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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More Animated Movies You Didn’t See

Awhile back I wrote about the animated movies you didn’t see I suggested you check out Rene Laloux’s Fantastic Planet (1973), Dave Borthwick’s The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb (1993), Michel Ocleot’s Kirikou and the Sorceress (1998), and Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues (2008)—all absolutely wonderful films. You may notice I write a lot about animated movies. Animation is near and dear to my heart and when it sneaks up and surprises me it is all the more precious. Today I have four more suggestions of animated films you might have missed and I strongly encourage you to check them out, and they are Ralph Bakshi’s controversial Coonskin (1975), Marcell Jankovic’s psychedelic Son of the White Mare (1981), John Korty’s screwy Twice Upon a Time (1983), and Will Vinton’s peculiar exploration into The Adventures of Mark Twain (1986). . . Get ready. Things are about to get weird.

Ralph Bakshi (Heavy Traffic) is like an X-rated Don Bluth (The Secret of NIMH). Both are ambitious little animation rebels that seem to have trouble finding mainstream success and consistency, yet you gotta applaud their work even when they miss. Bakshi is the man responsible for strange efforts like Wizards (rather dated), Fire and Ice (an unfortunate misfire that tries to replicate the artwork of Frank Frazetta in fully animated environments), Fritz the Cat (based on the comic by Robert Crumb who apparently hated the film), the animated Lord of the Rings (not bad), American Pop (a mess, but I liked it), and Cool World (there’s a lot going on in this one, but it’s such a shambles let’s just move on). I have to set the stage for Coonskin because only Bakshi could pull it off…or even try. He’s always done things a little differently and he’s never shied away from, shall we say, intensity. Coonskin (aka Street Fight aka Bustin’ Out aka Harlem Nights aka Coonskin No More) is the story of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear as you have never seen them before.* Scatman Crothers (The Shining, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) sets the mood with a catchy little number called “Ah’m a Nigger Man”  (already you can see the controversy, but the song is really great and a biting jab at white ignorance and racism). As some folks in the live action world prepare for a daring jailbreak, a wise old timer (Crothers) tells the cartoon story of three animal folk heroes who take on racist cops, the Italian mafia, bad religion, and black corruption in Harlem.

The film is ugly, abrasive, gritty and excessively violent and sexual, but there’s a strange, grotesque satirical allure to it all. Something this provocative clearly had every moment meticulously planned, and its gross stereotypes might be more of a condemnation of the audience who might have thought all these horrible things all along. It’s purposely steeped in blaxploitation to force you to consider the images you are seeing. This movie is what would have happened if Robert Crumb and John Kricfalusi (Ren & Stimpy) did Schoolhouse Rock. For all its raucous abandon, there is a painful fatalism underneath. The scenes where a poor black drifter tries to woo a buxom, nude, and manipulative female representation of America are funny, but shocking when you consider the commentary behind it. Coonskin is very much a product of its time (and Bakshi’s imagination) and should offend everyone; black, white, women, gay, religious, etc. It’s a gross assault on all things right and that is entirely the point that Al Sharpton missed (he was a leader in the fight to stop this movie). It’s not racist. It’s an honest American race tragedy (but perhaps with a glimmer of hope) and you can unpack that more after you see it. It also stars Barry White, Philip Thomas, Charles Gordone, and Al Lewis (The Munsters).

The next film comes from Hungary and is sure to alienate everyone at the party—unless they are hugely into Hungarian folklore and/or on magic mushrooms. Marcell Jankovic’s Son of the White Mare cured me from being wary of Hungarian cartoons (I had a bad experience with The District). It starts as a delirious mélange of colors and shapes until after about ten minutes we figure out we’ve been watching a horse give birth to human babies the whole time. She has two sons who leave, but the third wants to be able to throw trees around so he listens to the old weird guy he meets in the forest (who might be God?) and suckles at his horse-mother’s teat for several decades to grow strong. When he is fully grown and his mother is dry and dying he becomes Tree-Shaker and goes on a journey to restore the three kingdoms (and save their princesses) from the wicked rule of the three evil dragons. Along the way he picks up his fair-weather brothers, Stone-Crumbler and Iron-Kneader, and a mischievous demon who only the superhuman Tree-Shaker can outsmart. When his brothers chicken out at the gates Tree-Shaker realizes he must battle the dragons by himself. One dragon is a three-headed rock golem-type creature. The next is a seven headed battle tank and the final dragon is a twelve-headed computerized city monster. Tree-Shaker manages many other folk hero obstacles like being stuck in the under world, killing a snake, and even feeding his own legs to a griffin.

The story is very mythic and ancient feeling, but the lively, surreal animations are wonderfully superb. Even if you don’t get all the folklore stuff, the madness of the vibrantly moving illustrations will keep your attention (it almost reminded me of Yellow Submarine in a strange way). This sort of imaginative, freedom-embracing approach is what animation is all about. Seriously, lines go everywhere and colors collapse into one another like crazy! Watch Son of the White Mare and educate yourself on Hungarian folktales and have one heck of a trip. It’s like the works of Homer as realized by Vince Collins.

