• Chance Freytag

A Tight 75: 'A Bucket of Blood'

Clocking in at just under 66-minutes, Roger Corman’s 1959 horror-comedy picture A Bucket of Blood is among the greatest triumphs of AIP (or American International Pictures, if you’re a pedant). Following the murderous misadventures of an awkward busboy-cum-wannabe artist named Walter Paisley (Dick Miller), the movie constrains its activities to only a couple locations and a small, but colorful cast of pretentious beatniks. Nowhere to be seen are the gaudy and glorious gothic excesses of Corman’s later Poe cycle. Instead, A Bucket of Blood is a modest, small-scale flick buoyed by one great idea (courtesy of screenwriter Charles B. Griffith) and one spectacular performance (delivered unto us by the legendary Dick Miller), which is all it needs to rise above the trash heap of long lost drive-in fare.

To some extent, I feel the label of “horror” is an ill-fitting one, given that the movie is concerned first and foremost with satire. So modest is A Bucket of Blood in the scare department that the suits at the time weren’t quite sure how to market it. Even the title feels a bit ridiculous when it’s taken into account that the titular “bucket of blood” appears for exactly one scene, of which it isn’t even the focal point. Aside from a couple particularly grim images, the tone is one of absolute absurdity. From a ridiculous opening monologue (in hilariously noxious beat poetry form) which declares that “the artist is” and “all others are not” to a scene in which the dorky protagonist casually removes a chunk of his wall, Griffith makes his satirical intentions clear within the first ten minutes. The screenplay is loaded with critiques of the art world and beat culture, many of them typical, but rarely have they ever been so potent and empathetic. The obscene and bizarre declarations of these so-called artists, Griffith contends, are hollow. His story poses a question, “What if they weren’t?”

Enter Dick Miller, here embodying the pathetic form of Walter Paisley. Desperate to impress an art curator (Barboura Morris) who works with him at the beatnik café, Walter takes the words of a pompous local poet (Julian Burton) to heart and decides to “immortalize” his landlady’s dead cat. By “immortalize,” I mean he covers the carcass in clay and passes it off as a sculpture. Naturally, Walter quickly begins to do this with human corpses, earning him acclaim among his clueless beatnik peers. In what may be the only leading performance of his storied career (I’m too lazy to check), Dick Miller plays the role to perfection. Every line of dialogue sounds like a question and his body language is either shyly subdued or embarrassingly enthusiastic. Most importantly, however, is that he sells Walter as someone who is genuinely pitiable, a kind of killer puppy dog. There are any number of supposedly sympathetic movie murderers, the sort of characters that are idealized by Twitter’s favorite punching bags, but unlike the vast majority of these homicidal sadsacks, Walter Paisley remains plainly pathetic, thanks in part to the work of Dick Miller. Heinous though his crimes may be, this damned soul feels like the victim of not just his own ignorance, but of an aloof and vindictive culture.

Herein lies the dual genius of Miller’s performance and Griffith’s screenplay. By periodically reminding the audience of the absurdity of the scenario and of the world he’s created, Walter’s murders don’t feel like murders at all, but the over-the-top attempts of an outsider to be accepted by those who so regularly belittle him. A minor masterpiece, A Bucket of Blood is the rare empathetic satire, one that doesn’t accuse the beats of inspiring murder, per se, but finds a legitimately entertaining way of calling them pretentious blowhards who require debasement in exchange for companionship. Corman and company know when and how to pull their punches, when to deliver a full force blow, how to make an audience laugh (have Dick Miller run around waving his arms like a stoned gorilla), when to put their scant budget to use, and, most importantly, they know to keep it all under seventy-five minutes.

[A PSA for those interested in viewing A Bucket of Blood: do not do so on Amazon Prime. The version streaming there is a hideous, colorized restoration. Dozens of HD rips of the original black and white film have been uploaded to YouTube.]

Back in the good old days, Hollywood used to pump out B pictures, cheap movies with tight plots that ran just over an hour. In less than the time it takes to do a load of laundry, audiences could experience masterpieces such as Cat People or Detour. In the dystopian landscape of modern movies, this is rarely the case. A recurring column, A Tight 75 is dedicated to espousing the value of that long lost art: the short feature film.