Monday, July 30, 2007

A Bucket of Blood: or, If You Can't Beatnik, Killnik

Some nights you just aren't in the mood for a 98-minute horror opus from the seventies. You're tired, you're beat, you need to put the trash out, and you don't want to waste what precious time you have with an exploitation obscurity that may or may not be worth the effort. Such was the case the night I finally got round to watching Roger Corman's 1959 black-comedy classic A Bucket of Blood. Clocking in at a lean (almost anorexic!) 65 minutes (according to my treasure-trove of mmmmmovie goodness, the Mill Creek 50 Chilling Classics set--buy it now!), this mouldy oldie fit the bill. Even half-asleep I felt I could manage that runtime, and I'd always wanted to take a look at this little piece of Corman history, having heard a lot about it in the past, but nonetheless retaining a gaping, Bucket of Blood-shaped hole in my horror movie education. So I mixed up a G & T, settled back on the couch, and hit "play."

Instantly I was transported back through the swirling mists of time to the late 1950s--the glorious black and white cinematography, the cool jazz, and most importantly, the near-forgotten and deeply misunderstood Beatnik subculture. Right away we are thrust into this dark, smoky underworld, as on a stage in a carcinogen-obscured cafe a lusciously bearded beat poet extemporizes over (or rather under) the improvised noodling of a tenor sax. Though only a few of his lines get through, they strike to the soul of the human experience:

"I will talk to you of art for there is nothing else to talk about; for there is nothing else.

"Life is an obscure hobo bumming a ride on the omnibus of art. Burn gas buggies and whip your sour cream of circumstance and hope and go ahead and sleep your bloody heads off.

"Creation is, and all else is not. What is not creation is graham cracker; let it all crumble to feed the creator."

Aw hell yeah.

Yes, this little cafe, the Yellow Door, is a veritable Left Bank in one room, with artists, poets, sculptors and musicians all gathered together to get real gone and be-bop daddio. In this artistic Mecca the creative individual is the highest expression of perfection. As the bearded poet, Maxwell, puts it with characteristic cutting wit: "If you're uncreative, you might as well be in your grave...or in the army."

It's a sad fact that not everyone is creative, though, however they might wish to be. The case in point is Walter Paisley, the nebbish busboy at the Yellow Door who yearns to be accepted by the in-crowd of creative types, but whose timidity and lack of drive keep him shackled to the trays of dirty coffee cups. Hoping to change his position and impress one of the artistic women he's been pining for, Walter buys a lump of sculptor's clay and tries his hand at art. Unfortunately he has no talent, and in a fit of despair drives a knife into a wall, ostensibly to free his landlady's trapped cat from the drywall, but also to vent his frustration. That's not all he vents, though--he also vents the feline's ventricles.

Desperate to cover up his faux pas, Walter makes instead a faux paw--he covers the cat's corpse with clay, dries it, and takes it to the Yellow Door the next day. When his sculpture, "Dead Cat," receives the adulation of the in-crowd to which Walter has aspired, he finally seems on his way to acceptance and validation.

But the anxiety of the artist is this--you're only as good as your latest work. When Walter is unwittingly busted for heroin ("Junk! Smack! Horse!"), he just as unwittingly kills his accuser, the hard-edged cardigan-sporting undercover cop played by TV’s Burt Convy. Again in desperation, he creates a new masterwork: "Murdered Man." This one is received with even more outlandish praise, and even Maxwell the Poet calls Walter the savior of modern art.

"...and then this chick in full armor leaps out and starts makin' wise cracks!"

Everyone's a critic, though, and just when Walter begins to feel confident and accepted at last, a snotty blonde model tears him down and makes him feel small again. Enraged, he hires her to be the model for his next sculpture--when he murders her in his studio, his transformation from put-upon unlucky sap to calculated murderer is complete and chilling.

From there Walter goes into a downward spiral of Poe-esque proportions, and of course it's only a matter of time before his fraud is revealed. When his loved beatnik chick rejects him, his madness takes over, and an exciting and tragic conclusion is set in motion. The final image is both fitting and strangely moving--all Walter ever wanted to do was fit in.

Probably one of the best of Corman's early films, BoB has a fabulous script, fantastic cinematography, pitch black comedy, and wonderful performances nearly across the board. Think of the original Little Shop of Horrors, but much, much funnier and much, much scarier. Famous character actor Dick Miller IS Walter Paisley, and he absoltuely OWNS this movie, showing how unjust it was that in his long career he got so few chances to play a lead role.