Ya’ll know who George Lucas is? Sure, he’s the guy who made Star Wars…and produced Howard the Duck. Speaking of Howard the Duck, as awful as that film was, it reveals a daring side to Mr. Lucas. He would give money to those crazy ideas from time to time, and I’m sure glad he did here. Such is the case for the criminally snubbed George Lucas produced film Twice Upon a Time, directed by John Korty. This is a wonderful comic tale with zero substance. It’s great. Written in almost nonstop puns and clever banter (Yellow Submarine again?) and animated in a technique called “Lumage,” a sort of plastic backlit stop-motion animation, Twice Upon a Time is the story of how the black-and-white live-action Rushers of Din were almost bombarded with nightmares from the Murkworks, run by the odious Synonamess Botch, until some unlikely heroes emerged out of sunny Frivoli’s dreamland. The nightmare vultures snatch up all the Fig Men of Frivoli and trick the good-hearted Ralph the All-Purpose Animal and his mute companion, Mum, into stealing the spring to stop time in Din. Then Synonamess Botch plants nightmare bombs all over Din, planning to set them off all at once. Amidst the chaos Flora Fauna studies to be an actress, the Fairy Godmother blows up a telephone pole, Rod Rescueman tries to rescue something, Scuzzbopper toils away at the Great Amurkian Novel, a robot gorilla with a television for a face does stuff, etc. Overwhelmed yet? Don’t be. Every inch of this movie is designed to be delightful fluff.

It’s a highly imaginative and breezy little film with clever dialogue and a sense of flippant mayhem that could only be birthed on a Saturday morning eating “Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs” (Calvin & Hobbes anyone?). You’ll laugh and thrill as Ralph, Mum, Rod, and the whole gang do battle with the cantankerous Synonamess Botch and restore the spring to Din. The animation is strange and fascinating and the humor is adult and hilarious while being kid-friendly (depending on which dub of the movie you get, I’ve seen both and I actually think the one without the swearing is a lot better). It’s a whimsical delight that has plenty of action, grating 80s songs, and the soothing tempo of Lorenzo Music’s voice. Lorenzo Music plays the main protagonist, Ralph the All-Purpose Animal, but you probably recognize this sleepy timbre from the Garfield animated series. Since the film makes no pretense of even pretending to be important it frees itself from all moral and plot confines and soars to new heights of comic frivolity and triviality. It’s a magnificent trifle that is thoroughly enjoyable.

Will Vinton is an animation legend most famous for his work with the iconic “California Raisins” commercials from the 80s. He has done many great short films (Martin the Cobbler) and TV specials (A Claymation Christmas Celebration), but his interpretation of the great American literary legend, Mark Twain, is the reason we’re here today. If you’ve ever wondered what was that weird youtube clip of a claymation Satan creating a tiny civilization in space and then indifferently murdering them, then I am here to tell you. That’s a scene from Vinton’s The Adventures of Mark Twain! Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, and Becky Thatcher stowaway on a bizarrely constructed airship piloted by an aging Mark Twain—and secretly co-piloted by Twain’s dark side. James Whitmore (Tora! Tora! Tora!, The Shawshank Redemption) provides the voice of Twain as the three stowaways learn about other great Twain tales like “The Diary of Adam and Eve,” “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” “Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven,” “The Mysterious Stranger,” and others. Twain was a complicated man, and the film portrays this by way of a sort of literal manifestation of bipolar disorder—there is a light Twain who is happy and eager to share a story and then there is a dark Twain who is joyless and fatalistic. Sawyer and the other kids soon learn that Mark Twain is leaving earth in an airship to make a suicide voyage into Halley’s Comet—echoing the real Twain’s words, “I came in with Halley’s Comet in 1835. It is coming again next year [1910], and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s Comet.” Despite the whimsy, languid pace, bright colors, and pleasing shapes there is a dark sense of urgency throughout. Vinton does not give us Mark Twain’s works so much as he gives us Twain himself. The film does a grand job of displaying Twain’s own sense of humor, melancholy, imagination, and wisdom. Vinton’s designs may look childish, but they are gloriously detailed and impressive. These are not George Pal Puppetoons, these are living balls of clay in constant motion and evolution and it is a pleasure behold. I personally love the design of the airship.

Live-action plus animation, traditional cel-animation with added trippiness, “Lumage,” and smooth, fluid claymation; all with very unique and distinctive styles. It’s a shame these films are not more readily available as I enjoyed them all very much and would encourage you to seek them out and enjoy them for yourself. Whether it’s gritty, obscene Coonskin, the mythically hallucinatory Son of the White Mare, the proactively weightless Twice Upon a Time, or the strange take on a literary legend in The Adventures of Mark Twain I hope one of these creative films (if not all) finds its way to your TV screen. The weirdness is out there.

*Check out my review for Song of the South.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” April 22, 2011