Roger Corman’s crew of associates must have had some pretty wild times in the 1950’s, scraping around Hollywood and Venice Beach trying to bust into the film business. Perhaps these semi-bohemians stimulated writer Charles Griffith’s cynical humor gland, for the first modern black comedy feature in a horror vein became an amazing low budget ‘sick’ accomplishment for the uniquely creative Corman.
A Bucket of Blood
1959 / B&W / 1:66 widescreen / 66 min. / Street Date May 29, 2018 / available through Olive Films / 14.94
Starring: Dick Miller, Barboura Morris, Antony Carbone, Julian Burton, Ed Nelson, John Brinkley, John Herman Shaner, Judy Bamber, Myrtle Damerel, Bert Convy, Jhean Burton, Bruno Ve Soto.
Cinematography: Jacques R. Marquette
Film Editor: Anthony Carras
Art Direction: Daniel Haller
Original Music: Fred Katz
Written by Charles B. Griffith
Produced and Directed by Roger Corman
When queried about his prolific output of science fiction pictures for drive-ins (1954-1960), producer-director Corman once responded that he wasn’t satisfied with any of it. He did say that his directing reputation took its first upswing with his 1958 Machine Gun Kelly, a gangster movie. Corman then began to contemplate transitioning away from simply doing films for hire, in search of the big money that was making mini-moguls like Samuel Arkoff into multi-millionaires. That full ambition would wait ten years while Corman consolidated his stature as a smart director of commercial hits.
Corman had done westerns, monster movies, juvenile delinquent dramas and gangster pictures, but he’d later invent the lucrative fad genres of the Biker Film and the Drug Epic. The first subgenre Corman can lay some claim to initiating may be the modern Horror Black Comedy. This happened with his 1959 opus A Bucket of Blood, a film made for A.I.P.. Plenty of pundits had pointed out comedy’s relationship to horror, how both scares and laughs came from the same involuntary impulses. Corman and Griffith’s Black Comedy Horror puts the theories to the test in the beatnik era.
Anybody familiar with Charles Addams knew that the phenomenon of ‘sick’ humor was nothing new. James Whale pioneered the film form in his offbeat, sometimes campy The Invisible Man and The Bride of Frankenstein. Corman and his ingenious writer-collaborator Charles B. Griffith combined Mystery of the Wax Museum horror and Mad Magazine irreverence for a fusion of something new. Filmed in five days for $50,000, Bucket brought a bit of Grand Guignol humor to American screens. It has remained near the top of Corman’s hippest films list, thanks to a starring performance by the inimitable Dick Miller, the presence of Corman’s loveliest early-years actress Barboura Morris, and a parody of the beatnik lifestyle that’s actually not all that far off the mark.
At Venice Beach’s beat coffee house The Yellow Door, faux-hipster impresario Leonard (Antony Carbone of The Last Woman on Earth) extracts a steady income stream from the beatnik art fad by encouraging the improvised poetry readings of a Ginsberg-like hipster, Maxwell Brock (Julian Burton). Leonard takes a cut of the art that sells to ‘beatnik tourists,’ including that of the beautiful and considerate Carla (Barboura Morris). As both users and sellers of drugs habituate The Yellow Door, a couple of narcs have infiltrated the joint as well. The impressionable and self esteem-challenged busboy Walter Paisley (Dick Miller) idolizes Maxwell, adores Carla and wants desperately to be an ‘artist.’
Walter has memorized Maxwell’s poems that preach that only artists are legitimate breathing humans. He wrestles with sculptor’s clay in his cheap room, upset that the mashed lump in his hands refuses to ‘be a nose.’ But fate takes a strange turn when Walter accidentally kills a cat. He covers it in clay, calls it ‘Dead Cat’ and reaps praise when Leonard puts it on display at the coffee house. Too excited about his new status — women now talk to him, people offer him drugs — Walter has barely thought about what to do next when another trick of fate sees him covering a corpse with clay. Given a Yellow Door ‘coronation’ as a made man, Walter soon goes off the deep end. With Carla gently rebuffing his advances, he instead solicits another hip chick as his next model, with predictably grim results. How long will Walter Paisley’s reign of artistic terror continue, before his secret gets out?