In the first scene, before he speaks a line of dialog, Miller has already completely established Walter's character with just posture, facial expressions, mannerisms and reactions. We know what kind of person Walter is without having to hear him speak; we know him, we recognize him. Then, when he does speak, Miller's line delivery is invested with as much care and detail as his physical acting. His yearning for acceptance, his awkwardness, his desire to be more than he is--all these are convincingly and thoroughly fleshed out; and while we may smile at Walter's social ineptitude, we also feel for him, and really want him to succeed in his lofty aspirations. That empathy without ridicule is completely due to the masterful performance Miller gives.

Hail to the King, baby.

The script is fantastic too. Short as it is, it could have been an hour-long TV drama (and was in fact aired as such later on), but the ideas are rock solid and fully realized. Poe is invoked almost from the beginning, when the landlady's cat is trapped in the wall of Walter's grimy apartment ("The Black Cat"). Walter's subsequent descent into murder and madness is very much at home in the Poe genre, and at the pivotal moment in the film--when for the first time Walter commits intentional rather than accidental murder for his art--Miller again brings all the madness and desire and horror of the moment out using just his facial expression. It's a chilling moment, especially since until that moment Walter has been a comedic character; but it's believable too, because of the way it's set up and all that comes before.

Cinematography is another stellar area of this little gem. Shadows are used wonderfully throughout, especially in Walter's room. For instance, when the cat is in the walls, Walter bumps his head on the hanging light, setting it swinging. The swinging light as he kills and discovers the cat is very effective, the way the shadows deepen and recede. Later, when the doomed model undresses in shadow play in his room, another layer of Walter's need for validation--his loneliness and hopelessness with the opposite sex--becomes tangible. And all of the murder scenes are shot and edited masterfully, using cuts and shadow and images to show through suggestion what at the time Corman couldn't show explicitly--and as is often the case, being all the more chilling for it.

Oh, have I mentioned that this is a comedy? :)

Well, it is, but the comedy and the horror don't jar against one another; the comedy actually helps set up the horror, lulling you into a smile and then pulling the rug out. But even without the horror, this would be a successful comedic movie. Walter is funny and endearing, and the beatniks--oh, the beatniks!--are satirized mercilessly with cutting wit and occasional broad jokes. As a writer, one of my favorite examples of this was when Maxwell the Poet explains his theory on modern verse:

Maxwell: "One of the greatest advances of modern poetry is the elimination of clarity. I'm proud to say my poetry is only understood by that minority which is AWARE."
Beatnik: "Aware of what?"
Maxwell: "Of nothing, stupid! Just AWARE!"

Julian Burton
as the sage-like beatnik poet is just fabulous, and his supporting cast of hep cats deliver lines of self-important obliviousness with such a delicate touch that even while you're laughing you're wondering how far from the truth such portrayals really were. Another interesting thing here is how timely the satire of the beatniks still is--though the beat generation is long past, the parallels between these artistes and hippies, indie music snobs, or just about any other group of pretentious self-indulgent young folks just go to show that the more things change, the more people stay the same.

I'd be remiss not to mention great performances by the oddly-spelled Barboura Morris as Walter's beloved (her kindness and big-heartedness are appealingly genuine) and Antony Carbone as the owner of the Yellow Door who is morally conflicted when discovers Walter's "method" but can't ignore the business it's bringing him.

Really, BoB is just a classic on all counts: well written, well acted, well shot, well done. The comedy works, the horror chills, the satire bites, and Dick Miller PWNS. Three thumbs to heaven. Get hip.


Ian Miller said...

Man, you really nailed this one! An absolute, all-time favorite of mine (ever since watching it twice one night at a theatrical screening back in the late 80's). Spot-on observations about Miller, too. I wish he had had more opportunities to lead a film, his work here is stellar.

Speaking of stellar, how about that Chilling Classics set? So wrong, but so right!

The Vicar of VHS said...

Thanks for the comment, Ian! I've sung the praises of the Chilling Classics set more than once on this blog--not only does it have this, but also Bell from Hell, Messiah of Evil, Silent Night Bloody Night, Lady Frankenstein--just an embarrassment of riches!

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