I haven’t seen Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors, but the musical version is cynical and overly noisy. I don’t like any of the people in Little Shop, whereas A Bucket of Blood [Roger Corman, 1959] is generous to all its characters and it’s a brilliant comic experience. Walter is annoying, dumb, and homicidal but it takes a long time before we stop rooting for him. Carla could be a wet blanket if Barboura Morris wasn’t so relaxed in playing her, and if the camera didn’t like her so much. As the Zach Galifianakis character, Julian Burton is more likeable than Galifianakis ever is. Leonard, who knows what Walter is up to, never has any real proof, so it’s more like he’s deluding himself. Even Alice is basically naïve and doesn’t take herself too seriously. [For more on Alice’s point of view, fans may want to read this odd short story.]
I’d like to write something about how Roger Corman’s work compares to other B-movies of the time, based on all the Mystery Science Theater 3000 I’ve watched over the years, but after reading this piece by Michael Ned Holte, it turns out that many things I was going to speculate about are facts. Holte straightforwardly describes A Bucket of Blood as the first film ever intentionally made as both a horror movie and a comedy, and how Corman was skeptical but was convinced it was a good idea by prolific screenwriter Chuck Griffith, who had more outlandish, but just as accurate, ideas of what the public wanted to see. All those Abbott and Costello Meet the _________ movies were vaudevillean spoofs, they were not supposed to actually scare you, they didn’t contain explicit scenes of deadly violence. A Bucket of Blood does, and its comedy is not slapstick, all the humor is in the script. There was a tradition of “old dark house comedy-chillers” with witty dialogue, like The Black Cat and The Cat and the Canary [and The Old Dark House], which seem to derive partially from the tradition of the wry gothic novel and partially from the tradition of the cozy mystery-thriller. A Bucket of Blood is a horror movie of the viscerally visual sort, with little suspense, that would not be creepy or chilling or thrilling in novel form, and until 1959 had been treated humorlessly in movie form.
So let’s focus on the words. There’s plenty of good writing about A Bucket of Blood on the internet. Scott Ashlin describes the plot and characters well. Quint shows amused enthusiasm. Nigel Honeybone gives background info, focusing on the writer and art director. Nathan Shumate talks about Dick Miller and the beatnik background of the people involved. Tim Lucas writes about Barboura Morris. Scorethefilm gives us a ton of stills. Movie Magg talks about the music and the poetry [Julian Burton wrote his own poems].
IMDB has some great quotes, but there’s others that ought to be cited as readily as “I have to go now. My planet needs me,” or “I’m not going to pay a lot for this muffler.” I recommend watching the film [it’s in the public domain, available at archive.org] instead of continuing to read here.
At the end of this post, the characters are described for your ready reference. I might have gotten Oscar and William mixed up now and then.
- Walter [frustrated at lump of clay]: Come on. Be a nose. Be a nose!
- Police Chief [at station]: Anything new at the Door?
- Art [at pay phone]: Well, nothing you can pound nails in. Couple of hustlers. One of ’em’s short, fat, brunette. Named Skinny. The other one was short also, she was bleached and skinny.
- Police Chief: Named Fat?
- Maxwell: Walter has a clear mind. One day something will enter it, feel lonely, and leave again.
- Oscar: I saw a statue once; it was called The Third Time Phyllis Saw Me She Exploded.
- William [annoyed]: Man, what kind of a statue was that?
- Oscar: I don’t know, it was made out of driftwood and dipped in fluoric acid … very wild.
- Lou: Okay, Walter, who’s your connection?
- Walter: Connection?
- Lou: Yeah, connection. Where do you score? Where do you buy your horse?
- Walter: Horse?
- Lou: Yeah, horse, junk, white stuff. Heroin!
- Walter: Is that what this is? I never seen any of that before. I always thought that was expensive.
- Walter: I’m workin’ on somethin’, it’s not ready yet.
- William: What is it, man, finger painting?
- Oscar: Draw me a picture of a house, Walter. Make some smoke comin’ out the chimney.
- Maxwell: Attention. Attention, everyone. As you pass through these yellow portals, I am sure you noticed on your right a small clay figure — and assumed this transfixed effigy to be the work of a master sculptor. And indeed, so it is. That master sculptor is in our midst. He is none other than Walter Paisley, our very own busboy — whose hands of genius have been carrying away the empty cups of your frustration. Mark well this lad — his is the silent voice of creation. But in the dark, rich soil of humility he blossoms as the hope of our nearly sterile century. [everybody applauds] Bring me an espresso, Walter.
- Maxwell: One of the greatest advances in modern poetry is the elimination of clutter. I am proud to say my poetry is only understood by that minority which is aware.
- Blonde woman: Aware of what?
- Naolia: Well, not of anything, stupid! Just aware.
- Leonard: Besides, you’re creating an incident, and when people are applauding they don’t order coffee. So go on home and … work on something. Make another cat.
- Walter: But I haven’t got another cat.
- Oscar: Oh man, you should try the Sorrel Sewer. They got wheat germ bagels … too much.
- Walter [in brand new hipster outfit]: Sylvia! Didn’t you see me wave my zen stick?
- Sylvia: Why, it’s Walter Paisley.
- Walter: Bring me a cappuccino and a piece of papaya cheesecake. And a bottle of Yugoslavian white wine.
