Drugs, Dwarfs, Tong Wars, Sex Slavery, and Vincent Price

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“Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for ‘the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,’ bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium!”

Now we could argue all day about whether or not this film is actually good. Whether it was politically correct in its portrayal of Asians and Asian-Americans. Whether it was sensitive to the actual tragedies of real human sex trafficking. Whether it even accurately depicts the effects of opium. At the end of the day Confessions of an Opium Eater (1962), starring Vincent Price (Theater of Blood, House of Wax, Comedy of Terrors, House on Haunted Hill, The Tingler, Edward Scissorhands) and a mostly Asian cast, it’s just too weird of a movie not to geek out about.

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De Quincey meets the mysterious Ruby Lo.

Confessions of an Opium Eater, directed by exploitation director Albert Zugsmith and apparently very liberally inspired by the memoirs of Thomas De Quincey, is a weird bit of exotic thriller pulp. It should rank alongside Coke Ennyday and the Mystery of the Leaping Fish* (1916) for weird, vintage drug movies or Big Trouble in Little China (1986) for Chinatown-is-magic action movies.

*Oh, it’s a real movie. Douglas Fairbanks plays a pseudo-Sherlock Holmes spoof with super Popeye crime-fighting powers whenever he snorts cocaine. The best bits are when he makes the bad guys O.D. and they shoot through the roof. For 1916, it’s hilariously cavalier about drug use.

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One alternative American title for this movie was “Souls for Sale.” Fitting.

The movie begins with a somber, reflective voice-over narration as we see a Chinese junk drifting in the mists of a murky, bathtub sea. We get the credits and a skeleton washed up on a forgotten beach. Then we get almost 10 straight minutes of no dialogue; just drugged up Chinese women being loaded into a net and transplanted from ship to shore, where a small hook-filled battle erupts. There’s a lot of desperation and suspense and mystery already. Also a bad guy gets murdered by a random horse, which is always great.

Vincent Price (perhaps woefully miscast, but just maybe his out-of-place poetic, world-weary melancholy and hammy energy are actually what makes this movie so deliciously strange) plays Gilbert de Quincey, a mysterious turn-of-the-century sailor man with a cryptic tie to the Orient. De Quincey, a passive character who wanders about as if in a sort of dream, gets mixed up in the Tong wars going on in the nineteenth century streets of San Francisco’s Chinatown. He meets a host of culturally sensitive Chinese characters such as the sneaky, deceitful merchant; the manipulative dragon lady; the bribe-able opium dealer; and the helpless lotus flower waif who needs a white man to save her from sex slavery. Like I said, it might not be the most P.C. flick, but, to its credit, the cast is nearly all an authentic Chinese cast (minus one dwarf, but we’ll get back to her later). The cheesy broken English is made even weirder when they awkwardly speak it when Vincent Price is not around (it’s sad because you know actors like Philip Ahn speak perfect English and they have to dumb it all down) and even sillier when Vincent Price talks to them using flowery Shakespearean language meant to evoke deep philosophical sophistication. Price waxes poetic like a jackass while his Asian co-stars are lacking definite articles and proper verb conjugation. Yet never a miscommunication.

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A grateful Lotus embraces De Quincey.

De Quincey gets captured and lackadaisically falls for a lovely Chinese girl named Lotus (June Kyoto Lu) whom he rescues from axe-murderers. A nice secret dumbwaiter getaway and sewer battle ensues. He also meets a power-hungry Asian seductress, Ruby Lo (played very well by Linda Ho). She is the true puppet master of the devilish proceedings of Chinatown’s seedy underbelly and, once she gets enough treasure and opium, she will return to China and lead an army…that will do…something.

It goes without saying that Ruby Lo is a way more interesting that Lotus (and, by de facto, much sexier), but the real intriguing character is the fearless, tough-talking Chinese midget named Child (played by Yvonne Moray who also appeared in Wizard of Oz and Terror of Tiny Town). She’s like Zelda Rubinstein and Linda Hunt with even more chutzpah. She’s seen it all and doesn’t really care what the world has to say. She’s feisty and optimistic—even when facing certain death. She’s pretty much the best character ever. I liked the movie a lot before she shows up (arriving floating down a dark corridor in a suspended bamboo cage), but after that I loved the movie. And she’s not the only little person in this movie. Angelo Rossitto (Freaks, Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome) has a bit part as a newspaperman in the beginning.

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Yvonne Moray as Child.

