Sunday, June 19, 2011

Roger Corman Blogathon: A Bucket of Blood (1959)

This essay is Thrilling Days of Yesteryear’s contribution to the Roger Corman Blogathon, which is being sponsored by and is currently underway at Nathanael Hood’s Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear from June 17-19.

When writer-director-producer Roger Corman—known to film buffs and fanatics as “The Pope of Pop Cinema”—was paid tribute with honorary recognition at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Governor’s Awards in November 2009, I’m sure I was but one of many who was thrilled that the legendary B-movie filmmaker was finally getting his due.  Roger was a master of making entertaining (and very, very profitable) movies on the skimpiest of budgets—it was once joked that “Corman could negotiate the production of a film on a pay phone, shoot the film in the booth, and finance it with the money in the change slot.”

I remember at the time of the announcement that there were a few dissenters in the crowd—one critic acknowledged that while Corman played a significant role in furthering the careers of filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Peter Bogdanovich, it didn’t excuse the fact that Rog made “lousy movies.”  This individual, who was not only wrong but wrong at the top of his lungs, glossed over the fact that Corman was chiefly responsible for bringing to the U.S. a lot of the artsy-fartsy foreign films the critic no doubt rhapsodized over through the distribution arm of Corman’s New World Pictures.  The man who helmed drive-in fare like Attack of the Crab Monsters (1957) and Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961) never harbored any delusions that he was making great art, but many of the entries in his catalog—in particular the horror films loosely based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe he helmed in the 1960s—are every bit as good as those “serious” filmmakers.

As a budding couch potato, it was not uncommon for me to while away my carefree youthful hours staring at Chiller Theater on Saturday nights (particularly when the ‘rents were out for the evening) where I caught many a Corman flick, notably favorites like Day the World Ended (1955),  The Undead (1957) and The Wasp Woman (1959).  A particular standout in Rog’s voluminous cinematic oeuvre is A Bucket of Blood (1959), a film that has attained cult status among cineastes and is infamously known for its miniscule budget ($50,000) and lightning-quick shooting schedule (five days…and Corman was soon to make movies even faster than this).  Roger says in his autobiography (How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime) that with Blood he invented the genre known as “black comedy”…and while this is certainly a bit of an exaggeration (productions like Arsenic and Old Lace and Murder, He Says predate it by about fifteen years) it’s nevertheless a splendid example of successfully blending horror elements with deadpan comedy.

Lowly busboy Walter Paisley (Dick Miller) works at a coffeehouse known as The Yellow Door, and though he’s a likable little nebbish his main function (aside from bussing tables and serving up espresso) seems to be that of doormat to the Door’s Bohemian patrons and especially its proprietor, Leonard de Santis (Antony Carbone).  Walter has aspirations of becoming a sculptor, and after being inspired by the verse of beatnik poet Maxwell H. Brock (Julian Burton), he returns to his squalid apartment to attempt fashioning a clay likeness of the Yellow Door’s hostess Carla (Barboura Morris), the only individual who treats him with kindness and respect.  Frustrated by the fact that he has no talent or aptitude for art, he hears his landlady’s cat meowing plaintively within his apartment wall…and using a knife to cut through the plaster and rescue the feline (Warning—you cat devotees in the audience might want to go out to the kitchen for a snack…)…

  …well, that could happen to anybody.  But even though Walter is devoid of artistic ability he’s still a resourceful little mook, and he covers the deceased animal with clay in order to create a statue he brilliantly calls “Dead Cat.”  Carla is impressed with Walter’s flair with modeling clay and even though de Santis isn’t quite as enthusiastic he agrees to display Walter’s morbid work in the coffeehouse.

