Monday, May 24, 2010

One of Corman's first is also one of his best

A Bucket of Blood (1959)
Starring: Dick Miller, Barboura Morris, Antony Carbone, and Julian Burton
Director: Roger Corman
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars

Walter (Miller), the dorky, put-upon busboy at the beatnik hangout Yellow Door Cafe, wants desperately to be an artist--both so he can impress his beautiful coworker Carla (Morris) and receive the sort of adulations that are heaped nightly upon poet Maxwell Brock (Burton). After he accidentially kills his neighbor's cat, he hits upon the perfect medium for his creative expression--covering dead bodies with clay and presenting them as sculptures. Soon, people are dying to be his models.

For years, I maligned Roger Corman as a terrible filmmaker. This was partly due to the fact that that the first few movies of his that I saw were indeed awful, such as "The Gunslinger." However, as I've been seeing more of his films, I've realized I misjudged him. He could make good movies, and "A Bucket of Blood" is one of this best!

"A Bucket of Blood" is a dark comedy where a talentless loner, desperate for acceptance, goes to extremes to fit in. Its events and messages can be interperted in many ways--as commentary on what passes for "art"; as a statement about the downsides of societal pressures to fit in, even among supposedly accepting counter-cultures; that the one constant in life is hypocracy; or perhaps even all of these--or the viewer can just switch off the brain and watch Walter's quest for acknowledgement spin out of control.

The general structure, story, and even the types of characters, of "A Bucket of Blood" is similar to Corman's later "The Little Shop of Horrors", but the story is more tightly focused, the humor sharper, and the actors' performances more restrained. Where "The Little Shop of Horrors" was a broadbased spoof, "A Bucket of Blood" keeps its attention on beatniks, artists, and wannabes. The main characters are virtually identical, and they even come to similar final fates, but Walter emerges as a far more sinister and evil character than Seymour, and the climactic moment in "Bucket" is more impactful (where it was just goofy in "Shop".

The camerawork and lighting of this film are near perfect. Yes, this is a low-buget film, and the sets are simple and shabby, but Corman uses a wide range of filmmaking techniques that heighten the drama and horror toward the end of the film, and they greatly enhance the pitch-black comedy when Walter's boss (Carbone) is reacting in the background while Walter is showing his latest creation to him and Carla, after the boss has realized how the sculptures are being created. In fact, during the chase scene toward the end of the film, I found myself wondering if many modern filmmakers should be forced to watch this movie to see how to properly apply the tools of their trade.

The actors are also universally excellent, with great comedic talent shown all-around, from the pair of doped-out beatniks who wander through the scenes spouting hilarious nonsense; to Carbone, as the demanding boss who finds respect and fear for his busboy; to Morris, Walter's kindhearted coworker and target of his affections; to Burton, as the blowhard, psuedo-intellectual poet; to Miller, who, in his only starring role, puts on a spectacular show as a dork who turns into a homicidal maniac because of a hunger for acceptance. Miller does a fine job of going from goofy to menacing, but still maintaining a comic tone.

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