Vincent Price is known for playing spooky killers and tortured killers and obsessed killers (he’s got a bit of a persona), so seeing him as a butthole action guy is kind of surreal. Anyway, this movie is weird for a number of reasons, Vincent Price being an action guy not least of them. The majority of the cast being Asian is unique for an early ’60s Hollywood movie (almost no objectionable “yellow-face”). The dialogue has only two modes: Vincent Price ham poetry and stilted Chinaman-ese. It really sort of fetishizes human sex trafficking and by that I mean it doesn’t exactly condone it (only the bad guys are involved in it), but at the same time the film tries to make it sexy. Between the floating bamboo cages, steamy dance numbers, seeming disposable nature of women, it’s all rather fetishistic. It’s hard to say your film is condemning using women as sex props when your movie pretty much uses them as sex props. I like secret trapdoors and hidden passageways and cool torture devices, but maybe it’s all too campy for something as serious as human sex trafficking. The atmosphere of the movie, aided by Price’s creepy, condescending line delivery and narration readings, is very eerie and dreamlike. The musical score helps that feeling too. The music sounds like vaguely hypnotic theremin tones. Then occasionally all music and sound will drop out and it’ll feel even weirder. There is really only one scene where our hero actually smokes opium…AND THAT SCENE IS ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT.

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You’re tripping balls, man…

 Skulls and sawfish parade by along with a host of other phantasmagoric imagery and nightmarishly distorted countenances during his trip…and then he wakes up and we get a 1960s soundless stoner action scene with Chinese axe-throwers and Vincent Price running around in late 1800s ‘Frisco. It’s way too cool to even be real. Even the ending of this movie feels bizarre, like we’re all stuck in suspended animation. Does he die? What happens? Where are they going? Did they kill the bad guy? What’s happening? Who was the random guy at the end who was in disguise? Is it over?

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I’m beginning to think this is not a Edgar Allen Poe adaptation.

I really don’t know what else to say. Watch this movie if you can find it. It’s weird. If you’ve read any of my reviews of other old movies you’d know I’m exceedingly forgiving of racism, sexism, and cheesiness in my vintage pulp. Take it all for what it is. Don’t be offended. It’s a peculiar and unflattering history lesson to watch these old movies. Moral of the story: locate Confessions of an Opium Eater and enjoy all it’s weird, uncomfortable, erotic dreaminess. Maybe make it a double feature with Reefer Madness (1936).

Picture References:

http://www.coffeecoffeeandmorecoffee.com/archives/2013/10/confessions_of.html

http://www.midnightonly.com/2013/04/21/confessions-of-an-opium-eater-1962/

http://scalisto.blogspot.kr/2013/06/albert-zugsmith-confessions-of-opium.html

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Size Matters Not…in the Philippines

Full disclosure: I have a mild obsession with this subject. See my article, “The Best Dwarf Movies That Aren’t Willow.”

13Several great films have employed little people to play crucial roles. Unfortunately, little people have been largely reduced to playing mythical dwarves, gnomes, leprechauns, Oompa Loompas, ewoks, jawas, and various other creatures. It’s not everyday they get to be Time Bandits (1981), take over a mental institution like in Even Dwarfs Started Small (1970), or act out a whole western a la The Terror of Tiny Town (1938). It is rare that a little actor gets to achieve singular notoriety like Verne Troyer (Austin Powers in The Spy Who Shagged Me, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus), Hervé Villechaize (Fantasy Island, The Forbidden Zone), or Warwick Davis (Willow, Leprechaun, Harry Potter, Life’s Too Short), and even more elusive are the serious, juicy roles like Peter Dinklage gets (The Station Agent, Death at a Funeral, Game of Thrones).

And how often do little actors get to use kung-fu, slide across the floor, umbrella-parachute out windows, or jet-pack to the rescue? The answer: not often enough.

Hi. Have we met?

Hi. Have we met?

Filipino actor, Weng Weng, got that rare opportunity to star in his own James Bond-style action movie. At 2′ 9″ Weng Weng enjoyed not only playing the shortest super-fly secret agent to ever don a leisure-suit, but he also got to be chased by several women and do a lot of pretty great stunts in the oddball cult classic For Y’ur Height Only (1980). Although most of his films are still unavailable in the United States, this particular little golden nugget can be found on DVD.

OK, so it’s still a bit of a circus role with most of the more interesting plot elements revolving around the fact that the main action star is less than 3 feet tall, but you still gotta respect the little guy.

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Everyone looks so uncomfortable. The transition from the 70s to the 80s was awkward for everyone.

