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A Bucket of Blood

A Bucket of Blood(1959)

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A Bucket of Blood (1959)

"Let's talk about art."

These are the opening words to A Bucket of Blood (1959), a venomous satire on the pretensions of the art world.

Walter Paisley (Dick Miller, never better) is a busboy in "The Yellow Door," a coffee bar/art gallery. The poor guy is a little slow, and as impressionable as a child. Too bad his biggest influences are these 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 beatnik poet Maxwell Brock (Julian Burton), 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 Brock's callous screed literally - Walter 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 Yellow Door'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, contemptible. "When a critic wrote that the art world [in the film] was a metaphor for the movie world," says Corman, "I didn't deny it."

This he does in a 5-day wonder that is a marvel of good filmmaking. Clever directorial flourishes abound. When Brock 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.

Dick Miller might disagree. "If they'd had more money to put into the production," he told film historian Beverly Gray, "if we didn't have to shoot the last scene with me hanging with just some gray makeup on because they didn't have time to put the plaster on me, this could have been a very classic little film."

That it is a "classic little film" should go without saying. Corman praised Miller as "the best actor in Hollywood," while 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.

by David Kalat

SOURCES:
Alan Frank, The Films of Roger Corman, BT Batsford Ltd, London.

Beverly Gray, Roger Corman, Thunder's Mouth Press, New York.

Ed Naha, The Films of Roger Corman: Brilliance on a Budget, Arco Publishing Inc., New York.

John Charles, "A Bucket of Blood," Video Watchdog, Number 68, 2001, Cincinnati, OH.

John Charles, "The Death Artist," Video Watchdog Number 37, 1997, Cincinnati, OH.

Roger Corman, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Dell Publishing, New York.

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A Bucket of Blood (1959)

"I was out to create a different kind of film-more cynical, darker, more wickedly funny," said Roger Corman.

They say hindsight is 20/20, and for a modern-day P.T. Barnum like cult movie auteur Corman that is understating things. In other words, Corman may be overstating things. The bleakly black comedies he fashioned at the tail end of the 1950s were not quite as ground-breaking as all that-just watch James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932) if you don't believe me. But in the sunny landscape of Father Knows Best 1950s, Corman's bilious satires were a cold splash of water in the face, a kick in the gut, a breath of decidedly unfresh air.

Roger Corman was bushed. Ski Troop Attack (1960) had been a grueling shoot. Recuperating from the experience, he was asked by his distributors at AIP to deliver some horror goods for $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 would focus on mordant wit and social satire.

It all started with 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.*

This is the official story, 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-a new record, and with time and money still in hand for yet a second film!

Corman got wind that the Chaplin Studio nearby had some sets still standing from a previous production that were ready to be torn down. Corman quickly rented the sets for two days (the amount of time he still had left on A Bucket of Blood 's ledger) and tasked Griffith with cooking up a script that could be done using just those settings. The result was The Little Shop of Horrors, made for a measly $27,500 and beating Blood's record handily. A third black comedy, Creature from the Haunted Sea completed the triptych in 1960.

"Taken together," boasted Corman, "these remarkably modest black and white films-with their loose, raw energy-were a major departure in my career."

* -- Chuck Griffith tells much the same story about a coffee-bender that ended at Chez Paulette and the birth of a screenplay, but he says the film in question was The Little Shop of Horrors.

by David Kalat

Sources: Alan Frank, The Films of Roger Corman, BT Batsford Ltd, London.

Beverly Gray, Roger Corman, Thunder's Mouth Press, New York.

Ed Naha, The Films of Roger Corman: Brilliance on a Budget, Arco Publishing Inc., New York.

John Charles, "A Bucket of Blood," Video Watchdog, Number 68, 2001, Cincinnati, OH.

John Charles, "The Death Artist," Video Watchdog Number 37, 1997, Cincinnati, OH.

Roger Corman, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Dell Publishing, New York.

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A Bucket of Blood (1959)

"I've played Walter five times now, I think," says Dick Miller, the star of A Bucket of Blood, "I've lost count." In fact, Miller has played characters named "Walter Paisley" in no less than 6 additional movies besides A Bucket of Blood. As a new generation of filmmakers rose up through Corman's ranks (or felt otherwise indebted to his legend), they paid homage to his blackly comic classic by hiring Miller to play a "Paisley" in: Hollywood Boulevard (1976), The Howling (1981), Heartbeeps (1981), The Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Chopping Mall (1986), and Shake, Rattle and Rock! (1994).

