Saturday, October 13, 2018

A Bucket of Blood

(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

Rating: ****

“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.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Prince of Darkness

(1987) Directed by John Carpenter; Written by Martin Quatermass (aka: John Carpenter); Starring: Donald Pleasence, Jameson Parker, Lisa Blount,Victor Wong, Dennis Dun, Alice Cooper, Susan Blanchard and Peter Jason; Available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Rating: ***½

“Rarely does a horror film try out new ideas, new ways of saying things. None so much as the problems today in horror movies, where a lot of derivative stuff is very popular, but boy have I seen that stuff. So, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to do a movie that just caused you a lot of unease and dread.” – John Carpenter (from the featurette “Sympathy for the Devil – An Interview with John Carpenter”)

In the prolific period of the mid-70s through the ‘80s, John Carpenter created several films that are widely regarded as genre classics. While some titles were embraced by audiences and critics, other took a longer road to gaining acceptance. The Thing (1982) and The Fog (1979) didn’t fare well during their initial release, but are now considered fan favorites. In a similar vein, Prince of Darkness (1987) received a chilly reception from critics, and was largely ignored by audiences, but has enjoyed a second life on home video. Admittedly, my first impression of the film wasn’t positive, but I felt there was enough to warrant a second look, years later, which eventually prompted yet another viewing for this review.

In his entertaining and informative DVD commentary, Carpenter stated he enjoys employing elements from German expressionism, slowing things down a bit, and allowing the scene to play out. Compared to the quick-cut scares prevalent in many other modern horror flicks, his approach is antithetical. Carpenter also noted that he makes two kinds of films: the “journey” film (such as Escape from New York) and the “siege” film (Assault on Precinct 13, The Fog). Prince of Darkness falls squarely into the latter category, with most of the action occurring inside a cathedral plagued by malevolent forces. He cited several sources of inspiration for his meditation on evil, including the Hammer vampire movies, the Quatermass films and BBC TV programs from the ‘50s and ‘60s (Carpenter adopted the pseudonym “Martin Quatermass” for the screenplay), and the novel Timescape by Gregory Benford. Shot for the modest sum of $3 million, and within a 30-day shooting schedule, Carpenter filmed on the campus of USC (his alma mater), an abandoned church in Los Angeles, and a crumbling old resort in nearby Long Beach.

Carpenter goes out on a shaky limb for the basic premise of Prince of Darkness. An ancient evil (the remains of the son of an anti-God), locked inside a giant glass cannister containing a swirling green vortex of evil primordial goop,* has been housed in the cellar of an urban cathedral for ages. The Brotherhood of Sleep, an elite sect of priests, who are sworn to secrecy, have watched over it for centuries. Donald Pleasence portrays the latest keyholder, known only as “Priest,” who’s entrusted with the unholy relic locked away in the church basement. When his faith fails to provide all the answers, he seeks help from a team of physicists, led by Professor Howard Birack (Victor Wong), to uncover the mystery of the strange phenomena occurring around the cylindrical vessel. Carpenter toys with the concept of quantum mechanics as it relates to evil as a measurable property, existing on the subatomic level.

* This would be an easy opportunity to make a cheap shot about green fitness drinks being the work of the devil, or some such rot, but I’ll leave it to you to insert your own joke here.

As would befit a story about evil unleashed, Prince of Darkness is filled with disturbing imagery and music. Several characters experience a recurring, invasive vision* during their sleep, transmitted from an apocalyptic near-future. The hazy, dream-image suggests more than it shows – the key to great horror. When one of Prof. Birack’s grad students, Kelly (Susan Blanchard), becomes infected by the green liquid, she undergoes a terrifying physical and spiritual transformation, becoming a conduit between worlds. ** In one of the most disturbing moments from any Carpenter film, one character’s insect-riddled corpse becomes the mouthpiece for evil (the single scene that prompted me to re-evaluate the film). Carpenter’s effective minimalist score (which he describes as “underscoring,”) maintains an atmosphere of dread throughout, without telegraphing every action and emotion.  

* Fun Fact #1: To create the surreal, otherworldly look of the message from the future, Carpenter first shot the sequence on video, then filmed it from a TV set. The end result looks appropriately dreamlike (or nightmarish), by appearing several generations away from the original image.

** Fun Fact #2: In a scene depicting Kelly’s arm crossing through a mirror (into Hell?), Carpenter and crew used mercury drained from the base of a crane.

