Beatniks, man. Just a bunch of beret-wearing beatniks sipping on coffee at the café while swapping poems and freakin’ out the squares. But theirs is an inner circle that can’t just be interloped by anyone. You need to prove your beatnik credentials. At the Yellow Door Café, lowly busboy Walter Paisley (Dick Miller) wants to join that illustrious inner circle of poets and artists but his quiet demeanor and lack of artistic skills keep him on the outside looking in. That’s the establishing premise of Roger Corman’s A Bucket of Blood, a madcap mixture of horror and comedy that has arrived on DVD with a new edition from Olive Films. It’s a low budget masterwork that skewers the fad of its era while lambasting the ever-fickle art world.
Inspired by the poems of Maxwell H. Brock (Julian Burton), Walter Paisley wants to make the great leap from busboy to artist in the hopes of impressing the hostess at the Yellow Door, Carla (Barboura Harris). Working in his apartment, Walter struggles with the clay as sculpting doesn’t prove to as easy it seems. Distracted by the landlady’s cat trapped in the wall, Walter accidentally kills the poor feline while trying to get it out. He then repurposes the dead cat, covering it in clay and unveiling it as his sculpture. Suddenly, Walter is seen as an artist. No longer the whipping boy, Walter now has the respect of his peers. But recreating the magic isn’t going to be easy.
This is where A Bucket of Blood takes its devilishly dark turn. After his triumphant debut of his cat “sculpture,” an admirer gives him some heroin which the busboy-turned-artist is ignorant to. Walter is followed home by an undercover cop who wants to bring him in on a narcotics charge. The would-be artist fends off the cop, bludgeoning him with a frying pan. Thus Walter Paisley has crafted his latest masterpiece. It’s only a matter of time before his secret is discovered by the Yellow Door’s owner, Leonard (Anthony Carbone), but Leonard knows that there’s money to be made and conceals Walter’s crimes. As Walter receives more acclaim and demand for his next sculpture, he seeks out victims who will then become immortalized as art.
Shot on a $50,000 budget over five days, it’s truly impressive just how much bang for the buck Roger Corman gets. He had a lot of help, especially with screenwriter Charles B. Griffin’s original screenplay. Griffin’s script for A Bucket of Blood has a hard satirical edge, taking aim at the beatnik movement while also setting his sights on the fickle world of high art. It’s no coincidence that some of Corman’s best work as a director and producer come from Griffin scripts, such as the original Little Shop of Horrors and Death Race 2000.
Using sets recycled from other American International Pictures productions, Corman worked fast and still was able to coax a brilliant, nuanced performance by Dick Miller as the troubled would-be artist. While Miller never transcended into superstardom, he has never been out of work long, having established himself as memorable character actor in films like Gremlins and The Terminator.
The beatnik craze may have faded with time but the love of schlocky horror films will endure forever. Walter Paisley may have seen himself immortalizing his victims by preserving them as his twisted art. Well, the twisted art about Walter Paisley is immortalized in the devious good fun of A Bucket of Blood.