Roger Corman missed a trick by not bringing back Miller in at least a cameo role in the misfired 1995 remake of A Bucket of Blood. For his Showtime series Roger Corman Presents, Corman commissioned director Michael James McDonald to rehash the 1959 film under the less-evocative but more accurate title The Death Artist. Ex-brat-packer Anthony Michael Hall took over the "Walter Paisley" duties, but with little of Miller's understated charm. He was joined by a promising cast that included: Justine Bateman, David Cross, Will Ferrell, and Paul Bartel - all for naught. Sadly, the remake squanders its satirical opportunities and proves that not just anyone could do what Corman did, so well, back in 1959.

Part of Corman's impetus to remake the property was to reclaim ownership, to set right a bad business decision made long before. Back in the day, Corman focused entirely on the here-and-now with little regard for the future of his creations. Says Miller, "His thinking was, 'We're going to make this movie, it's going to play in a couple of theaters for a month or two, and then it's garbage.'" It was a shortsightedness shared by Corman's distributors at AIP (American International Pictures). Producer Samuel Z. Arkoff admitted, "When you come down to it, I don't think there are any of us in the film industry making anything today that will be of more than passing historical interest fifty years from now." And with such carelessness, AIP and Corman let many of his early works slide into the public domain, where they have been ruthlessly mistreated.

Back in 1959, AIP promoted A Bucket of Blood with its usual ballyhoo. They advised theater owners to set up a giant bucket, tipped slightly, "with the appearance of red fluid dripping" from it. To accomplish this effect, AIP's promotional advice suggested using "some art," or, failing that, to let the bucket actually drip red dye. Now there's a good idea!

Exhibitors were also urged to trail paths of the red fluid from various strategic points in the city to the theater entrance, where they recommended having the Red Cross conduct a blood drive. "How many 'Buckets of Blood' would a human be able to fill?" AIP offered as a slogan to promote the blood drive (and, in turn, to promote the film, natch). Patrons who managed to bring their own "bucket of blood" with them would be admitted for free - a marketing notion that could never be revived in today's more callously violent age.

"You'll die laughing!"
- AIP's ad campaign for A Bucket of Blood

by David Kalat

SOURCES:
Alan Frank, The Films of Roger Corman, BT Batsford Ltd, London.

Beverly Gray, Roger Corman, Thunder's Mouth Press, New York.

Ed Naha, The Films of Roger Corman: Brilliance on a Budget, Arco Publishing Inc., New York.

John Charles, "A Bucket of Blood," Video Watchdog, Number 68, 2001, Cincinnati, OH.

John Charles, "The Death Artist," Video Watchdog Number 37, 1997, Cincinnati, OH.

Roger Corman, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Dell Publishing, New York.

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A Bucket of Blood (1959)

"A 66-minute joke compounded of beatniks and gore. It's too comic to be a typical horror film and the horror is too explicit for it to be a comedy, but for the youth market at which it's aimed, the feature looks like a winner."
-Variety

"While only marginal as a horror film, Roger Corman's A Bucket of Blood excels as both a black comedy and a cagey send-up of the '50s beatnik scene and gives Dick Miller his most memorable role."
-John Charles, Video Watchdog

"Dick Miller gives a performance of sustained poignancy as the half-wit hero."
-Monthly Film Bulletin

"The difficult central role of the crushed timid underdog menial is cleverly played by Dick Miller. Parts of the film, notably the earlier scenes, are a glorious satire on jargon-spouting beatniks and phoney artists, led by a mystic poet who recites to jazz."
-CEA Film Report

"A wonderful beatnik horror comedy...Dick Miller, a familiar Corman stock-company player, is perfect as Walter Paisley...An all-time classic."
- The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film

"This is a marvellous little film which takes some delightful sideswipes at beatnik pretensions (Allen Ginsberg is hilariously caricatured) and breathes rude life into a story that neither Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) nor House of Wax (1953) was quite able to animate. Miller...is wonderfully deadpan as the half-witted waiter..."
- The Encyclopedia of Horror Movies

"Corman's first full-blooded horror comedy was put in a class of its own by Charles Griffith's unusually witty script...Not surprisingly, the parody of the 'beat scene'...is closer to the truth than those attempted in many mainstream movies."
- TimeOut Film Guide

