Without being especially entertaining or exciting, this Albert Zugsmith effort is a truly bizarre concoction – a 1902-set San Francisco Chinatown tong war/sex slave melodrama with high-flown Vincent Price narration (somehow yoking in Thomas de Quincey’s 1820 memoir as source material) and a major role for an ageing midget courtesan (Yvonne Moray). It opens with a long, dully-shot sequence in which a fishing-net-load of abducted Chinese girls (some of their stunts are shot backwards, which is at least weird) are put ashore on that familiar beach seen in most of Roger Corman’s 1950s films and rival Chinese gang factions get into a scrappy melée that climaxes with the apparent death of crusading editor George Wah (Richard Loo) – who has been wielding a tommy gun that looks of far more recent vintage than the turn of the century. Enter Gilbert de Quincey (Price), who might or might not be related to Thomas (he doesn’t say either way), a seafaring man of adventure with a philosophical bent. Price, even before the Poe series really took off, could handle waffly baroque voice-over narration in his sleep, but the sailor-hatted, two-fisted, cheongsam-chasing Gilbert would otherwise seem to be a role more suited to Robert Mitchum or Humphrey Bogart and Price looks fairly ridiculous in fight or smooch scenes.
Chinatown is fenced off thanks to a tong war, and Gilbert murkily investigates Fu Manchu-like mastermind Lin Tang — actually slinky Ruby Low (Linda Ho) — the big figure in the ‘Chinese bride auction’ racket, and it turns out that the heroic Wah is still alive and in disguise working with him. Much of the film takes place in tunnels under Chinatown, where recalcitrant ‘brides’ (including the cheery, chatty midget) are kept in cages to starve to death so they aren’t technically murdered (to avoid subsequent hauntings of their husbands). It climaxes clumsily with multiple unmaskings at the auction (Ruby is given away by her high heels) and Gilbert and Ruby in a death-clinch that involves them literally diving head-first into a sewer to be swept away by a torrent the actors could obviously escape if they wanted to.
Producer-director Zugsmith was at a career crux – he had previously worked at Universal on lasting cult films (The Incredible Shrinking Man, Touch of Evil, High School Confidential) directed by other people (he was also a shady go-between who might well have been responsible for helping DC Comics screw over Superman’s creators), and was now going independent as a producer-director on exploitation movies only a shade less sleazy than, say, Russ Meyer’s efforts (Sex Kittens Go to College, The Private Lives of Adam and Eve, Pyschedelic Sexualis). Here, he might well have decided to make an old-fashioned sex slave picture (hey, they were big in the 1920s – though the frisson there was usually white girls being sold to China, rather than Chinese girls being abused in America) and, seeing how Price’s star was rising in literary horror, thrown in the de Quincey stuff and some irrelevant bits (insistent zooms to a decayed corpse on the beach, skulls floating in the opium dream scene) to copy Corman’s AIP-Price-Poe style (albeit in drab black and white).
In contrast with the comparable British film Terror of the Tongs, which is full of stuck-on eyelids and fake accents, the film at least runs to a selection of good Asian actors in varied roles – only Moray is made up to look oriental (as she says ‘pretty Chinese midget hard to find’), and there’s good work from Philip Ahn, June Kim and Victor Sen Yung (like Richard Loo and Linda Ho, they must have seen their meaty roles here as a refreshing change after endless one-scene bits in mysteries and war films). Also with gaunt English actor Terence de Marney in a creepy little cameo as an addict who bogarts Price’s pipe in the joss-house; this references de Quincey’s actual title (Confessions of an English Opium Eater) even as the actor’s name curiously echoes the author’s (though the character is a smoker, not an Eater). Ubiquitous dwarf Angelo Rossito (the Freaks veteran, and real-life inspiration for the fringe showbiz dwarf character in Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust) gets more than usual to say as the paperboy who announces the tong war. Some of the plot elements seem to have inspired John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China.