“Dead Cat” proves to be a hit with the café’s clientele, and Walter soon finds himself the object of admiration…even acquiring a groupie named Naolia (Jhean Burton), who bestows upon him a vial of heroin as a tribute to his genius.  Unfortunately for Mr. Paisley, that tribute is also a felony in the state where he resides…and an undercover cop named Lou Raby (future game host Bert Convy, billed as “Burt”), having witnessed the transaction, is prepared to book poor Walt for possession.  In a moment of panic, and terrified that Raby has pulled a gun on him, Walter cleaves Lou’s cranium with a gi-normous frying pan and stashes the corpse in the rafters when landlady Mrs. Swickert (Myrtle Vail), channeling her inner Gladys Kravitz, pays Walter a surprise visit and scolds him about the state of his living quarters…

Walter’s had to put a sauce pan on the floor to catch the blood dripping from the dead Raby, which sort of makes you wonder why the film isn’t called Saucepan of Blood (though its working title was The Living Dead).  “I didn't mean to hurt you, Lou," wails an apologetic Walter to the croaked cop. “But if you'd have shot me, you'd be moppin' up my blood now…”

Tooling around the coffeehouse, boss de Santis carelessly knocks over “Dead Cat” from its stand and upon picking it up from the floor discovers…

…that Walter took a few shortcuts in fashioning his masterpiece.  So when Walter invites de Santis and Carla back to his place to see his latest creation in clay, “Murdered Man”:

…de Santis starts to get a little ill.  (Personally, I think he should have titled the piece “Elegy for a Tattletale.”  Get it?  Bert was a narc but he was also the host of…well, it was funny in the first draft, anyway…)  De Santis wants to do the right thing and inform the authorities that Walter’s gone psycho, but when an art collector (Bruno VeSota) offers $500 for “Dead Cat” de Santis figures “What’s the worse that could happen?”

De Santis gives Walter a little walking-around money (to scotch Carla’s idea of giving the aspiring artist a “show” to display his unorthodox works) and Paisley starts to become the picture of sophistication as many of the Yellow Door’s patrons (particularly poet Brock) begin to treat him with fervent awe and respect (“Bring me a cappuccino, and a piece of papaya cheesecake... and, uh, and a bottle of Yugoslavian white wine…” commands a beret-wearing, “Zen stick”-carrying Walter to a Yellow Door waitress.).  When a snooty model named Alice (Judy Bamber) responds to Walter’s newly-acquired self-esteem with scorn and derision, Walter actively seeks her out at her apartment and asks her to pose for a statue he’s making.  (A poor career move on her part, as we will soon discover to our horror.)  At Casa del Paisley, Alice looks at the clay on Walter’s table and observes: “That doesn’t look like very much clay.”  “Oh, it’s enough,” Walter responds, as he wraps a scarf around his hands and…

…oh, such delicious irony…because Alice was a real pain in the neck.  (Testing…is this thing on?)  The next morning, Walter turns up at Brock’s digs, wanting to show off his latest work…which is, of course, the clay-covered corpse of the unfortunate Alice.  Walter’s stature among the coffeehouse’s creative element begins to grow by leaps and bounds, with Brock throwing him a party in his honor and composing a poem as tribute (“Alley cats and garbage cans and steaming pavements and you and I and the nude descending the staircase and all such things with souls—we know that Walter Paisley’s born!”).  Drunk with both wine and the adulation/acceptance of his peers, Paisley staggers homeward and an encounter with a furniture factory worker…

…leads to another genuine Paisley.  De Santis, realizing that he’s definitely going to have to put a stop to Walter’s hobby, decides to host that gallery showing he promised at the Yellow Door in an effort to dispose of the “bodies”…and it is during the show that Walter gets some alone time with Carla as his crush on the woman has blossomed to full-blown obsession after receiving an innocent kiss from her at the unveiling of Alice.  Carla spurns Walter’s advances, and mortified by this he offers to create a statue of her.  But when Carla learns the horrible truth about her admirer’s work…

…she hauls ass and elbows out of the Yellow Door, Walter hot on her trail.  Paisley then finds himself distracted by the disembodied voices of Lou and Alice and returns to his apartment…where the results of his successful suicide by hanging is witnessed by Carla, de Santis, Brock and the police.  Brock proclaims that Walter’s hanging could be “his greatest work.”

American International Pictures—the movie production company founded by James H. Nicholson and Samuel Z. Arkoff that specialized in cheap, profitable drive-in fodder—approached Roger Corman in mid-1959 about making a movie for them but could only offer Rog $50,000 and a five-day shooting schedule.  So Corman, in collaboration with scriptwriter Charles B. Griffith, decided to create a horror film that would also satirize the beatnik culture movement prevalent in California at that time.  Corman and Griffith borrowed many elements from the 1933 horror classic Mystery of the Wax Museum and its 1953 remake House of Wax for A Bucket of Blood’s plot, filling in the necessary background of the “beat” atmosphere by conducting research at various coffeehouses located along the Sunset Strip.