- Sylvia: Yes, sir, Mr. Paisley!
- Leonard: I was just suggesting to Walter that he try his hand at free-form.
- Maxwell: Why do you suggest anything to Walter? Are you the spokesman for society, come to put your stifling finger in his eye?
- Alice: Maxwell! Yoo-hoo!
- Maxwell: Clear the table. Bring a bowl. I may be sick.
- Oscar: It’s Alice the Awful, come to spread cheer and cholera.
- Alice: Look at my suntan, everybody.
- Maxwell: Do we have to?
- Carla: Where have you been, Alice?
- Alice: I went over to Big Sur to look for Henry Miller.
- Maxwell: You didn’t find him, I hope.
- Alice: No. He’s in Europe.
- Alice: Why is the busboy sitting here?
- Walter: I’m not the busboy anymore.
- Maxwell: That’s right, Walter has become a sculptor.
- Alice: Oh really! I’m a model, you know. I only charge 25 dollars an hour. Would you like to do me?
- Walter [gritting teeth]: I just might.
- Oscar: Man, this place is beginning to feel like a lineup.
- William: Yeah, baby. It don’t cool out pretty soon, I’m gonna haunt somebody else’s joint.
- Oscar: We may have to start drinking.
- Walter: I don’t like you.
- Alice: [giggles] Nobody asked for your opinion, Walter! You’re just a simple little farmboy and the rest of us are all sophisticated beatniks.
- Walter: That’s not true. I am a sculptor.
- Alice: Oh yeah? Make something out of this. [holds a piece of clay]
- Walter: [squishes it in her hand] There. Hand.
- Maxwell: [laughs]
- Alice: That isn’t a real hand. If you were a sculptor you’d create something for me.
- Maxwell: A harpoon would be very nice.
- Oscar: Man, if you’re gonna be an artist, you’ve gotta do nudes … nudes …
- William: Right, right! Right! Ain’t nobody an artist unless he does … nudes …
- Maxwell: Will you get them out of here before we wind up in night court?
- Walter: Hi!
- Maxwell: Morning, Walter.
- Carla: Hi, Walter, what brings you here?
- William: Have some breakfast, man.
- Walter: What are you having?
- Maxwell: Soy and wheat germ pancakes, organic guava nectar, calcium lactate in tomato juice, and garbanzo omelettes sprinkled with smoked yeast. Join us?
- Walter: No, thanks. [pauses] Sounds great, though!
- Oscar: Man, why do you suppose Walter wants to get her alone?
- William: Do you suppose he could be physically attracted to her?
- Oscar: No, man, he ain’t the type. He don’t get enough vitamin E.
- William: Maxwell gave him a bottle of wheat germ oil once. Maybe he just started taking it.
- Walter: Oh, not me, Maxwell. I wouldn’t ignore you. I know what it is to be ignored.
- Naolia: Tell us what you’re going to do next, Walter.
- Walter: I’m gonna make the most wonderful, wildest, wiggiest things you’ve ever seen. I’m gonna make big statues and little statues, tall statues and short statues. I’m gonna make statues of nobodies, and statues of famous people, statues of actors, and poets, and people who sell things on television. And a statue of the mayor. And some opera singers and their intimate friends. And everybody’ll say “Walter, let me shake your hand. It’s been a real pleasure to have known you.” [everybody applauds]
- Singsong paperboy: Extra! Extra! Horrible murder in furniture factory! Read about the man who got cut in half! Extra! Extra! Police can find only part of his corpse! Read all about it!
- Leonard: Walter, listen to me, carefully. I don’t want you to make any more statues. Do you understand? No more statues.
- Walter: Why not? I gotta make statues, Leonard. You heard Brock, they want me to make ’em. If I stop makin’ ’em I’ll just be a busboy again.
- Leonard: Brock … he’s behind all this with his stupid bitter poetry.
- Alice: Well, I don’t see why we can’t go.
- Maxwell [wearing a tuxedo and sandals]: Mr. Leonard Desantis is afraid to have you come. You buy his coffee and lure his tourists. You are the heart and soul and meat of the Yellow Door. He’s slighted you.
- William: Did you get an invitation?
- Maxwell: I did not. But I am going anyway. Not to drink his champagne, but to see Walter’s triumph. After that, we go no more.
Our cast of characters:
- Walter Paisley (Dick Miller) – nerdy busboy who envies the beatniks. That’s “nerdy” meaning “dull and socially awkward”, not the modern sense of “intelligent and part of a subculture”.
- Carla (Barboura Morris) – intelligent and attractive mousy woman
- Leonard (Antony Carbone) – capitalist and proprietor of the Yellow Door
- Maxwell Brock (Julian Burton) – pompous bearded poet
- Alice (Judy Bamber) – stuck-up blonde model
- Art (Ed Nelson) – cop who goes undercover in a bathrobe and cowboy hat
- Lou (Bert Convy) – cop who seems to be undercover but looks like a cop
- Naolia (Jhean Burton) – overly emotional follower type. Possibly the first dope pusher mentioned by Art in his report.
- Oscar (John Shaner) – laid-back wastrel in a battered hat
- William (John Brinkley) – Oscar’s sidekick, with manic energy and a Confederate-looking hat
- Sylvia (Lynn Storey) – adorable young waitress and gamine