Friday, November 5, 2010

A Bucket of Blood (Alta Vista/American International, 1959)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film I picked out was A Bucket of Blood, an old favorite of mine that I hadn’t seen in years which I recorded from Turner Classic Movies’ recent Hallowe’en marathon of horror films. It’s basically the third version of Mystery of the Wax Museum/House of Wax, only this time instead of a master sculptor who lost his ability to work when his hands were injured in a fire, the protagonist is Walter Paisley (Dick Miller), a no-talent nerd who works as a busboy in a Beatnik coffeehouse, the Yellow Door (the year is 1959, the setting is Los Angeles and the director, Roger Corman, did a nice job finding seedy-looking sites in the underbelly of L.A.). In the opening scene he hears heavy-set poet Maxwell H. Brock (Julian Burton) declaim a long and not especially well-structured poem whose details are a bit muddy but whose overall message is clear: that artists are the only truly “alive” human beings, that everyone else is dead inside and therefore artists have the right to do whatever they have to do to create, no matter how many non-artists end up as collateral damage.

We find that Walter takes this a lot more seriously than Maxwell does when Walter quotes back some of the lines to him and Maxwell says, “I’ve forgotten that already” — Maxwell said he was just improvising and he never says the same thing twice because then it would no longer be spontaneous. Walter, who’s being harassed by his boss (Antony Carbone) for spending too much time chatting up the Beatniks at the coffeehouse tables and too little time taking away their empty cups, leaves work and goes to his empty apartment, where he hears mewing from inside the walls and he realizes that somehow his landlady’s cat has got caught inside the walls. Attempting to rescue the cat, he stabs the wall with a knife, hoping to cut a hole in the sheetrock and create an opening the cat can get out of; instead he accidentally kills the cat, tears open the sheetrock and retrieves it (it’s actually a stuffed cat, quite obviously dead for a long while instead of recently killed, and Charles said that for him that was the moment when this film turned silly). Then — leaving his knife stuck in its side — Walter plasters the cat with modeling clay he had bought to attempt a sculpture of his crush object, coffeehouse regular Carla (Barboura Morris), without success (as he molds a piece of clay that’s supposed to go in the middle of her face, he calls out to it, “Be a nose!,” repeating it with more frustration and exasperation each time), lets it dry overnight and asks the boss to let him exhibit it at the coffeehouse.

Walter becomes an instant star in his isolated little Beatnik world, and Carla and the other regulars tell him how impressed they are with his work and how eager they are for him to make more pieces. One woman, Naolia (Jhean Burton), likes the piece so much she slips Walter a packet of heroin, without telling him what it is — and being the total naïf that he is, he has no idea why Lou (Bert Convy), one of two undercover cops staking out the Yellow Door for evidence of drug dealing, comes to his place that night to arrest him. Panicking, Walter wallops Lou with a frying pan, killing him, then gets a knock on his door from his landlady, who heard their voices arguing and the sound of something hitting something and was coming in to investigate. Walter hides Lou’s body in some sort of loft within the apartment, though one of his arms dangles and it drips blood over the floor, which Walter catches in a handy bucket (hence the film’s title) before he covers Lou’s body with modeling clay and exhibits him at the coffeehouse as his second sculpture. A professional model offers to pose for Walter — big mistake, as he turns her into yet another victim — and Walter also catches a worker on an electrical saw, saws his head off and turns it into his first bust.

The pieces he’s so ghoulishly created thus far become the basis of a show at the coffeehouse, and Walter is assured he can make at least $25,000 from what he’s created so far — and he asks Carla to pose for his next sculpture. At first she agrees, until she spots a finger on Lou’s corpse that Walter missed while covering it with clay and realizes just how Walter has made his “art.” There’s a chase scene in which he goes after her and the police go after him, and they ultimately find Walter in his apartment, having hanged himself — “his final piece,” one of the Beatniks says as the film ends.

A Bucket of Blood is fine in the opening scenes — the counter-cultural pretentiousness behind the Beatnik movement is effectively ridiculed by writer Charles B. Griffith (and, uncredited, Julian Burton, who himself wrote the poem he recites in the opening scene), and director Corman gets really good atmosphere in spite of having to shoot the whole thing in a mere five days. It gets a little hell-bent towards the end, when it has to resolve its plot issues in a limited amount of running time (according to, the standard U.S. version runs 66 minutes but there’s a version from Argentina that’s nine minutes longer) and speed up the amount of blood being shed (in buckets or otherwise) to pursue Walter’s twisted (to say the least!) artistic vision, but overall it’s a quite good black comedy and an appealing spoof of both Beatniks and the horror genre — and though the actors are virtually unknown (only Bert Convy went on to any kind of stardom — and he did it on TV, not film) the musical component is in excellent hands: the jazz score is by Fred Katz, the saxophone (and, uncredited, flute) solos are by Paul Horn — who also appears in person as a musician playing in the Yellow Door — and when the music shifts from jazz to folk (a ballad about murder by Ewan MacColl — the Scottish folksinger who married Pete Seeger’s sister Peggy and was refused admission to the U.S. because of his Leftist politics; virtually all his songs were political but one of the few that wasn’t, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” became an enormous U.S. hit — but for Roberta Flack, not him — and another song, a traditional Russian Gypsy piece called “Gari, Gari”), the songs are sung by Alex Hassilev, who would end up as one-third of the Limelighters, a major folk-comedy nightclub attraction in the early 1960’s.