The collaboration between Corman and Griffith was a good one; Blood is considered one of Roger’s best films and the two men would re-team on a movie that Corman filmed in even faster time (two-and-a-half days) and on a tinier shoestring budget ($30,000): The Little Shop of Horrors (1960).  (Even though Blood did very well at the box office, Corman had to be persuaded into doing another comedy-horror film.)

One of the reasons I’ve never been part of the Little Shop of Horrors cult is that while I admire the wit and performances in the picture, the low-budget really hurts the movie…particularly at the end when “Audrey, Jr.” blooms.  Dick Miller, the star of Bucket of Blood (he’s also in Horrors, as the guy on the flower diet), has expressed a similar disappointment with Blood because the tight shooting schedule and depleted budget hurt the movie in a couple of areas—they had to use mannequins for Walter’s “statues,” for example.  I actually think the mannequins work because there’s a sort of abstractness to them; the picture only really suffers in the final shot where we find Walter (bad pun alert) at the end of his rope because he was originally supposed to be encased in clay (like his sculptures) and they cheaped out by using gray makeup instead.  (Though I suppose if you stopped to think about it—how could Walter both hang himself and preserve the moment in clay all by his lonesome?)

Miller was a member of Roger Corman’s “stock company,” having appeared in such earlier Corman opuses as It Conquered the World (1956) and Rock All Night (1957)…but Bucket of Blood marks one of the very few occasions that Miller received top billing.  His Walter Paisley is a sympathetic little dweeb—you can’t help but feel sorry for him in the movie’s opening scenes when he’s pretty much the guy on which everyone wipes their feet…but later in the film, when he’s finally getting some long overdue respect, the audience is torn between sympathy for Walter’s desperate clinging to fame (particularly his interaction with Alice, who is obnoxious to the extreme) and revulsion over his burgeoning career as a serial killer.  The name “Walter Paisley” would later be adopted as the handle for many of the characters Miller would play in future movies, notably  Hollywood Boulevard (1976) but also including The Howling (1981), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) and Chopping Mall (1986).  (He also plays “Officer Paisley” in the 1994 remake of Shake, Rattle and Rock.)  Dick is, of course, a longtime TDOY fave and he’s got some really funny moments in Blood…my favorite being when he arrives at Brock’s apartment with the sculpture of Alice and he’s asked if he’d like some breakfast:

PAISLEY: What're ya' havin’?
BROCK: Some soy and wheat germ pancakes…organic guava nectar…calcium lactate and tomato juice…and garbanzo omelettes sprinkled with smoked yeast…join us?
PAISLEY (with no hesitation): No thanks...sounds great, though!

Another rib-tickler occurs during a conversation with narc Convy, who’s stopped by the House of Paisley after seeing Walter’s groupie slip him a vial of heroin:

PAISLEY: I was just makin’ some pancakes…you can have some if you like…did you see my cat?
RABY: Yeah, I saw your cat… (Holding up the vial) I also saw that chick lay these on you…
PAISLEY: Oh, that was Naolia…she’s a nice girl…she’s kinda strange, though… (Raby is sniffing the vial’s contents) I guess she figures I get headaches or somethin’…
RABY: Okay, Walter—who’s your connection?
PAISLEY: Connection?
RABY: Yeah, connection…who do you score from?  Where do you buy your horse?
RABY: Horse…junk…white stuff…heroin
PAISLEY: Is that what that is?  I never seen any of that stuff before…I always thought it was expensive…
RABY: Yeah, Walter…it can be real expensive…
PAISLEY: Gee…well, wasn’t that nice of Naolia to give me that expensive horse…

Miller and Convy are probably the two most recognizable personages in Bucket of Blood, unless you count character actor veteran Ed Nelson (and I will)…who was in scads of films and episodes of TV series but is probably best known for his long-running gig as Michael Rossi on TV’s Peyton Place (he also did time as Senator Mark Denning on CBS’ daytime soaper Capitol).  For the record, I do not know why Ed is dressed as a pimp for most of this movie…

…but he’s supposed to be working undercover in the same capacity as Convy’s character, and I guess he thought that coffeehouses were a hanging place for working-class macks and the women in their employ.  Ed does have a funny response when Miller asks him if he’s seen his cat (sculpture): “Whatsa matter, did you lose him?”

