Essayist and critic Thomas De Quincey was born in Manchester on August 15, 1785. He became addicted to opium in his teens and never stopped using the drug until his death in 1859. His inward-turning imagination and nightmarish philosophical ruminations influenced a legion of tormented souls, most notably Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire. Though not exactly prolific, De Quincey’s canon is important for two works in particular: 1845’s Suspiria de Profundis, which loosely inspired Dario Argento’s masterpiece Suspiria and its sequel Inferno, and Confessions of an English Opium Eater, a frenzied collection of stories, metaphors and philosophical anecdotes that evoke a man alienated both from society and himself.
Albert Zugsmith, ostracized in Hollywood for his subversive tendencies, is better known today as a producer rather than a director. Between 1956 and 1958, he produced several films, among them Jack Arnold’s The Incredible Shrinking Man, Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels, and Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. But his undervalued film adaptation of De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater certainly deserves a place next to all of these films. The great Vincent Price stars as opium-addict Gilbert de Quincey (relation to Albert unstated), an international adventurer who arrives in San Francisco in the early 1800s and discovers the illegal trade of Asian slave women inside a labyrinthine house of horrors.
Confessions of an Opium Eater is a difficult film to explain, and as such is best experienced as the fever-induced dream that it is. Girls are brought to San Francisco aboard a ghostly cargo ship and dumped on the shore right before a tong war erupts between the slave drivers and the women’s rescuers. A white horse magically appears in the distance and helps to save one of the shrieking women, who’s ultimately discovered by Gilbert after he’s seemingly lured inside the slave house by the gentle swell of the wind (not to mention a nearby shoot-out). Navigating through seemingly endless corridors and underground rivers, Gilbert runs into a series of lowlifes all too willing to listen to his philosophical anecdotes before offering their own bits of wisdom.
Robert Hill’s pulpy script makes Thomas De Quincey’s philosophical rumblings sound less lugubrious than they often are and certainly puts to shame anything posing as serious philosophical thought in the Matrix films. When Gilbert fails to save Lotus (June Kyoto Lu, who also appeared in John Carptenter’s Big Trouble in Little China, inspired in part by Zugsmith’s film), they’re both locked inside hovering wooden cages. After they fail to reach for each other’s hands, they’re whisked away as if by magic by a series of pulleys. For everything it has to say about class and the subjugation of women, Confessions of an Opium Eater is mainly about our intrinsic need to make human connections and how easy it is too lose ourselves to a false reality in the absence of such contact.
The feverish use of water imagery throughout the film welcomes a Jungian analysis, if only because so much of the film seems to erupt from the deepest recesses of the subconscious. A remarkable five-minute sequence shot entirely in slow motion evokes Gilbert’s maddening, claustrophobic escape from an opium den. He begins inside the den, runs atop a series of beds, and finally breaks through a window and onto a rickety rooftop. A dizzied Gilbert stands on a ledge for what seems like an eternity, a miniscule crescent moon dangling in the distant sky. Gilbert wakes up and Zugsmith reveals that it was all a dream. (Or maybe it’s a nightmare?) Indeed, there’s plenty of talk in the film about sparring dualities, namely dreams versus nightmares and pessimism versus optimism. Every choice is a road not taken. And every reality may be little more than a product of a pipe dream, and not unlike this beautiful and often bizarre little gem.