(1959) Directed by Roger Corman; Written by Charles B. Griffith; Starring: Dick Miller, Barboura Morris, Antony Carbone, Julian Burton, Judy Bamber, Bert Convy and Bruno VeSota; Available on DVD and Amazon Prime
“What am I going to do next? I gotta do something before they forget. I know what it’s like to be ignored.” – Walter Paisley (Dick Miller)
“In the middle of 1959, when AIP wanted me to make a horror film but had only $50,000 available, I felt it was time to take a risk, do something fairly outrageous. I shot Bucket on only a few sets in five days.” – Roger Corman (excerpt from How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, by Roger Corman, with Jim Jerome)
First, a shout out to the good folks at Olive Films for providing a DVD screener of A Bucket of Blood. Be sure to visit their website, where you can peruse their fine selection of films.
Note: This is an expanded version of a capsule review from the early days of this blog.
Where would American International be without Dick Miller? Roger Corman’s utility player was rarely front and center, but always a welcome presence. Despite limited screen time, he left an indelible impression with his numerous supporting roles. One big exception for Miller was A Bucket of Blood, as the obtuse main character in the first of what Corman dubbed a “trilogy of black comedies,” including Little Shop of Horrors (1960) and Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961).
Walter Paisley (Miller)* works as a lowly busboy in a chic coffee house, The Yellow Door, frequented by an odd assortment of artsy types, critics, collectors and groupies. He aspires to join their self-important ranks, but he doesn’t have the talent or savvy. His luck changes one fateful night when he endeavors and fails to sculpt a bust. At the height of his frustration, he accidentally kills the landlady’s cat, while it’s stuck in the wall. In a moment of demented inspiration, he encases the cat in clay, with the knife still protruding from its side. The next day, his moribund handiwork goes on display in the coffee house, under the appropriate title “Dead Cat.” Much to the chagrin of his skeptical boss Leonard (Antony Carbone), Walter becomes an overnight sensation. His creation is touted as a work of genius, and in the blink of an eye, he transforms from the butt of everyone’s jokes to a revered member of the local art community. His next work of “art” is also born out of unfortunate circumstances, when he unwittingly kills an undercover narcotics officer. Appropriately, the piece is named “Murdered Man.” Feeding off the praise of his newly acquired adoring public and realizing that fame is a fickle beast, Walter feels compelled to create new works in a similar morbid vein.
* Fun Fact: The character name would become a Miller hallmark, subsequently appearing in other movies as a decades-long running gag (including Hollywood Boulevard, The Howling, and Chopping Mall).
In addition to Miller’s standout portrayal of Walter Paisley, A Bucket of Blood boasts some fine supporting performances. Julian Barton* is a hoot as beat poet extraordinaire Maxwell Brock, with an entourage of sycophants hanging on his every word. In a film with consistently snappy dialogue, he delivers some of the film’s best lines. In an early scene, he ridicules Paisley, stating: “Walter has a clear mind. One day something will enter it, feel lonely, and leave again.” As the poster child for pretentious, self-important artists, he proclaims: “I refuse to say anything twice. Repetition is dead.” Barboura Morris is also very good as Carla, the object of Walter’s unrequited affections. She’s the only one who doesn’t mock Walter from the beginning. He becomes infatuated with Carla, misreading her friendly overtures and appreciation for his art as a display of love. Corman regular Bruno VeSota (who seems to be channeling a caricature of Orson Welles) also makes a brief appearance as a wealthy art collector who ups the ante when he offers to purchase additional work from Walter.
* Another Fun Fact: According to Corman, the actor’s feet had swollen to the point where he couldn’t wear dress shoes, so he wore sandals with a suit. Of course, this accidental wardrobe change just enhanced his free-wheeling beatnik appearance.
A Bucket of Blood reveals the capricious side of human nature, and by extension, the art world. At first, Walter is ridiculed as a lowly, no-talent busboy; the next instance, he’s lauded for his realism and keen knowledge of anatomy, embraced as the next artistic prodigy. Leonard, the proprietor of The Yellow Door, doesn’t possess any innate talent. Instead, he surrounds himself with talented people, and basks in the glow of their creations. He’s cynical of Walter’s new inspiration and afraid of what he’s become, but he’s mostly ready to watch him fail. The film also has much to say about self-worth and value. Most artists don’t reside in a bubble, isolated from the rest of the world. The majority need some sort of positive reinforcement from time to time (just watch Twitter and other forms of social media). As much as we strive to distinguish ourselves as individuals, our insecurities frequently hinge on others and we want our egos massaged.
Corman claimed to have shot the film in record time, with limited sets, and made on the cheap. The production certainly looks like it didn’t cost a penny over the impossibly low budget, but that shouldn’t dissuade you from seeking out this clever satire of the art world and beatnik chic. The wonderful, sympathetic performance by Miller as a ne’er-do-well who’s in over his head only raises the question why he didn’t headline more movies. The movie’s basic premise was recycled, to lesser effect, by H.G. Lewis for Color Me Blood Red (1965), but the latter film can’t top Corman’s movie in the witty dialogue department. A Bucket of Blood should dispel any notions that Corman wasn’t a talented filmmaker or capable of producing a quality film,* but a formidable talent who could do more with less.
* If you need any further evidence, look no further than The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), The Intruder (1962), and his “Poe Cycle” (Masque of the Red Death, The Raven, etc…) of films.
Note: The Olive DVD features a nice transfer, but be forewarned, the disc is strictly no frills, sans trailer, commentary, or featurettes. But hey, it’s nice to see this great little flick remain in circulation.