As much a fan I am of Corman’s movies, I should probably touch upon a theme that has been discussed in other essays offered up in the blogathon…and that is, to be honest, the female characters in Rog’s films aren’t the most inspiring of role models.  Most of the time, as in the case of Barbara Steele in Pit and the Pendulum (1961) or Hazel Court in The Raven (1963), they’re just pure dagnasty evil.  Here in Blood, you have the main character of Carla, who’s fairly bland and just seems to exist so Walter has someone to set his sights on, and the minor character of Naolia, who comes across as a bit of a nympho.  And then there’s the luckless Alice, whose dialogue is written in fluent bitch-ese and though she’s supposed to be a model she makes certain to introduce herself to Mr. Paisley by saying: “I only charge $25 an hour…would you like to do me?”  I think Corman’s attitude on women can be summed up in this movie by a telling exchange between Walter and his landlady; she opines that what he needs is female companionship: “She doesn’t have to be pretty—just as long as she takes good care of you.”

Bucket of Blood is pretty much Dick Miller’s show the whole way…the only person who comes close to stealing the film from him is Julian Burton, who has some rich moments as the imperious, full-of-himself poet Maxwell Brock (“I am proud to say my poetry is only understood by that minority which is aware”).  The story goes that Burton wrote his own poetry in a parody of beat verse, notably the stirring sentiments that are recited over the film’s opening credits: “Life is an obscure hobo bumming a ride on the omnibus of art…”

Because A Bucket of Blood has slipped into the public domain, it has been released by a number of companies in various home video forms (VHS, DVD, etc.) even though MGM/UA put out an official DVD release in 2000 (having acquired the Orion catalog, which included many of the feature films released by AIP).  This disc, however, contained a pan-and-scan version of the film…but a widescreen version was made available seven years later with the release of The Roger Corman Collection.  (Most of the screen captures used in this essay came from last Halloween’s showing on TCM, since I only have the p&s DVD.).

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Nathanael Hood said...

Great job, Ivan!

I have to agree with you...I think that I like this film more than "Little Shop of Horrors." It's more focused and...well....funnier. It brims with witty satire and black humor that was WAY ahead of its time.

I have to say that I was very pleased with your review. I like how you actually incorporated movie stills into your review instead of just relying on them as visual aids. It was refreshing and enjoyable.

I want to personally thank you for participating in this blogathon! It was a real treat reading about this great film. Now that I've stumbled onto your incredible blog, I hope that I will get to read more great reviews written by you in the future!

Also, don't forget to vote on the topic for the next blogathon by voting at the poll on the front page of my blog. Additionally, don't forget to vote for the Readers' Choice Award on Monday!

twentyfourframes said...


One of your best and that is saying something. I love this film, the entire premise of the beatnik, coffee house scene, which was still a current thing in the more bohemian parts like Greenwich Village and San Francisco, along with the dark humor is brilliantly portrayed. I do think some credit must be given to screenwriter Charles Griffith, who also wrote "A Bucket of Blood" among other Corman films. Of course, as you mention, the component of killing people and turning them into "art" sculptures has been done before but Corman and Griffith do a nice twist with the dark humor and Dick Miller is a low budget treasure!

John Greco

S. M. Rana said...

I enjoyed your review which is half as good as seeing the movie since you have painted the gruesome parts authentically. I think a movie maker who makes no pretensions and delivers what he promises deserves to be applauded.

Thomas Duke said...

Call me crazy (and many have), but I think the remake (aka The Death Artist) is about as good as the original (maybe a hair below), applying the original's satirical bent to nineties culture.

I also prefer Bucket to Little Shop, mainly because I think it's funnier. It's also a great example of how B-movies could contain biting satire of then current culture in ways A budget Hollywood didn't.

Page said...