The story for this B-grade critter is incredibly thin. Bad guys—who (at least in the English dubbed version) readily acknowledge their negative roles and openly declare that they are opposed to all that is good—are hiding bags of drugs in loaves of bread. The good guys (really just a guy in an office, but I guess it’s implied he works for some benevolent government agency) send not-so-secret* Agent 00 (Weng Weng) to stop the bad guys. It’s as simple and awkwardly handled as that and really it’s already more than it ever needed to be. Most of the plot is fairly incomprehensible and ludicrous, but if you are a true connoisseur of schlock cinema and/or bizarro entertainment then none of its quirks or foibles can deter you and you know it!

Sometimes I like my movies to look and feel like they were made by babies.

If you enjoy kung-fu movies and James Bond movies, you already know it’s not about the story. It’s about the action and mayhem and, I gotta say, For Y’ur Height Only delivers. Perhaps its the unfamiliar novelty of seeing a man knee-high to R2-D2 scaling walls and fighting guys and wooing chicks, but this film takes the throwaway rip-off concept that might have otherwise been forgettable and makes it something unique. Because Agent 00 is so small the action has to be choreographed with a bit of imagination…and some upper body strength on the part of the people attacking him (as Agent 00 frequently flips over them).

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Jet pack! Don’t look at the string.

Weng Weng uses his small stature to his advantage by sneaking between people’s legs, sliding on the floor whilst firing his gun, hiding in crevices, and, as I have aforementioned, umbrella-parachuting out windows.

One of my favorite things this movie does is incorporate the 007 Q gadget exchange, but instead of specific instructions, this Q gives the vaguest guidance and seems astoundingly oblivious. 00 gets an amulet thing for correspondence with the agency’s plant and a solid gold ring that can detect any poison. There’s also a pen that shoots poison darts or something, an Oddjob murder-hat (only remotely controlled), and, yes, a jet-pack. By far the greatest gift bestowed upon Agent 00 by ripoff Q are the giant sunglasses that allows the wearer to see people with their clothes off.

The action isn’t exactly at Bruce Lee status, but it is pretty great. Perhaps a bit gratuitous on the kicks to the groin, but it’s all in good fun. And the outfits are spectacular. You will never see more obnoxious combinations of plaid blazers, pastel neck scarves, pinky rings, and super big collars. No style of combat is out of place in this movie. Guns, swords, darts, martial arts, murder-hat, and even a scary one-on-one fistfight with a slightly larger dwarf are all featured.

Mr. Big

Mr. Big

The women, both established characters and random walk-ons enjoy copious amounts of smooching from the pint-sized hero. Weng Weng, although painted extra silly by way of the hilariously abysmal dubbing, demonstrates a playfully mischievous aura throughout the film. The absurd size juxtapositions and the twinkle in Weng Weng’s eye make this a lot more fun than your average Bond knockoff. One thing this movie really taught me was that putting drugs in bread is worse than killing scores upon scores of people. 00 absolutely destroys these guys. The bad guys kill maybe 2 or 3 people, while hero 00 straight up murders at least 100 dudes. The whole spectacle is about as odd and awful as lunch at Jollibee’s,** only way more aimless and much more fun.

Kamusta, baby?

Kamusta, baby?

The acting is not good, the dialogue is about as clever and articulate as a 3 year old telling a story, the dubbing is terrible (seriously, worse than any Godzilla movie), the logic and physics of bullet trajectories is psychotically ill-informed, and it’s all absolutely wonderful. And what if watching a dusky dwarf wearing a plastic sparkler-spewing jet-pack suspended over rocks by a clearly visible wire is my idea of entertainment? What then? I liked the silly action and how the nonsensical plotline sort of meandered about waiting for the feature-length mark. You really have to like your cinema to be out there to appreciate this thing. Revisiting this movie for the first time after several years was a truly special treat for me.

See the advantage? No crouching.

See the advantage? No crouching.

So maybe you might blast movies of this ilk for their cheap production quality and dismissive character development, but you know what else was filmed in the Philippines because it was cheaper there? Apocalypse Now. Boom. Chew on that. God help me, I love this movie. For Y’ur Height Only is a masterpiece of strange. Check it out and see the amazing Weng Weng in his natural habitat: in hand to hand combat and necking ladies.

Cheap foreign midgetsploitation James Bond knockoffs don’t come much better than this.

