Halloween Endurance Test: A Bucket of Blood (1959)
A Bucket of Blood looks like it was a cheapie for Roger Corman. Short (65 minutes tops), two sets, with very little in the way of “action.” Of course, as we learned with his brilliant Creature from the Haunted Sea, Corman works best when the odds are against him. (As “against him” as it can be with a plot drawing heavily for inspiration from the original House of Wax. Making one wonder, if such a tale as this can be pulled from the source material, then why does the remake exist?) Here Corman has four very important words with which to protect his investment: A Bucket of Blood.
With an evocative title like that, this film could’ve been about anything, as long as it had a, you know, bucket in it. But Corman went ahead and set the tale in a bohemian coffee shop circa the 60s; a setting that’s just as much fun to sit and mock now as it was then. Luckily for you, dear reader, I’ve been to a few arty coffee places in my day (read: hipster bars), and the people there still talk the same way. Amazingly, the artists who’s names are dropped don’t even change, they’re just added to!
It’s in such a bar that we meet Walter (Dick Miller), a loser waiter surrounded by pseudo-intellectuals. They’re all artistes, he’s a poor working-class slob, and neither they, or his boss, wants the two groups mixing. Spurred on by their derision, Walter attempts to become a sculptor. Except he doesn’t have a sculpting bone in his body.
Watching Walter try to sculpt in the beginning of this film might be worth the price of admission alone. Walter, alone with a huge slab of clay, desperately trying to bring it into a recognizable shape is priceless. Walter can’t hack it. What he can do, however, is hacking into things.
Walter’s salvation comes in the form of neighborhood cat, Frankie. Frankie gets trapped in the tenement’s walls, and Walter, attempting to cut a hole for Frankie to escape out of, accidentally stabs the cat. Rather than own up to his accident, Walter uses it as the base for his “sculpture.” (Classy, Walter doesn’t even take the knife out of poor Frankie before encasing him in clay.)
And thus Walter’s foot is in the door with the cool kids. And, as you’ve probably already imagined, there’s not much left with the story. Dick Miller does a great job acting as a innocent caught between two tough choices: own up to his lie, or continue killing. Even with a 60 minute run-time, a story needs more than that.
So we get a narc subplot; after all, the story is set at the start of the 60s. The first thing we learn is that narcs were as obvious back then as they are today at punk rock shows. Lou (Bert Convy) is the narc, and Lou trails Walter home after Naolia (Jhean Burton) gives him a bag full of heroine as a reward for becoming an artist.
The lovable loser, Walter naturally has no idea what the “horse” Lou keeps talking about is, let alone why he’s being arrested. So, after an argument, Walter hits Lou in the head with a frying pan. Enter sculpture number two: “Murdered Man.”
As Lou’s boss investigates what has happened to his missing agent, Walter’s jealous boss, Leonard (Antony Carbone), uncovers Walter’s secret. Leonard doesn’t call him out, because the prices of the sculptures (of which he’s taking a cut) are too great. Adding great depth to these characters. Walter is almost innocent, merely acting out against forces he can’t control. While Leonard is both tempted by the profits, but also aware of their price.
Leonard tries to convince Walter to go freeform, but Walter’s recent success has corrupted him. He willing takes Alice (Judy Bamber) up on an offer to model for him, just so he has a body for his next sculpture: “Nude in the Chair.”
Unfortunately, Carla (Barboura Morris), Walter’s final piece in the making, refuses to play along. Leading to a way too long chase scene running around a construction site. Walter wants Carla, the boys from the coffee shop want Walter, and you’ll want the great jazz soundtrack to keep playing!
Walter starts hearing the voices of his victims in his head (a beautiful touch of foreshadowing is this bit from Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, as Corman would go on to great success filming Edgar Allan just a year later), as all the angles become skewed. He may make low budget cheapies, but Corman knows his cinematography.
The film ends the only way it can, as the moral has been implicit throughout its entirety, with Walter making his final piece: “Hanging Man.”