I rented this movie with friends during my college days and as we walked around the video store looking for old scary B movies the title jumped out at one of our gorefest fans. Boy, was he disappointed while I was relieved. Oh, and one of our female viewers was so disturbed by the stuffed cat that seeing those screen grabs has given me a chuckle at just how bizarre the whole situation was.

Like most of Corman's films it isn't scary but cheesy fun. I loved it and every time I think of the film today I think of that beatnik song that plays during The Odd Couple when Lemmon shows up at the strip joint. (It's going to be in my head all day again)

I liked this film and I thought Miller was perfect as Walter. Your behind the scenes back story made a great review even better for me.

You've written a thoroughly enjoyable review of a film that has great memories for me Ivan. I'm glad you signed up for the Blogathon.

Classic Film and TV Cafe said...

Ivan, this was a wonderful in-depth review of a true cult classic (the term is overused, but BUCKET certainly qualifies). Though I'm typically not a Dick Miller fan, he's quite good in this film. But what I enjoy most about BUCKET is its far-out portrait of the beatnik subculture. As you pointed out, the premise was borrowed from prior WAX MUSEUM films, so it's the setting and the offbeat humor that make it all work. I don't know why people both remaking one-of-a-kind movies like this. The only reason the LITTLE SHOP remake was a success was because it was a musical, not a copy of the original.

ClassicBecky said...

Ivan, it's been a long time since I've seen Bucket of Blood, but I remember having a blast with it. I know House of Wax by heart, so I could see the similarities done in such a hilarious way. The little nerd's path to fame all started by a dead cat in a wall -- boy, being in the right place at the right time means everything! LOL!

Your history about Corman, the snobby critiques of his work, his "regulars", all of that was really an interesting read. Your great sense of humor doesn't hurt either...I liked "Hello, is this on?"

Really good piece of writing, Ivan! Kudos!

Rachel said...

Even by your high standards, Ivan, this was a great review. Informative, intelligent, and well-written. You give us a lot of information, but it never gets dry. I agree that this film is the better black comedy, in comparison to Little Shop of Horrors.

DorianTB said...

Ivan, I totally enjoyed your combination of cheeky review and stand-up comic humor in your BUCKET OF BLOOD review! The captured stills and cartoon vignettes in the movie ad you included worked nicely, and it sounds like the film did a great job of satirizing beatnik culture and pomposity. :-) I've never had the opportunity to see BUCKET OF BLOOD myself, but I'll sure keep an eye out for it.

Kevyn Knox said...

Great review. I like your tongue-in-cheek way of description. This is a film I have yet to see (even though a DVD of it sits within arms reach right this very moment) but after your fine fine review, I must put it much much higher on my to-watch list - perhaps even tonight.

Stacia said...

Great stuff, Ivan! I haven't seen this yet, only the first few minutes, so I didn't read the exciting finale... although I don't think the ending will surprise me. Just a hunch.

Dick Miller is one of my favorite B-movie actors. We have a politician in town by the same name, and I used to cheer him on because of the name similarity until he did something stupid.

Julian Burton was a hoot. I hope he shows up more than just at the beginning.

fiftieswesterns said...

Great post.

Took me a while to track this one down as a kid — long before DVD — so I'd read all about it before actually seeing it. That's usually a bad way to come at a film, since it so often disappoints. This one, however, did not.

Much prefer this to Little Shop Of Horrors, mainly due to Dick Miller. He really carries this movie, and somehow stays likable as he does some really terrible things.

Nice post, Ivan.

W.B. Kelso said...

Put me in the Bucket of Blood over Little Shop of Horrors, too. I know Corman produced another flick that stuck it to the beats, Blood Bath, that threw an actual vampire into the mix.

Ratravarman said...

I reviewed ABOB for Turner Classic Movies, and Wikipedia. Truly, it stands the test of time as one of the most influential films most never heard of. Among those who have cited its influence have been such as Pedro Almódovar and the Bros. Coen. It was quite stylish in using music as a narrative device and was one of those pre-grindhouse gems that used atmosphere and implications in place of graphic gore and violence. It's also a great time capsule; one can practically smell the cigarettes and espresso in the Yellow Door cafe. The dialogue is classic in its use of gallows humor and the pop cultural references that pre-date the writing typical of an early John Hughes film. Truly an original where comedy, tragedy, art, sex, and death combine!