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A Bucket of Blood

by Glenn Erickson Sep 17, 2019

Roger Corman’s ‘sick sick sick!’ horror comedy is still a delight, and Olive’s Signature edition accompanies it with some excellent Elijah Drenner extras, including a video interview with the beloved star Dick Miller. Walter Paisley is the patron saint of underachieving artists everywhere, and this special edition has director Corman and writer Charles B. Griffith on tap to sing his praises. It is by will alone that I set my mind in motion: “Be a nose!”


A Bucket of Blood
Signature Collection Blu-ray
Olive Films
1959 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 66 min. / Street Date September 24, 2019 / available through the Olive Filmswebsite / 39.95 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

 

I reviewed Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood just a year ago, when Olive released a remastered DVD. Perhaps the company already had a Signature special edition in mind, and wished to spare collectors from the quicksand of double-dip economics. If so, the wait was worth it, for the extras on this big release will delight fans of Corman’s Little Horror Comedy that Could.

 

The prolific producer-director once said that he wasn’t satisfied with any of his early science fiction pictures. He did say that his directing reputation took its first upswing with a gangster movie, 1958’s Machine Gun Kelly. Corman then began to transition away from simply doing films for hire, in search of the big money that was making multi-millionaires of mini-moguls like Samuel Arkoff. That full ambition would wait ten years while Corman consolidated his stature as a smart director of commercial hits.

Corman’s struggle in the exploitation trenches yielded westerns, monster movies, juvenile delinquent dramas and gangster pictures. He’d later initiate the lucrative Biker Film and Drug Epic fads. The first subgenre Corman can lay claim to molding may be the modern Horror Black Comedy. The target title A Bucket of Blood was made for A.I.P.. Numerous pundits have pointed out comedy’s relationship to horror, how both scares and laughs originate from the same involuntary impulses. Corman and Griffith’s beatnik-era Black Comedy Horror puts the theory to the test.

 

‘Sick’ humor was already a ‘thing’ in the New Yorker magazine cartoons of the great Charles Addams. 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 and the presence of Barboura Morris, one of the director’s most appealing actresses. Griffith’s parody of the beatnik lifestyle is actually not 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 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 purchased by ‘beatnik tourists,’ including drawings by 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, self esteem- challenged busboy Walter Paisley (Dick Miller) idolizes Maxwell, adores Carla and wants desperately to become an Artist with a capital ‘A.’

Walter has memorized Maxwell’s poetry, that preaches 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 human corpse with clay. Given a Yellow Door ‘coronation party’ as a made artist, Walter soon goes off the deep end. When Carla gently rebuffs his advances, he solicits another hip chick to be his next model, with predictably grim results. How long will Walter Paisley’s reign of artistic terror continue, before his guilty secret gets out?

The Yellow Door’s cardboard sign tells us this is a Roger Corman movie, but the cumulative experience of 22 movies in four years (gulp) has given the director confidence behind a camera. Stylish moving 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 limited mostly to two sets. The well-rehearsed actors display considerable presence; all seem in on the joke of Charles Griffith’s faux-morality play, in which an overreaching schlemielreaps an unjust fate for trying ‘to be somebody.’ Dick Miller invests everything he’s got in his bumbling comic character. Walter Paisley is played broadly, but he’s not so stupid or infantile so as to forfeit our sympathy.

 

The beatnik scene on view isn’t the expected hyper-critical lampoon of bigger studio efforts, 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 lost souls, like the woman that gives Walter some heroin. The sometimes-distorted values of the Art World are writ large. Pride comes before a fall, and the nude model that Walter next ‘sculpts’ doesn’t realize how he plans to grant her an unwelcome artistic immortality.

(It’s funny how reality mimics art: at the Long Beach Pike in 1976, it was discovered that a sideshow spook-ride mannequin was actually a mummified corpse!  The theory was that the 65- year-old cadaver was that of an outlaw. It had originally been exhibited as a ‘moral lesson,’ and then forgotten about and re-purposed. That’s the way I remember the story, and I found a link. The rationale was different, but the concept is similar!)

Writer Griffith’s sources are nothing if not eclectic. Edgar Allan Poe is a big inspiration, what with the cat in the wall and a nagging conscience direct from The Tell-Tale Heart. The celebration for Walter resembles a party scene in Tod Browning’s Freaks, and the ‘King of the Fools’ parade in the Laughton The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

 

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 anchors the viewer’s need 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 may not be quite as funny, but it has a bit more heart.

In the 1990s Corman 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 the evening finished with a visit to another member of Corman’s circle of semi-employed marginal movie folk. Aspiring actress Sally Kellerman frequented the same acting coach as Corman, Robert Towne and others, and to make ends meet waited tables. Roger said that he and Griffith dropped in at her cafe near closing time to tell her the story they had so far, and that Sally enthusiastically helped them work out some of the final details.