Because this is primarily an ensemble film, Carpenter populates his film with a host of quirky characters. Pleasence plays his role with conviction, as a tortured soul coming to grips with a terrible secret (compare to Hal Holbrook’s priest in The Fog). Victor Wong and Dennis Dun (both from the previous year’s Big Trouble in Little China) are excellent as Birack and his wise-cracking student Walter, respectively. The weakest characters are Walter’s fellow students Brian and Cathy, played by Jameson Parker and Lisa Blount, who hook up, but appear to have no chemistry together (Brian describes himself as “sexist,” which somehow doesn’t become an instant turnoff for Cathy). A mute Alice Cooper, credited in the film as “Street Schizo,* leads a band of possessed homeless people. They’re obviously a tool for evil, but to what purpose? And when the proverbial poop hits the fan, where is everyone else on the streets? As the situation outside intensifies, and the people essentially become prisoners within the church due to the homicidal derelicts, why doesn’t anyone call the police?

* Fun Fact #3: Cooper brought along a stunt prop from his concerts, which simulated a bloody impalement, one of the more jarring sequences in the movie.

John Carpenter’s films have a habit of creeping under your skin, and Prince of Darkness is no exception. For some, the ability to enjoy the film may depend on a healthy suspension of disbelief and a boundless capacity for ambiguity. Carpenter raises many questions, but provides few answers, and for all its genuinely creepy moments, the whole is less than the sum of its parts. At times, it seems like a rough sketch, rather than a fleshed-out movie, but what Prince of Darkness does right, it does very well. Carpenter sustains a pervasive sense of dread and unease throughout, daring to go where few films have gone. It may be far from a perfect film, but it excels as an apocalyptic mood piece, light on logic but heavy on atmosphere. Just don’t strain yourself thinking about the whys or hows.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

September Quick Picks and Pans

Patch Town (2014) In this imaginative low budget fantasy from director/co-writer Craig Goodwill (based on his short film from 2011), people born from cabbages are transformed into dolls (due to probably copyright infringement, Cabbage Patch Kids are never expressly mentioned, but the comparison is unmistakable). When their owners tire of them, they go back to their factory of origin, where the dolls are transformed back into people, as laborers for an oppressive, totalitarian corporation, led by Yuri (Julian Richings). Jon (Rob Ramsay) remembers his past as a little girl’s doll, plotting his escape in a quest to find her again. He’s joined by Sly (Suresh John), his wife Mary (Stephanie Pitsiladis), and their adopted baby daughter. Goodwill blends fairy tale elements, music, and dystopian themes to create a one-of-a-kind experience. I’m not sure who’s the intended audience, but I admired the effort to make something that’s obviously not by committee.  

Rating: 3 ½ stars. Available on DVD and Amazon Prime

Big Bad Mama (1974) Angie Dickinson stars in this Roger Corman-produced/Steve Carver-directed Depression-era action/comedy as Wilma McClatchie. Along with her two daughters, she embarks on a crime spree from East Texas (which looks suspiciously like Southern California) to Southern California. She’s joined by bank robber Fred Diller (Tom Skerritt) and William J. Baxter (William Shatner), an oily con man (Shatner reminds us of two things he should never attempt: Southern accents or sex scenes). It’s a good-natured drive-in fare that never takes itself too seriously. Filled with ample amounts of sex, action and comedy, Big Bad Mama delivers on its modest aims. Since it’s a Corman production, watch for some of his regulars, including Dick Miller and Paul Bartel.

Rating: 3 stars. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Into the Night (1985) John Landis’ comedy/intrigue hybrid is short on laughs or thrills, but it has its moments. Jeff Goldblum plays Ed Okin, an aerospace engineer with insomnia and an existential crisis. He goes on a late-night drive to get away from his cheating wife, and crosses paths with Diana (Michelle Pfeiffer), a young woman with a shady past. In true femme fatale fashion, she’s on the run, with stolen emeralds in tow. Ed unwisely chooses to help her out, and becomes entangled with the same people who aim to kill her (including a ruthless killer, played by David Bowie). Into the Night’s greatest claim to fame is the amazing number of cameos (Landis must have phoned everyone he knew in the business), including famous directors and industry professionals (Roger Vadim, Rick Baker and Jim Henson – the list goes on). Unfortunately, the numerous appearances only serve to reveal the film’s biggest weakness; the material is stretched too thin, without enough story to sustain momentum over its nearly two-hour runtime. Between the cameos and the continuous gallery of memorable L.A. locations, there’s enough to keep the viewer somewhat occupied, but given the assembly of talent, it could have been so much better.

Rating: 3 stars. Available on DVD

Liquid Sky (1982) Tiny invisible aliens in a tiny flying saucer arrive in New York City, and set up base on top of a penthouse apartment. They watch over Margaret, played by Ann Carlisle, who appears in a second role as Jimmy, a junkie fashion model. There’s also a German scientist (Otto von Wernherr) tracking the aliens, who reminded me vaguely of Werner Herzog. Meanwhile, anyone who attempts to have sex with Margaret dies, courtesy of the aliens that feed off endogenous opiates in her brain. The film is a brightly colored, incoherent, plotless mess. It seems to be saying something about the New York art scene, but what it is, I have no idea.

Rating: 2 ½ stars. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime