A Bucket of Blood

(USA - 1959)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Dick Miller, Barboura Morris, Julian Barton, Antony Carbone, Ed Nelson
Genre: Comedy/Horror
Director: Roger Corman
Screenplay: Charles B. Griffith
Cinematography: Jack Marquette
Composer: Fred Katz

"The artist is, all others are not. Let them die, and by their miserable deaths become the clay in his hands that he might mold them into an ashtray or an ark” – Maxwell H. Brock

Roger Corman turns The House of Wax into a wickedly cynical though none too sophisticated satire of beatnik elitism and art world pretension. Awestruck, childishly impressionable, inept busboy Walter Paisley (Dick Miller) has been ignored all his life. Understanding nothing about human interaction, as no one has ever had any desire to pay attention to him, at least not after they spent a minute with this clueless putz, the lone outsider in the coffee shop of hipsters desperately wants to be an artist similar to them. Unfortunately, he lacks a single unique thought, much less the ability to transform his desires into art. His capabilities don’t exceed regurgitation. However, when he accidentally stabs his landlady’s cat trying to cut it out of the wall to shut it up so he can concentrate on the masterpiece he wishes he could mold the clay into, he remembers art is more important than life, and decides to cover the cat with clay, passing it off as his first sculpture, aptly (especially considering Walter’s creativity) titled “Dead Cat”.

A Bucket of Blood is incredibly obvious and telegraphed, but to some extent that’s part of the ironic black comedy. To the club denizens, you are either “aware” or you aren’t, with creating any type of “art” being the defining factor. The Greenwich Village crew readily accept the artistic value of anything, ready to hail its greatness rather than question its quality or integrity. Paisley makes only the feeblest attempts to pass his work off as sculptures, but his words aren’t lent much credence as all the sheep follow the gospel of guru Maxwell H. Brock (Julian Barton), an enthusiastic word spinner who is an obvious caricature of beat poet Allen Ginsberg. Once Brock puts Paisley over, Walter is adored and a new art movement, a “return to realism” is launched.

Writer Charles B. Griffith contests that Corman didn’t even get the jokes to the point he had to have them explained to him. Corman tells an entirely different tale where he’s the father of black comedy, but when you consider Griffith’s script for The Undead was meant to be comical but Corman insisted on shooting it straight, Griffith’s version, which Corman alumni Joe Dante stands by, seems more likely.

Perhaps Corman once again lends a straightness to the comedy in A Bucket of Blood, but if that’s the case, in this instance it’s for the best. Though the beats are parodied, the film plays credibly enough because they aren’t made sitcom ridiculous. Brock actually says a number of interesting (even if they don’t always make sense) things that Barton does a tremendous job of putting over earnestly. They were right about Walter to begin with, becoming more a victim of their own ideology and follower tendencies in accepting the perpetual reject. And Walter’s art actually is good, if you don’t examine it closely enough to realize what lies beneath.

A Bucket of Blood is a metaphor for the movie world, a place where art takes a back seat to profit and is only, suddenly, respected by the suits when they realize people are willing to pay for it. Coffee house owner Leonard de Santis (Antony Carbone) is ready to inform the authorities when he discovers Walter’s methods, but despite realizing Walter has graduated to human subjects, a $500 offer to buy “Dead Cat” sends his morals right out the window.

Producers Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson didn’t care whether A Bucket of Blood was particularly good. Roger Corman took the assignment as a challenge to break his own record of shooting in 6 days, succeeding by 1. Bringing the picture in for $35,000, the cheapness assuring profitability, Corman used the remaining budget and 2 days of shooting time to film The Little Shop of Horrors on a previously used Chaplin Studios set that was about to be torn down.

Best known today as Murray Futterman, the town drunk who stands by American machinery in Joe Dante’s Gremlins, legendary character actor Dick Miller has about the only starring role of his career. Ironically, while Miller steals virtually every scene he’s in his smaller roles, particularly when he works for hilarious satirist Dante, he’s not entirely convincing here and is clearly overshadowed by Barton, who even sells lines such as “life is an obscure hobo, bumming a ride on the omnibus of art.” Nonetheless, all of Corman’s acolytes were highly impressed by Miller’s performance, not only casting him in their films, but in Joe Dante & Allan Arkush’s Hollywood Boulevard, Dante’s The Howling and segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie, and Jim Wynorski’s Chopping Mall his character is named Walter Paisley. In Arkush’s Shake, Rattle, & Rock! Dick is deprived of his unofficial first name, simply billed as Officer Paisley.

Miller certainly succeeds as Paisley, imbuing his character with a sense despair from being beaten down for so long. His obliviousness makes is situation seemingly hopeless, making you feel so bad for his pitiable character. Lonely Walter is mostly concerned with impressing coffee house hostess Carla (Barboura Morris, an acting school classmate of Corman’s who married Monte Hellman), the only person who (ever?) treated him decently before the budding artist in him was released. As the only uncool person in the coffee shot who lives alone in a tiny little cube ruled by a landlady who allows him as much freedom as an inmate, Paisley begins the film as a tragic innocent. His method of finally attaining his needs not only has a huge human cost he’s too clueless to see, but also corrupts him. As the capper, despite his newfound popularity this maladroit character remains too clueless to leverage it into satisfying himself.


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