For fans of older films, the Warner Archive Collection has been quite a godsend since its inception in 2009. Films released as part of the collection are manufactured on demand, allowing Warner to offer a wide selection of vintage films that don’t have great enough widespread appeal to justify a full-fledged release. A trio of dark-themed films, each starring a different horror icon, has recently been added to the roster.
The Sorcerers is a 1967 sci-fi thriller directed by Michael Reeves, the second of three he helmed before his untimely death in 1969 at age 25. The film comes off like an extended Twilight Zone episode. Boris Karloff stars as Professor Marcus Monserrat, creator of a bizarre device that makes mind control possible. Not only can the operator of the machine control a subject’s mind, they also share the person’s senses.
Marcus and his wife, Estelle (Catherine Lacey), live in poverty in a rundown apartment. Once at the top of his profession as a hypnotherapist, Marcus now seeks a volunteer in order to test out his new, unproven creation. This could, after all, be a cash cow if it works—a fact seemingly not lost on Estelle. A test subject arrives in the form of Mike (Ian Ogilvy), a young man with nothing better to do than help the professor and his wife try out their gear. The psychedelic sequence in which the equipment is tested, mostly involving multi-colored lights and reel-to-reel tape decks, is hilariously antiquated.
Also rather laughable is the fact that, once Mike has been released from the machine, Marcus and Estelle don’t need any electrodes or sensors hooked to themselves in order to experience the third-party sensations. They just sit there marveling at how realistically they can feel the pool water as Mike goes swimming, for instance. Before long, the Monserrats are using their creation for no good. It’s Estelle who acquires the strongest taste for the vicarious thrill of compelling someone else to commit murder.
Some of the ideas put forth in The Sorcerers, such as feeling other people’s feelings, and living through the eyes of another, would be later explored to better effect in films as varied as Brainstorm (1983), Strange Days (1995), and Being John Malkovich (1999). For its time, The Sorcerers was an interesting idea, but its execution is dull and far too unimaginative to hold up as anything more than a curiosity. This was one of Karloff’s final films. He would be gone only two years later, nine days before director Reeves passed.
The Face of Fu Manchu stars Christopher Lee as the Chinese title character. You’ll note that Lee is not Asian, but that didn’t stop producers Harry Alan Towers and Oliver A. Unger from making him up to look like he kinda/sorta is. I’ve seen it argued that, since this was a different era, the non-P.C. casting shouldn’t be frowned upon too much. That’s ridiculous. Casting a Caucasian actor to play a Chinese character isn’t any more acceptable than putting a white guy in blackface. Yes, it was 1965 and times were different. It’s still tacky and tasteless. Even if you can get past that, the film’s entertainment value is questionable.
Sax Rohmer’s criminal mastermind Fu Manchu was made famous on film by Boris Karloff in 1932 with The Mask of Fu Manchu. Christopher Lee would handle the role in five ‘60s big screen adventures, The Face of being the first. The story itself offers little to get excited about. Opening with the apparent execution of Fu Manchu, witnessed by his adversary Denis Nayland Smith (Nigel Green), director Don Sharp quickly turns this into a James Bond-esque caper. Smith doesn’t take long to determine that Fu Manchu is not only alive and well, but (with the forced assistance of kidnapped Professor Muller) working on unleashing a toxic substance that has the potential to threaten all of humanity. Stiffly-staged car chases and other “action” sequences follow as Smith attempts to stop the dastardly villain.
Also wearing the racist attitudes of the era on its sleeve is Confessions of an Opium Eater, originally released in 1962. Vincent Price stars as Gilbert De Quincey, a mercenary who becomes embroiled in the world of human trafficking in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the early 20th century. The Chinese characters are all saddled with offensively stilted, occasionally fortune cookie-like broken English. At the very least, almost all of the Chinese characters are portrayed by Asian actors. I’m not so sure about the little person Gilbert somehow mistakes as a child. This small woman (played engagingly by the quite obviously middle-aged Yvonne Moray) helps guide Gilbert through a labyrinthine building as he attempts to free young women who’s being sold into slavery.
Confessions of an Opium Eater is easily the most fascinating and involving of these new Warner Archive releases. Sometimes referred to as a horror film, Opium Eater is actually more of a surrealist thriller. Though the plot is threadbare, director Albert Zugsmith piles on bizarre element after bizarre element. The most celebrated sequence involves Gilert’s opium-induced hallucinations. Playing out in slow motion, entirely silent at first, this is a visually arresting set piece that simply needs to be seen to be fully appreciated. Price underplays his role, apparently releasing that the real attraction of this film is the nonstop barrage of trippy imagery.
Warner Archive’s DVD presentation of these three films defines simplicity. No special features, not even trailers, accompany the films. There is a static menu page with a “play movie” icon to click. Make no mistake, Warner hasn’t invested in a restoration for any of these cult films. The worst looking of the three is the dirty, scratchy The Sorcerers. The Face of Fu Manchu and Confessions of an Opium Eater look far better, though neither was sourced from an especially clean print. Opium Eater’s black-and-white cinematography (by Joseph F. Biroc) looks quite rich, making it not only the best of the three films in terms of content, but also the most pleasant to look at.