The DVD distributed by Mondo Macabro also features knockoff Bruce Lee star, Bruce Le, in the ludicrous kung-fu flick Challenge of the Tiger. Longest scene in the movie: Bruce Le fighting a bull with his hands.

Thumbs up!

Thumbs up!

*He tells everyone he’s a secret agent.

**Maybe it’s because I’m not Filipino, but I never found Jollibee’s eclectic menu particularly appetizing. It gleefully includes spaghetti and yam boba.

Top 10 Reason to See For Y’ur Height Only

1. What’s up with that title? For “y’ur”? “Your”?

2. Two words: jet-pack.

3. How many movies are Filipino James Bond knockoffs with little people?

4. Two more words: murder-hat.

5. In one scene Weng Weng is affectionately compared to (and I kid you not) a potato.

6. He pulls his body over a gun to flip-kick a guy in the face and then proceeds to pummel him with the butt of the gun.

7. Two more words: umbrella-parachute.

8. “There’s a lot of dough in this dough: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker…” actual line muttered by a bad guy in reference to the drugs hidden in the bread.

9. You’ll wanna dress your baby up in a leisure suit.

10. Two final words: Weng Weng

Look at those little brown pepperonis.

Look at those little brown pepperonis.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 4, 2011

Curio Curia

What is it about novelty exploitation cinema that tickles us so? What? You’re not tickled? Well, maybe it’s just me then.

A tumbleweed rolls by a stark western street. A buzzard caws and flaps away. A rock tumbles down a stony plateau. Suddenly, in the distance, the thunderous patter of horse hooves on the tough desert floor. A miniature carriage erupts passed a rickety wooden gate. It is pulled by a dozen adorable Shetland ponies. The diminutive driver whips the dwarf steeds to a fine halt and the little people inside disembark. It’s a wild west inhabited entirely by little people! So what do The Wizard of Oz and classic cowboy melodramas have in common? Well, if you’re referring to The Terror of Tiny Town they share a lot of the same cast (the Munchkins anyway).

Ruggero Deodato’s infamous “Cannibal Holocaust” (1980)

Curios and novelty films are generally categorized by their kookiness and, occasionally, exploitation-type setups. Exploitation cinema generally targets specific obsessions such as blaxploitation, sexploitation, nunsploitation, etc. They find a controversial theme and make the given novelty a sort of mini-genre unto itself. They went in waves…and the surf took a much harder pounding in the 1970s. There was a whole world of movies catering to all sorts of peculiar tastes and usually without the benefit of a large budget. Jungle cannibals, ethnic retoolings, vampire lesbians, shocking violence, schlocky monsters, and weird pagan rites abound in this realm.

Sometimes they weren’t just shocking or bad. I am actually particularly fond of a few of these oddball curios. The Terror of Tiny Town (1938) was an all little-person cast cowboy movie and it was never meant to be a really good movie, but you know what? I liked it. Chained for Life (1951) starring the famous conjoined twins, the Hilton Sisters, and the legendary original shockumentary Mondo Cane (1962) are also worthy of a looksie in my opinion. They may not have been made to be great, but they might just still entertain you.

tiny town

The Terror of Tiny Town is a fun little western flick with all the classic twists of a full-size cowboy melodrama. This movie gets written off as a mere triviality, but it’s actually a prime example of how an endearing curio can work. There is nothing in the plot, characters, or random musical numbers that is particularly great. It’s your typically thin B-grade ’30s cowboy plot with the good guys and the bad guys, and it would be great enjoyable pulp in any size. The kicker is that its novelty makes it something of a standout. If the cast was full of big people nobody would care about this movie, but since the story has been adapted for all folks under 4′ 10″ it becomes unique. I was actually surprised the film didn’t take more cheap shots at its stars (considering it’s supposed to be an “exploitation” movie). Although scenes of ten-gallon-hat-wearing desperadoes walking underneath the saloon doors might be considered somewhat insensitive, it’s still a good joke and I do thrill at the racing Shetland pony-drawn coaches. It’s got some decent songs, laughs, action, and splosions.

What actually struck me as being more odd than a midget western, was that most of the actors had heavy German accents.

tiny town 2

As a fan of Time Bandits, For Y’ur Height Only, and Even Dwarfs Started Small I hesitate not to add The Terror of Tiny Town to my list of must-see little person movies.