The Yellow Door’s cardboard sign tells us whose movie this is, but Roger Corman’s experience directing 22 movies in four years (gulp) has given him a style showing considerable sophistication. Several moving-camera mastershots in the coffee house and Walter’s seedy room roll on for as much as two minutes without a cut. The action of principals and extras is well blocked, and the atmosphere has enough finesse to make us forget we’re watching a show filmed mostly in two limited sets. Corman’s well-rehearsed group of core actors have considerable presence; all seem in on the joke of Charles Griffith’s faux-morality play, where an overreaching schlemiel reaps an unjust fate for trying ‘to be somebody.’ Dick Miller invests quite a bit in his bumbling Walter Paisley. The comic character is played broadly, but not so stupid or infantile as to forfeit our sympathy.
The beatnik scene on view isn’t the typical hyper-critical lampoon seen in big studio movies of the 1950s that simply typed beats as fakes and hypocrites. Julian Burton’s funny beat poetry is not that far removed from the real thing. The habitués in Leonard’s club either like the coffee, are themselves aspiring artists, or are sympathetic types like the woman who offers Walter some heroin. The theme of the false idolization of the Art World isn’t cheated. Pride comes before a fall, and the nude model that Walter next ‘sculpts’ doesn’t realize that his unbalanced psyche has already decided to make her ‘immortal.’
It should be noted that writer Griffith is eclectic in his sources. Edgar Allan Poe is a big contributor, what with the cat in the wall and a nagging conscience from The Tell-Tale Heart. The celebration for Walter resembles scenes in Freaks and the ‘King of the Fools’ parade from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Instead of expanding the scope of his picture Corman makes his picture function smoothly with just a few sets, focusing on little Walter’s big problem.
We’re told that the comic scene of Maxwell Brock wearing a tuxedo with sandals was one of many improvisations added to the mix — Julian Burton had swollen feet. Barboura Morris’s Carla is not an exaggerated Earth Mother or crazy hip chick, but instead becomes an anchor for the viewer’s desire for a likable character. In his next Filmgroup picture Little Shop of Horrors Corman would go full-parody on the Black Horror comedy. Another schlemiel gets himself into a carbon-copy multiple murder problem, with inspired riffs on ethnic shopkeepers, fruity eccentrics and cops that talk like Jack Webb robots. A Bucket of Blood has a bit more heart, and is almost as funny.
Corman much later told interviewers Alain Silver and Jim Ursini that he and Charles Griffith indeed cooked up their story on an evening’s visit to a Sunset Blvd. hipster establishment not unlike The Yellow Door. But they also added that they finished the evening by visiting another friend from Corman’s circle of semi-employed marginal movie folk. Aspiring actress Sally Kellerman frequented the same acting coach as Corman, Robert Towne and others, but had to wait tables to make ends meet. Roger said that he and Griffith dropped in on her cafe near closing time to tell her the story they had worked out so far, and that Sally enthusiastically helped them work out some of the final details.
That A Bucket of Blood was conceived along the lines of ‘sick’ comics is borne out by A.I.P.’s own ad campaign, which skipped images from the film in favor of curious comic strip panels with tame sick jokes, framed by an image of a skeleton pouring out the film’s title in a pool of crimson hemoglobin. It says horror, it says comedy, and to kids in 1959 it was as far as a movie could get from square Hollywood fare. Well done, Messrs. Arkoff and Nicholson.
We’d be much happier if Olive Films’ authorized DVD of A Bucket of Blood was a Blu-ray, but the fact is that this good widescreen transfer is the best we’ve seen the movie. A 2002 MGM DVD looked good — a lot better than the myriad public domain rip-off copies that have circulated. But it was an unattractive flat full frame transfer, and Olive’s encoding beats it in every respect.
As with Olive’s new Odds Against Tomorrow disc, English subs are provided but no extras. I’m not concerned — as with the noir picture there is no shortage of commentary and analysis of Corman pictures online and in print.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A Bucket of Blood
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 28, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson
Here’s Allan Arkush on Bucket of Blood: