Director Roger Corman has played an interesting role in film history. He is considered by many to be the king of low-budget B-movies and over time he has given first big breaks to many other filmmakers. Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Ron Howard, and Joe Dante are just a few of the filmmakers who got their start with Corman. Although Corman’s directorial efforts were often quickly and cheaply made films meant for drive-in theaters, many of them are well worth a look. One of the top films on that list would be his 1959 satiric horror film A Bucket of Blood.
The film centers on a young man named Walter Paisley (Dick Miller). Walter works as a busboy in a beatnik coffee house called The Yellow Door. Deep down, though, Walter wants to be an artist so he will be accepted by the other patrons that he looks up to. One night, while trying to craft a sculpture, he realizes that his landlady’s cat has crawled inside the wall of his apartment. However, when the hapless Walter attempts to cut open the wall to free the cat he accidentally stabs it to death. He then hits on the idea to cover the cat in plaster and present it as his new sculpture. Strangely, the beatniks at The Yellow Door think the cat is a masterpiece.
It isn’t long before Walter creates his next work. A run in with an undercover policeman (Bert Convy), who attempts to bring Walter in for drug possession, results in Walter smashing the cop’s skull in with a frying pan. The cop then becomes the next sculpture. Walter soon moves on from the accidental killings to actually murdering people with the intention of turning them into works of art. All the while, the beatniks become more and more enamored with him, and Walter soon starts to get too caught up in his own hype. It gets to the point where a whole art show is planned devoted to Walter’s work. But when the beatnik girl he is sweet on, Carla (Barboura Morris), doesn’t return his affections, Walter plans to make her his greatest work yet.
The big reason A Bucket of Blood works is the amazing talent of Dick Miller. If you don’t know who Dick Miller is, first of all shame on you. Basically he’s “that guy.” I assure you, you’ve seen his face many times in films like Gremlins, The Terminator, After Hours, The Howling, and dozens of B-movies. He brings a real innocence and child-like quality to Walter. You can’t help but like the guy…even when he becomes a killer. Ultimately, Walter just wants to be accepted, but he goes to lengths even he wouldn’t have imagined to achieve it. I was actually a bit struck by the similarities between Walter and the lead character of Seymour from a film Corman would make the following year (along with four others) The Little Shop of Horrors. But whereas Seymour does feel some degree of guilt for what he does, that’s just not Walter.
Another great element of the film is its presentation of the beatnik culture of the late 50’s. The film even opens with a beatnik delivering a strange stream of consciousness poem complete with a saxophone accompaniment. As the film continues, I love its commentary on how we determine what is and isn’t considered “art.” There really isn’t anything that extraordinary about Walter’s sculptures, but when one person says it’s brilliant everyone else follows like sheep. Even if someone were to think the art was awful, they wouldn’t say so because they want acceptance just as much as Walter does. I have to wonder if this wasn’t Corman taking a jab at those who perhaps looked down on his brand of filmmaking simply because they were following the lead of the self-appointed experts on what kind of films should be considered “art.”
A Bucket of Blood was famously shot over the course of five days. There’s no mistaking that it’s a low-budget production and it is a bit rough around the edges. However, it is most certainly “art.” It is a film that is both endearing and gruesome, not to mention very clever. Corman did make some turkeys in his long career, but A Bucket of Blood is one of the must-sees in his filmography.