THE ARCHIVIST VOLUME XXVI: B-movie Underbellies With Vincent Price and Fred Williamson

by Ryan Lewellen

The Archivist

Welcome to the Archive. Following the infamous “Format Wars” (R.I.P. VHS), a multitude of films found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their admittedly niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Disc On Demand & Streaming service devoted to some of the more idiosyncratic pieces of cinema ever made. Being big fans of the label, we here at Cinapse thought it prudent to establish a column devoted to these unusual gems. Thus “The Archivist” was born — a biweekly look at some of the best, boldest and most batshit motion pictures the Shield has to offer. Some of these will be recent additions to the collection, while others will be titles that have been available for awhile. With over 1,500 pictures procurable on Warner Archive (and more being added every month), there’s no possible way we’ll get to all of them. But trust me when we say we’re sure going to try.

This week marks a return to form for The Archivist. We have two films linked, first and foremost, by two very cool B-movie actors. Ties are also found thematically, as these dark movies study the seedy underbelly linked to the higher class, populated by drug lords, sex workers, bounty hunters and contract killers. Considering the subject matter, both are surprisingly tame, but are also equally entertaining in their intrigue, simplistic visual ingenuity, and visceral restraint. Here comes a true double feature from the dim side of The Warner Archives.


If you’ve read much of my previous contributions to this fine site, you know I have a considerable man-crush on Vincent Price. He produced an enormous body of work, and in my experience, the majority of it was quite good. Loosely adapted from the autobiographical novel by Thomas De Quincey, Confessions is no exception to the high Price quality. Featuring clever low-budget effects, exquisite dialogue (a credit due most certainly to its source material), delightfully appealing characters, and a surprisingly thick plot for its trim length, this creepy movie is well worth your time even if you have no interest in the legendary leading man.

Price is Gilbert De Quincey, an adventurer who becomes embroiled in a war between rival tongs in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Set in the late 19th-century, De Quincey must play many sides of both factions if he is to survive the conflict and find himself ahead in the outcome. The dispute is primarily over women stolen from sex trafficking, and the film’s bleak depiction of the trade generates endless nightmarish images.

Those visual terrors are at their peak during an outrageous opium trip. Price’s character is, as the title suggests, an addict, and after a tormented nap, he wakes, still high and confronted by some tong heavies. Before you realize it, the scene is in syrupy slow motion, and De Quincey makes a daring escape in heart-stopping sluggishness, accompanied by complete silence. Evidently, Director Albert Zugsmith had a few tricks up his sleeve when he approached this film on a tiny budget. This is a very cool movie, full of surprises, both in style and in story.

BLACK EYE (1974)

Also based on a novel, Black Eye follows private detective (see the odd word play in the title?), Shepherd Stone, as he navigates a drug smuggling ring which binds a dead movie star, an antiques collector, a wealthy porn director, and a religious hippie cult; all of whom are further intertwined by a mysterious walking cane. The clever Stone, a former cop (of course), is called upon by his old sergeant, who needs someone free of official rules to investigate the messy situation.

Like Confessions Of An Opium Eater, this film packs a huge story into only 90 minutes, and it, too, boasts some cool images to compliment its slick writing. Williamson’s character is genuinely streetwise, and capable of insinuating himself into any world, either by brute force, or with sly wits. It might not by the footballer-turned-actor’s best performance, and the film might make a few missteps into unnecessary scenes and cheesy tones, but the plot is so involved, one can’t help but stay with it. Mysteries are naturally built for audience fidelity, and the unwholesome setting cements the appeal.

Just as featured in this column’s “A-picture”, Black Eye manages to excite simply by employing smart camera work. There is a brief car chase on some of Venice’s funkier infrastructure, and the effortless placement of the camera in the perfect perspective makes for a very cool sequence. There is also the happy accident of a dog in peril (I say “accident”, because his jeopardized presence really doesn’t seem intentional), which adds to the tension.

If you’re looking for an exciting trip to the dark side of Hollywood’s offshoots, this is a perfect evening of low-budget cinema.

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