Posted by David Kalat on April 30, 2016
As regular readers here know, I’ve got a thing for documentaries that ruminate on the meaning of “art” and dig into the gray areas of artistic expression. Well, I also like fictional satires on the art world, too—and one of the cleverest, Roger Corman’s gloriously bonkers A Bucket of Blood (1959) is on TCM on Thursday the 5th (set your DVRs).
A Bucket of Blood stars Dick Miller as “Walter Paisley,” lowly busboy in a coffee bar/art gallery. The poor guy is a little slow, and as impressionable as a child. Too bad his biggest influences are self-absorbed young adults preening with affectation: they wear bathrobes and creative facial hair, blather on about organic farming and obscure foodstuffs, constantly projecting an air of bored indifference. They rally around a beatnik poet whose manifesto declares that Art is more important than anything, even the lives of other human beings. And Walter wants nothing more than to be one of them.
The joke is that he wins their accolades and respect only by taking that callous screed literally – he kills people and turns their corpses into Art. That part is familiar – on loan from House of Wax (1953), the film that made Vincent Price a household name just a few years earlier. A Bucket of Blood distinguishes itself not by plot points but by context – let Vincent Price mummify his victims with nary a tongue in cheek, but Dick Miller’s body of work is gloriously absurd.
Walter Paisley makes no particular effort to hide the fact that his “sculptures” are just dead things encased in clay. The art aficionados around him simply assume these pieces are great works of art, and blithely accept Walter’s barely concealed confessions as the quirks of a misunderstood artist. Walter brings in his first piece, “Dead Cat,” with a knife suspiciously stabbed into its side. He is asked why he stuck a knife in it, and he guilelessly replies, “I didn’t meant to.”
It is merely the culture of the place that no one asks follow-up questions. Paisley drags in one poorly disguised murder victim after another, some still dripping blood, all to riotously entertaining raves from the café’s art critics.
The movie itself, in a wonderful stroke of irony, found much the same reception. Roger Corman cranked out the exploitation flick in less than a week, on a dare, to find it hailed as a sharp social satire.
Corman, you see, was a serious artist. Sure, he worked in the indie world’s backwater of quickie exploitation pictures, but that never stopped him taking his work -or himself- seriously. This is a man who studied Freud and used his Vincent Price/Edgar Allan Poe cycle as a platform for his ideas on human psychology. He read important books, was politically active, keen to push boundaries. And he was used to taking a drubbing for making low-budget monster movies-they could be well-made, thoughtful, popular even, and never enjoy mainstream respect simply because they were what they were.
Like Paisley, Corman made what he could out of the materials at hand, turning dross into gold sometimes. Reviewer’s attitudes about “what is art” were a constant frustration for a working filmmaker. Meanwhile, his backers at AIP were just as small-minded when it came to evaluating the aesthetics and merit of his creations-Samuel Z. Arkoff and James Nicholson were notorious for disrespecting the films they handled. Yet, like Paisley’s benefactor Leonard DeSantis, they never let their qualms get in the way of profit-all objections fly out the window when money comes in the door.
In A Bucket of Blood Corman takes his revenge, depicting the whole scene as something ridiculous, amoral, and contemptible.
The project had its origins in exhaustion. Corman had come off of the grueling production of Ski Troop Attack to find his distributors at AIP wanted to know if he could deliver some horror goods for just $50,000 pocket change. Corman needed something quick-n-dirty after that cruel Chicago winter. So he accepted the assignment as a kind of dare: what if he could break his previous record of filming an entire movie in just 6 days?
Whatever he was going to do, then, it would have to be small in scale. As he would later explain in a 1987 interview, this meant approaching the film from a new direction: “You break the tension one way, and it’s horror. You break the tension another way, they laugh.” Horror and comedy were two sides of the same coin. Inspired by his experiment with black comedy in 1957′s Not of This Earth, Corman decided to lean into the satire.
The next step was an all-night coffee bender across Sunset Strip. Corman and writer Chuck Griffith trawled across endless coffee bars, hashing out story ideas. Come the wee hours of the morning and the pair found themselves at Chez Paulette as the staff were closing up. Waitress-cum-wannabe-actress Sally Kellerman took a break from her washing up duties to plunk down in a chair with the two filmmakers, offering up some notions of her own. And thus was A Bucket of Blood born.
Well… this is the official story, at least, a satisfying mythology repeated by Corman whenever the subject of A Bucket of Blood comes up. It is not, however, the only account.
There are those-such as Corman acolyte Joe Dante-who insist Corman didn’t even get the jokes and needed others to explain the humor to him. Chuck Griffith says that when he first suggested making a comedy, Corman said no: “We don’t do comedy,” Corman allegedly explained, “because you have to be good. We don’t have the time or money to be good, so we stick to action.” When Griffith finally persuaded Corman to take the chance, he says Corman fretted nervously about how to even direct such a thing, and relied on Griffith (a vaudeville baby) for advice.
Corman and Griffith each tell the tale in a way that effaces the other and inflates their own role; the truth likely sits somewhere in between. Regardless of whether Corman set out to pioneer a new breed of horror comedy or had it thrust upon him by a canny screenwriter, the fact remains that Corman did at least win his bet. A Bucket of Blood came in at a tidy $35,000 and took just five days—setting a new record, and with time and money still in hand for yet a second film! (which was The Little Shop of Horrors).
Despite the 5-day schedule and absurd budget, the film was a marvel of good filmmaking. Clever directorial flourishes abound. When the beatnik bloviates, “I refuse to say anything twice. Repetition is death,” you can be sure that line will, in fact, be repeated. Later, when Walter accidentally kills the cat and sets the whole drama in motion, he first smacks his head into a hanging lamp: a small piece of slapstick that motivates deeply atmospheric lighting effects for the crucial sequence that immediately unfolds. Alfred Hitchcock would pull much the same stunt in the climax of Psycho that same year.
While making his statue “Murdered Man,” Walter has to hide the body from his inquisitive landlady. She barges into his apartment to find his sofa now mysteriously draped by a sheet. Suspicious about what he might have to hide under that sheet, she yanks it away-to reveal a plain, empty sofa! As we adjust to the startling surprise, the dead man’s arm suddenly drops into view from the top of the frame. It is a perfectly timed and executed fake-out and reveal, the likes of which would fuel countless thrillers like Alien (1979) in the generations to come.
The finale finds Walter hunted by both his enraged public and the ghosts of his victims. Fritz Lang would have been proud (and probably was, come to think of it) to see Corman riffing on the climax of Lang’s 1922 epic Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler. It is a moody and effective chase scene, proof that Corman knew when to spend time and money as well as when to save it.
European critics (especially the French) started to lionize Corman as an important filmmaker. And no sooner did Corman’s reputation grow for his gallows humor and arch thrillers than he switched gears yet again: into glossy, bigger-budgeted adaptations of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. Walter Paisley’s crime was double: not only did he kill for his art, he never saw a way not to. Corman the artist was always evolving, ever imaginative, always one step ahead of everyone else.
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