Noticed at this screening, for the first time: a brief montage of police cars prowling the night has been lifted directly from Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers — as an edited unit, dissolves intact!


 

Olive Films’ Signature Collection Blu-ray of A Bucket of Blood is touted as mastered from new 4K scan; I think it’s the same scan used for the 2018 DVD, with, of course, a brighter and more detailed HD picture. I was told to expect some flaws in MGM’s elements, but saw none of consequence — no missing frames, no big scratches. A scratch reported in the title sequence showed up only in one shot of a saxophone, and it’s really minor.

Fans looking for special extras will agree that Olive has done well here. Elijah Drenner, the director of the documentary That Guy Dick Miller has a new interview piece with Roger Corman, plus a much- appreciated interview with the late Mr. Miller and his wife Lanie. She prompts him with good questions, and he appears to enjoy the attention. He even makes a funny face after denying that he dated an actress from one of the movies.

Drenner’s feature audio commentary uncovers new facts in the story of the making of Bucket. His third featurette Bits of Bucket thumbs through the screenplay to find scenes and pieces of scenes dropped during production, even snatches of skipped-over dialogue. One of the missing scenes is an insightful little moment for Antony Carbone’s avaricious coffee shop owner. Leonard acknowledges that the beatnik art scene is a passing fad, that he’ll have to find himself a new racket. Considering that he seeks to profit from a murderer, Leonard comes off as fairly sympathetic. Leonard’s assessment of the Art racket can also be taken as an expression of what Corman, Griffith and Co. must have been thinking at the time — by ’59 even A.I.P.’s Jim Nicholson was preaching that the market for 70-minute B&W movies was fading fast.

Very welcome is a twenty-minute audio interview with Charles B. Griffith. He fills in a number of holes in his writing career, which he says began in radio soap operas. Griffith says that his sometimes- writing partner Mark Hanna functioned as a salesman, not a writer. He has good things to say about Roger Corman’s ‘gang of people who hung around the office,’ and explains that when he found a good story format, he’d reuse it again and again. This must have come in handy when Corman asked him to throw a script together over a weekend. A few years later, The Wild Angels presented an entirely different writing puzzle — Corman wanted it to include every hot-button issue of the 1960’s, so Griffith spent ten months writing and re-writing ‘a phone book.’

On both the disc and an insert folder, Caelum Vatnsdal’s liner note essay delves into the afterlife of Bucket on the stage, as a straight story and as a musical. The adaptations never caught fire as had Little Shop of Horrors, but Vatnsdal catalogs a whole series of attempts.

Also of interest is a selection of perhaps twenty unfamiliar, quality still photos from the set of Bucket. We see Jacques Marquette’s camera dolly at work, plus some impressive character portraits.

 

The more minor menu items — a trailer, a German trailer, a silent Super-8 version — are capped by a truly screwy extra, an original German prologue that was apparently added to pad the film by nine full minutes, Monte Hellman style. The professionally- filmed B&W scene (good lighting, smooth trucking shots) proposes that Walter Paisley is carrying out the mad ambitions of a ‘Professor Bondi,’ whose story mirrors that of Vincent Price’s Professor Henry Jarrod from House of Wax. The weird Dr. Bondi delivers a cracked monologue to an ordinary mannequin, which is presumably meant to be one of his wax corpse creations. The prologue carries the title Das Vermächtnis des Professor Bondi, makes no sense whatsoever and convinces me that German distributors must have been stark raving mad.

What’s missing? I would have liked to have seen some coverage of American-International’s slick, smart ad art. That A Bucket of Blood was conceived along the lines of ‘sick’ comics is borne out by A.I.P.’s clever 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. Who cooked this up?   It seem far too hip for Messrs. Arkoff and Nicholson. It says horror, it says comedy, and would certainly connect with the youth audience of 1959, signalling something different, and as far as a movie could get from square fare.

This is Olive’s best signature release since their terrific Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


A Bucket of Blood
Signature Collection Blu-ray
rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Audio commentary by Elijah Drenner, director of That Guy Dick Miller; Featurettes: Creation Is. All Else is Not. interview with Roger Corman; Call Me Paisley interview with Dick and Lainie Miller; archival audio interview with screenwriter Charles B. Griffith; Bits of Bucket script vs. film comparison. Essay by Caelum Vatnsdal; rare prologue from German release, Super 8 digest version, American and German trailers; gallery of newly-discovered on-set photography.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case in card sleeve
Reviewed September 14, 2019
(6083bloo)

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Here’s Allan Arkush on A Bucket of Blood:

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.