In the 19th Century, there is a slave trade still going on in the United States of America, where young women are kidnapped from the Orient, taken across the ocean to the South-East of North America, and sold to the highest bidders in hidden auctions. A group of these women are on a ship where they are gathered up in a net, lifted up and dropped onto a boat to take them to shore, though in this instance there are a rival gang of Tongs waiting for them, and a fight erupts on the beach, though none of the captives are able to escape. Soon they are on their way to San Francisco's Chinatown...
Don't go into this Confessions of an Opium Eater expecting a faithful translation of the works of Thomas De Quincey, in fact don't expect very much to do with him at all as the leading man was playing a descendant of the writer, one Gilbert De Quincey, who we have to assume was well-versed in his relative's book and that was what had spurred him on to investigate the Chinese community, although frankly his motives and even his purpose were pretty hard to fathom. This took the form of a succession of episodes which ranged from the baffling to the kitschy, all with producer and director Albert Zugsmith's take on the Orient.
Zugsmith enjoyed an extremely curious career in movies, something of an impresario in the William Castle mould though with efforts as varied as producing Orson Welles' Touch of Evil and the classic sci-fi The Incredible Shrinking Man to directing the decidedly low rent Sex Kittens go to College under his belt; by this stage Confessions was the last real attempt at respectability. That said, there remained a wide streak of the exploitation movie about it, taking what for its audience must have been an exotic landscape and confirming their worst fears about the Chinese population, that they were responsible for slavery and a drugs trade which only the most foolhardy would think to get involved with.
Our Gilbert De Quincey is one of those men, and after a long ten minutes of East Asian women being rounded up and generally terrorised, we get Vincent Price entering the frame, on obvious sets designed to resemble the 19th century Chinatown of old. Here's where things grow complicated, well, not so much complicated as difficult to understand because Gilbert might know what he's getting involved with, but you might have a harder time working it out: the "every scene emphasised the same" direction doesn't help in portraying what's important. It's something about hidden treasure, a Chinese overlord in a Fu Manchu style, our hero's need to bust the slave trade singlehandedly (he brings absolutely nobody else on his excursion) and of course that opuim den where he takes a puff or two.
Though oddly, not because he wants to, but because... um, he seems to be posing as a decadent Westerner and wants to fit in, yet the main reason for the druggy sequence is to offer a series of trippy images to simulate the experience of smoking opium, complete with distorted faces, horror masks and various closeups of animals - for some this is the highlight, and rumours followed the film that it was a great aid to a trip of the viewer's own. You can just imagine stoned audiences slumped in a fug having their minds blown by watching Price make his way through the succession of weirdly stylised scenes. Some of those included one of the original Munchkins, Yvonne Moray, as Gilbert's cheery guide, made up to look Asian and with her sunny demeanour adding to the surrealism, while others featured Price playing the dashing hero and rescuing damsels, though this was all very much an Occidental conception: think the Doctor Who serial Talons of Weng-Chiang or John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China. It was a good thing Price was so accomplished: he seemed to know what was happening even if you didn't. Music by Albert Glasser.