Thursday, October 22, 2015

Spooktacular Savings #15: Roger Corman's A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959)

"Life is an obscure hobo, bumming a ride on the omnibus of art."
Man, this knocked my socks off!  Like, out of sight!  Daddio, what is this thing I'm about to lay out, A Bucket of Blood?  Ok, I can't keep up that type of writing.  I should start off by stating what the worst part about A Bucket of Blood, and I type that title again because, frankly, is the title.  Some might go into it expecting to see said bucket of blood; in fact, there actually IS one, sort of, in one scene, as a character is draining slowly of their blood while hanging above Dick Miller's ceiling hole after hitting him to death with a frying pan.  And while that description makes it sound like this is a violent/scary film, it mostly isn't.  Perhaps 'Art is Murder' could've been a better title, but not so great for the poster, which is what mattered most with Corman movies usually anyway.  But what this movie is, in fact, is a savage, insanely funny satire.

What is it making fun of?  And does it relate to today?  Oh hell yes it does.  See if this doesn't sound appealing if you're into a sick/twisted sense of dark humor: a bus-boy, Walter Paisley (Corman and Joe Dante regular Dick Miller), works at a 'hip' club where people in big, over-long, theatrical beards and clothes, usually wearing berets if they can afford them, go on stage and recite long-winded poems that the poets (such as the bearded guy, I forget his name) forget so that they can preserve the spontaneity of the ART (in capital letters). 

He's surrounded by these very hip beatniks and wants to fit in somehow - he memorizes the poems that aforementioned poet forgets intentionally - but can't as he has to get the cups and clean up.  He's a dejected loser, but basically a nice enough guy, and one night when he comes home he finds his cat is stuck behind the wall (how he got there, who cares), and he uses a knife to try to get it out.  Unfortunately, he kills the cat by mistake, and when he digs it out the cat's frozen.  Oh, and while he does this he's trying to make sculptures with clay, so to make it easier he makes his cat into the sculpture.  Who isn't intensely, obsessively fascinated more by a cat than a beatnik?  Or, excuse me, a hipster?  But what about full-sized human beings as the next step?  And can he keep up with the demand for MORE, as is always the trouble for the artist to top himself.

"If you like it so much, put it on Youtube!"  "Already did it when you blinked."

I think A Bucket of Blood could be easily remade today - in fact, you could basically transplant the plot and put it in, say, your average neighborhood in trendiest Brooklyn, and it would have the same result.  The portion with the cat is what was most striking to me, and perhaps the scariest thing about the movie is how nothing's changed, only here instead of the "art" being a cat, it's cat videos or things that are SO hilarious and meow-some because they're cats (and yes, I just typed 'meow-some', deal with it).   But the movie's strengths are that the writer, Charles B Griffith, commits to (also responsible for many Corman films, notably Little Shop of Horrors - which I think 'Bucket' stands above despite filming at the same time, and Death Race 2000), and that Corman finds solid actors to pull off a lot of this dialog and behavior in scenes that has to be carefully played.

Some of this stuff, like how Paisley's boss - who becomes a quasi-accomplice by allowing for Paisley to put the "art" at his place - has to get increasingly queasy with this artistic "process", has to played in a way that is not TOO broad, otherwise it would lose its punch.  The cast isn't super top-shelf, but they're good for a B-movie level, and I think that they along with Corman as producer/director rise up to the material.  Unlike several (or just many) of the movies that Corman was making at the time in the 50's, with giant monsters and bugs and other such exploitation fluff for drive-ins, Bucket of Blood is about something; as much as it may seem on paper like an obvious target, making fun of the stuffy art world, it's more than that.  This is a story that takes aim at an entire air of pretentious people in life in general.  This could be the Beatniks just as easily as it could be people in the Warhol "Pop" art world, or the hipsters of today. 

As a character actually says in the movie, you can't be an artist unless you get some nudes... NUDES...

In other words, the comedy of this movie is so excellent because of how merciless it is about people taking themselves WAY too seriously, which is always a gold-mine of comedy if done right.  Miller makes for a good hapless shlub as well, though a dangerous one; perhaps I just found a little bit of a sharper knife than 'Little Shop', but I think Miller is a stronger actor than the lead, Jonathan Haze, in the other film (both films used the same sets by the way and shot in a matter of just a few days a piece, if *that*).

I think another key thing is good, knowing, self-conscious dialog that shows up these people (I encourage you go to the full IMDB quotes to see it all, especially the opening speech from Maxwell H Brock, the bearded poet I mentioned earlier).  And, lastly, that there are some people who are slightly more normal than the Beatnik-freaks trying to be too cool, like Paisley's wishful-love-interest Carla (Barboura Morris plays it straight and works well off of Morris, who is just so pathetic but sympathetic - see the scene where he finally asks Carla for love, and the rejection feels harsh despite everything we've seen him do).

Sure, the murder scenes carry some little suspense about them, and one set piece that involves just some guy working on some wood with a big table saw is effective as can be.  But I think it's a mistake to come to this movie expecting to get scared or shocked in the ways that the title might suggest.  It's not for nothing that the genre listing on IMDb is Comedy before Horror; I have to wonder if this is the sort of movie that made people like John Landis and Joe Dante and others so happy to be under Corman's wing, with a movie like this setting the example of talking a world that is, at the core, fairly serious, and warping it in such a way. 

Or as the fella once said, 'Better to be King for a day, than a schmuck for a lifetime"

To be sure the movie has flaws - if the movie was shot in just a handful of days, the music seems like it was scored in an afternoon, save for the climactic chase stuff, which isn't bad, and I found the certain 'voices' that Paisley hears in his head near the end to be cheesy and not in keeping with the rest of the tone of the movie - but among the Corman films I've come across, this is one of the very (legitimate, intentionally) best, and certainly the one of the sharpest takes I've seen at taking a group of people and holding up the mirror back at them to see how awful they are.  It's more in line with Tim Burton's Big Eyes, or even Dr. Strangelove (yes, that clever and sharp in the writing) in its worldview, than most other Corman flicks, except perhaps Death Race 2000 (though that's got a lot of goofy shit) and 'Little Shop', which is hampered by a lot of hambone stuff (including, sad to say, Nicholson).

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