A Bucket of Blood
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
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.