Next movie! I first became acquainted with the conjoined Hilton Twins from the spectacular movie Freaks (1932), directed by the great Tod Browning (Dracula, The Unholy Three). They played the only thing they could play: themselves. Joined at the hip, the Hilton Twins had to do everything together. A popular vaudeville act, they were used to being billed as a novelty, but one thing you definitely notice when watching them in both Freaks and Chained for Life is that they are very natural and there really isn’t anything “freakish” about them. 

chained for life'

Chained for Life (director Harry Fraser’s last film) has Violet and Daisy Hilton starring as a conjoined Vaudeville singing act, Vivian and Dorothy Hamilton (not too big a stretch with the names there). The movie is a sort of flashback from a trial. Vivian has murdered her sister Dorothy’s husband, but the courts are not sure how to prosecute the guilty party while sparing the innocent. Through the many testimonial flashbacks we see how it all happened. Dorothy was conned into a publicity marriage by her manager (played by Allen Jenkins who I mainly remember as being the elevator guy in Pillow Talk) and a slick double-crossing stage magician, Andre Pariseau (Mario Laval). The movie depicts Dorothy’s longing to be separated so she can have a normal life; Vivian’s shrewdness and ardent distrust for Andre; and Andre’s two-timing. The courts refuse to let Dorothy obtain a marriage license because they would consider it bigamy. They are outraged, but they make it swing via an oblivious blind minister. After the publicity marriage, Andre dumps Dorothy and Vivian vengefully murders him. The film avoids resolution and instead tries to stump the audience with its bookend scenes of the judge (Norval Mithcell) openly asking the audience how he should rule.

chained shot

A few things that make Chained for Life so intriguing is how they manage to keep half the twins in the dark about certain information. Usually one has to be asleep or there’s a curtain between them. It tends to create very odd juxtapositions that almost feel like a metaphor for the dual nature of mankind. The other fun aspect of the film is the frequent use of Vaudeville acts (I suspect to pad the film to feature-length). There’s a wise-cracking juggler, a man who does bicycle stunts, and an accordion player who blasts through The William Tell Overture in record time, in addition to the Hilton Twins three duets they sing together.

It’s meant to be pulpy and forgettable, but it does delve into some fascinating subject matter regarding the lives and limitations of conjoined twins (particularly in the prudent early 1950s). All in all Freaks is a billion times better, but this is a welcome treat for people who want more of the Hilton Twins.

mondocane2

Mondo Cane (1962) is famous for being what is considered the first shock-umentary. Shockumentaries take controversial, perverse, sensational, disturbing, and yes, shocking, documentary subjects and show you, the viewer, just what kind of strange sickness exists in this world. Often times they stage much of the main action and embellish the facts to make things more than what they really are. Mondo Cane was the first and would influence a whole new genre, the most famous offspring being Faces of Death (1980) and its sequels. Cane, the product of filmmakers Paolo Cavara, Gualtiero Jacopetti, and Franco Prosperi, is a warped, ironic, and actually quite humorous look into strange and disturbing customs all around the world. Where the film obtains its charm is not from its unflinching gluttony for its disturbing subject matter, but the humor it finds in juxtaposing the most bizarre and grotesque exotic rituals with more familiar “civilized” acts that mirror them. This film loves irony. Almost the whole movie could be described by a narrator saying, “You think that’s gross? Well, take a look at what your neighbor does.” The narrator is probably the best part of the movie too. He almost sounds like the guiding voice through a classic Disneyland ride like The Haunted Mansion. 

You will see pet cemeteries; people cutting their legs with broken glass as they run through the streets; geese force-fed meal all day; tribal ladies cooped up in cages and waited upon; dogs being cooked; people exalting effigies of Rudolfo Valentino; women painting their bodies blue to create “art”; a woman breastfeeding a pig; Japanese businessmen getting hosed off in a strange spa; shark torture; and much, much, much more.

mondo_cane

Although some of the movie is fabrication, that is not necessarily the point. Flaherty staged a lot for Nanook of the North (1922) to show the world what the life of an Eskimo might look like, not necessarily an Eskimo named “Nanook” specifically. Cavara, Jacopetti, and Prosperi just want to have fun at your expense and present the world as one weird, sick, funny place. More than present true realities, it wants you to reconsider your own lifestyle before judging others and it attempts to put these seemingly shocking incongruities in perspective. I may not appreciate the entire shockumentary mentality, but I did enjoy Mondo Cane.

These movies sometimes get unfairly looked down upon, but you know something? They’re still entertaining little curios, novelty or not. For singing dwarf cowboys, conjoined twin murder trials, and a buffet of international eccentricities check out The Terror of Tiny Town, Chained for Life, and Mondo Cane.