"Heavy handed spoof with a few choice if bloody moments"
- Halliwell's Film & Video Guide

"Zestful Corman quickie spoofing the 1950s beatnik movement as well as House of Wax-type horror films. Miller is terrific in his signature role...It runs out of steam before it reaches its climax, but is a nice precursor to Corman's even cheaper classic, The Little Shop of Horrors..."
- James O'Neill, Terror on Tape

"...an exercise in dark humor...Charles B. Griffith's hip, flip script is full of amusement, such as when a newsboy croaks, "Read all about the man cut in half! Police can find only part of the body!"
- John Stanley, Creature Features

"Corman and Griffith's interpretation is as a gleeful black comedy which happily jibes at the pretence of the Beat Generation. It's amusing, although the script is told with a minimalist economy that brings a smile rather than a real laugh. Dick Miller plays with likeably nebbish lunacy."
- Richard Scheib, The SF, Horror and Fantasy Film Review

"Miller, who manages to sustain a sense of poignancy while committing his atrocities, gives an excellent performance in this funny film with a good comical jazz score by Fred Katz."
- TV Guide

Compiled by David Kalat & Jeff Stafford

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A Bucket of Blood (1959)

BROCK (Julian Burton): Walter has a clear mind. Someday something will enter it, feel lonely, and move on.

BROCK: I am proud to say that my poetry is understood by that minority which is aware.
WOMAN: Aware of what?
NAOLIA (Jhean Burton): Well, not of anything, stupid, just aware!

BROCK: Where are John, Joe, Jake, Jim, jerk? Dead, dead, dead! They were not born, before they were born, they were not born. Where are Leonardo, Rembrandt, Ludwig? Alive! Alive! Alive! They were born!

ALICE (Judy Bamber): I'm a model. I only charge $25 an hour. Would you like to do me?

LEONARD (Antony Carbone): You can see the direction his "realism" takes - it's unhealthy!

WALTER: I didn't mean to hurt you, Lou. But if you'd have shot me, you'd be moppin' up my blood now.

BROCK: To be uncreative, you might as well be in your grave.

Beatnik: I saw a statue once. It was called, "the third time Phyllis saw me, she exploded."
Beatnik's Friend: Man, what kind of statue was that?
Beatnik: I dunno, it was made out of driftwood and dipped in fluoric acid. Very wild.

BROCK: Life is an obscure hobo, bumming a ride on the omnibus of art.

ALICE: You could use a little more heat around this place...!
WALTER: It's bad for the clay! You'll get used to it!

Compiled by David Kalat

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teaser A Bucket of Blood (1959)

"Let's talk about art."

These are the opening words to A Bucket of Blood (1959), a venomous satire on the pretensions of the art world.

Walter Paisley (Dick Miller, never better) is a busboy in "The Yellow Door," a coffee bar/art gallery. The poor guy is a little slow, and as impressionable as a child. Too bad his biggest influences are these 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 beatnik poet Maxwell Brock (Julian Burton), 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 Brock's callous screed literally - Walter 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 Yellow Door'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, contemptible. "When a critic wrote that the art world [in the film] was a metaphor for the movie world," says Corman, "I didn't deny it."

This he does in a 5-day wonder that is a marvel of good filmmaking. Clever directorial flourishes abound. When Brock 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.

Dick Miller might disagree. "If they'd had more money to put into the production," he told film historian Beverly Gray, "if we didn't have to shoot the last scene with me hanging with just some gray makeup on because they didn't have time to put the plaster on me, this could have been a very classic little film."

That it is a "classic little film" should go without saying. Corman praised Miller as "the best actor in Hollywood," while 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.

by David Kalat

SOURCES:
Alan Frank, The Films of Roger Corman, BT Batsford Ltd, London.
Beverly Gray, Roger Corman, Thunder's Mouth Press, New York.
Ed Naha, The Films of Roger Corman: Brilliance on a Budget, Arco Publishing Inc., New York.
John Charles, "A Bucket of Blood," Video Watchdog, Number 68, 2001, Cincinnati, OH.
John Charles, "The Death Artist," Video Watchdog Number 37, 1997, Cincinnati, OH.
Roger Corman, How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, Dell Publishing, New York.

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