Tue 23 Oct 2012
Nowadays, weird movies are so numerous as to pass unnoticed; it is, in fact, common practice lately to layer a certain amount of weirdness deliberately onto quite ordinary films to increase their appeal to trendy movie-goers and boost the box office.
But in my youth, the truly weird movies were something subversive filmmakers got away with, mainly in the B-features when no one was looking. Hence, the old weird movies played at neighborhood grind-houses to audiences of uncomprehending kids and drunks, then on local TV stations at obscure hours of the morning, diced up with ads for used cars and the amazing veg-O-matic.
Hold that thought. I’ll get back to it.
The things I read, given world enough and time, begin to amaze me. A few weeks ago, f’rinstance, I found myself somewhere deep inside Thomas DeQuincey’s memoir (sensationally serialized in the London papers circa 1821-22) Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
This is not a book I’m going to recommend to lovers of Junkie or Musk, Hashish & Blood. The density of DeQuincey’s prose is such as will daunt most readers, and I don’t blame ’em a bit. Take one typical sentence –
— and you’ll see it takes a Sherpa guide to get through some of these passes, and the reader with any sense at all for brevity and clarity may justifiably fling deQuincey’s book across the room.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself not just enjoying this thing, but actually pursuing the tale (such as it is) eagerly to its end. For those who can fight through the dense prose, Confessions holds some powerful bits of sheer writing: harrowing descriptions of starving in London; stark descriptions of beggars and streetwalkers going desperately down winding, shadowy streets; gaudy evocations of wild opium dreams, and even the odd bit of humor jumping out from hiding, as his advice on taking Opium:
Now to return to that thought you’ve been holding, DeQuincey’s title, somewhat abbreviated into Confessions of an Opium Eater was used for a film completely unrelated (or almost completely; the hero’s name is Gilbert DeQuincey) to the book.
Released by Allied Artists (formerly Monogram) in 1962, produced and directed by that wild card of the Cinema, Albert Zugsmith (look him up) this was a cult film before there were cult films, a movie that emerges as simply weird for its own sake, rather than aimed at any particular audience. Spawned by a filmmaker known equally for his work with geniuses and for his own trashy bad taste, Confessions will easily boggle the mind of anyone unprepared for its tawdry neo-surrealism.
Vincent Price stars as a black-clad and bemused soldier-of-fortune charged with ending the Oriental slave trade in San Francisco, circa 1920s — an action hero if you will, and if the mantle seems to rest a bit awkwardly on his shoulders, he still bears it manfully, jumping from rooftops, hatchet-dueling with Tong assassins, freeing fair young maidens and trading repartee with the Dragon Lady — in short, everything you expect from a two-fisted hero, but done with a sardonic lyricism never seen outside this cheap little movie, with lines like: “They say in every drunkard there’s a demon, in every poet a ghost. So here am I ghost and demon…”
There are other surprises along the way, including an oriental den of iniquity filled with several hundred doors, sliding panels and secret passages; a tiny slave girl locked in a cage who turns out to be a jaded and diminutive old woman; an extended slow-motion dope-dream fight sequence, and an ending that made me doubt my senses. In short, this is the goods: a genuine Old Weird Movie and like nothing else you’ll ever see.