodile — are also borrowed from De Quincey: “Under the connecting feeling of tropical heat and vertical sun-lights, I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all tropical regions, and assembled together in China or Indostan.”32
The crocodile, in particular, was perhaps the chief actor in De Quincey’s horrific menagerie:
I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud . . . The cursed crocodile became to me the object of more horror than almost all the rest. I was compelled to live with him; and (as was always the case almost in my dreams) for centuries. I escaped sometimes, and found myself in Chinese houses, with cane tables, &c. All the feet of the tables, sophas, &c. soon became instinct with life: the abominable head of the crocodile, and his leering eyes, looked out at me, multiplied into a thousand repetitions: and I stood loathing and fascinated.33
The crocodile, ancient and awful, embodies the cross-section of anxieties these dreams grow from: fear of the Orient, fear of the bestial, fear of eternity, and above all, the fear that all of these things were not alien but integral to De Quincey’s own nature (De Quincey had a remarkable theory of dreams that in many respects anticipated Freud). The crocodile surfaced in the strangest of locations, all the more horrific by its radical incongruity with its surroundings. De Quincey once, while speeding on a mail coach with laudanum coursing through his veins, watched in horror as his coachman, who in the text is a synecdoche for the great English nation, became transformed into a crocodile. The obscene invasion of properly English domestic life by this beast is unbearably revolting, as when his children startle him awake from his dreams: “I protest that so awful was the transition from the damned crocodile, and the other unutterable monsters and abortions of my dreams, to the sight of innocent human natures and of infancy, that, in the mighty and sudden revulsion of mind, I wept, and could not forbear it, as I kissed their faces.”34
Gilbert, like Thomas, awakes from his bestial dreams in “Chinese houses,” except that these are quite real: he immediately has to flee his indefatigable pursuers. The effects of the drug, however, have not worn off. The film settles into silent slow-motion at this point, literalizing the time-warping effects ascribed to opiates from De Quincey to the contemporary writer Ann Marlowe, whose heroin memoir was entitled How to Stop Time. The awkwardness of Price’s physical acting — his apparent unease with the movements of his own body — is exaggerated here, as his gangly frame propels silently through the air. The only way out is to leap through the window and out onto the tiled roof. Opium paranoia is still persecuting Gilbert: “I fled the wrath of Brahma, through the forests of Asia, hated by Vishnu, knowing Shiva to lie in wait, buried for a thousand years with all unutterable slimy things,” he intones,35 startlingly, since his return to daylight seems to be a moment of liberation from the buried temple. But this is not to be.
He is shot at, and heads back indoors without setting a foot on the ground.The events that follow are so surreal that it is reasonable to assume that he is still dreaming, or at least hallucinating. In a moment that would fit happily in a David Lynch film, he meets an eerily grinning butcher who decapitates a pig right in front of him. In the next room, the men seem to pay him no notice, in a manner that is paradoxically threatening. He starts running, hears cries, sees a dying bird, and falls off a balcony. His body freezes in midair, turns into a silhouette, and starts spinning around like a pinwheel toward the foreground (what is this, Vertigo?).
Price is awoken from either his opium nightmares or his fall with a splash of water, which washes beautifully over the lens (note again the quasi-mythological presence of water in the film’s turning points). He is, however, awake only briefly before Ruby Low knocks him unconscious yet again, to send him back down to the slaves, this time in a cage himself. This precedes the movie’s dénouement, an absurd sequence involving bewigged slaves, horny old men, helium-voiced overlords, disguises, and fireworks. The mêlée spills out onto the street, out the door Ruby entered at the beginning of the film. Our heroes attempt to escape through the manhole, into the sewer; that is, back into the labyrinth, whose attractive force seems impossible to escape. Price is incapacitated with an axe, though, and falls into the sewer, finally losing his trademark cap. He tries to save himself by holding on to the bridge he constructed earlier on, but is unsuccessful.
A strife, an agony was dissolving. The nightmare of shame was over. And she, whatever she had been, was now only a woman in my arms pledged to an unknown journey, all passion spent, all evil behind us. Was it a dream of the poppy — or was it, at last, reality? As once again I put out to sea, were these the widening waters of death or the gates of paradise?
“As once again I put out to sea, were these the widening waters of death or the gates of paradise?” The bathetic answer is that it is simply a sewer, and his probable fate more like Purgatory than Heaven or Hell. Will Gilbert ever escape the shackles of eternal return film has chained him in? Or will the sewer this time lead him back out to the sea, those haunting silvery expanses and their claustrophobic eternity?
Barrell, John. The Infection of Thomas De Quincey: A Psychopathology of Imperialism. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.
Boon, Marcus. The Road of Excess: A History of Writers on Drugs. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002.
De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Toronto: Broadview Editions, 2009.
De Quincey, Thomas. “Postscript [to On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts].” On Murder. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
Hayter, Alethea. Opium and the Romantic Imagination. Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, UK: Crucible Books, 1988 (Revised edition).
Keenan, David. “Hypnagogic Pop.” The Wire 306. June 2009.
Kohn, Marek. Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground. London: Laurence & Wishart, 1992.
Kutner, C Jerry. “Albert Zugsmith’s Opium Dreams: Confessions of an Opium Eater.”. Bright Lights Film Journal. November 1997. Issue 20.
Manaugh, Geoff. “Mysterious Chinese Tunnels.” BLDGBLOG. July 23, 2008. Accessed 02 Aug 10.
Meikle, Denis. Vincent Price: The Art of Fear. London: Reynolds & Hearn, 2003.
Morrison, Robert. The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas de Quincey. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009.
Parish, James Robert and Steven Whitney. Vincent Price Unmasked. New York: Drake Publishers, 1974.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Confessions of an Opium Enter.” Chicago Reader. January 1988. Accessed 5 Dec 2010.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. List-o-Mania: Or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned Love American Movies. Chicago Reader. 25 Jun 1998. Accessed 5 Dec 2010.
Starks, Michael. Cocaine Fiends and Reefer Madness: An Illustrated History of Drugs in the Movies.New York: Cornwall Books, 1982.
Tompkins, Dave. How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop. New York: Melville House, 2010.
Vollman, William T. “They Came Out Like Ants! Searching for the Chinese Tunnels of Mexicali.”Harper’s Magazine. October 2004. 47-60.
Williams, Lucy Chase. The Complete Films of Vincent Price. Citadel Press, 2000.
Witchard, Anne. “Aspects of Literary Limehouse: Thomas Burke and the ‘Glamorous Shame of Chinatown.'” Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London 2.2 (2004). Accessed 23 Feb 2010.
- Williams, 2000. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Rosenbaum, 1988. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Boon 2002, p. 37. [↩]
- Price, “The Villains Still Pursue Me” (Parish/Whitney). [↩]
- Williams 2000. [↩]
- Castle actually had plans that same year to adapt De Quincey, which were abandoned. (Meikle, p. 83). [↩]
- Williams 2000. [↩]
- Tompkins 2010, p. 257. [↩]
- Williams 2000. [↩]
- Starks 1982. [↩]
- De Quincey, Confessions of an Opium Eater, pp. 98ff. [↩]
- Morrison, p. 326. [↩]
- De Quincey, “Postscript to On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts.” [↩]
- Witchard. [↩]
- Hayter, p. 95. [↩]
- Kutner. [↩]
- Hayter, p. 140. [↩]
- De Quincey, Confessions of an Opium Eater, pp. 123ff. [↩]
- My use of stills is extensive, because I felt it necessary to embed something of the film’s visual grain into the piece. I do not pretend that these even begin to convey the immersive, duration-based (and time-disorienting) affect of the cinema, but I do not intend for them to be glanced over. A film is, after all, a serialization of rapidly shot photographs, and these frames are like grains in the opium pipe, discrete shards of time progressing at the speed of opium: zero. Stills are, moreover, where mise-en-scene becomes an artifact for the conscious, where the fantastic skeletons of the moving image become exposed, like architectural support-structures. [↩]
- De Quincey, Confessions of an Opium Eater, pp. 122ff. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Manaugh 2008. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Vollman, p. 48. A sewer-dwelling, subterranean Chinatown “vampire” of sorts features in the 1977 Doctor Who serial “The Talons of Wang-Chiang,” which can be profitably watched in tandem with Zugsmith’s film. [↩]
- Vollman, p. 50. [↩]
- De Quincey, Confessions of an Opium Eater, p. 19. [↩]
- Kohn 1992, p. 167. [↩]
- Jacques Derrida, “The Rhetoric of Drugs” (Points: Interviews 1974-1994. Ed. Elisabeth Weber. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1995. 228-254). [↩]
- De Quincey, Confessions of an Opium Eater, p. 125. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid., p. 126. [↩]
- This is also quite close to De Quincey’s actual language. [↩]