Interview: Roger Corman Remembers 1959’s A BUCKET OF BLOOD

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SHOCK unearths an interview with indie film legend Roger Corman discussing his 1959 film A BUCKET OF BLOOD.

Made at the close of the decade that gave him his name, filmmaker/mogul Roger Corman’s 1959 horror comedy A BUCKET OF BLOOD was supposed to be nothing more than another quickie designed to give the kids a thrill. But when Corman (who was fresh off a wave of dopey, quickie pulp flicks like SHE GODS OF THE SHARK REEF) sat down with quirky screenwriter and close pal Charles B. Griffith, they instead crafted something completely different; a picture that was really special and utterly, totally and wonderfully deranged.

Starting as a riff on popular mad sculptor movies like HOUSE OF WAX, A BUCKET OF BLOOD takes square aim at a once underground, by then mainstream and soon to be defunct, arts and culture movement that was ripe for the skewering: the beatniks.

The film stars Corman regular Dick Miller (who later would become the darling of THE HOWLING and GREMLINS director Joe Dante and recently had an entire documentary produced about his life) as Walter Paisley, a nebbish busboy at an elite, artesian beat poetry hangout known as The Yellow Door. Though poor Walter yearns to be an artist himself, he’s an earnest hack (and probably a tad slow to boot) and more often than not, finds himself the butt of ridicule by the cafe’s more snooty black clad figures.

One night, after accidentally stabbing his wall dwelling cat (a foreshadowing of Corman’s already healthy interest in the soon to be explored cinematically, Poe) to death with a butcher knife, a nervous Walter opts to coat the kitty with a mound of clay to cover up his feline crime. The next day, he brings the entombed tabby to The Yellow Door, presenting it as a sculpture he calls, bluntly, ‘Dead Cat’. Almost instantly, the inept latte slinger is hailed as a minor genius, a real deal artist, the architect of an unsettling new realism, ruthless in his shocking detailing of death. But when Paisley is called to create more cutting edge works, no cats are to be found. People, however, are plentiful…

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This genuinely amusing and demented low budgeter (reportedly brought in for less than $50,000!) is a companion piece to the equally bonkers (and even cheaper) Corman/Griffith horror send-up LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (the basis for the same named musical and its 1986 Frank Oz directed film adaptation) but A BUCKET OF BLOOD is a much more sophisticated and polished effort. Miller is absolutely fantastic as the homicidal dweeb Paisley, a textbook of pre-Norman Bates ticks and barely concealed insanity.

Creepy, goofy, tightly paced (only 66 minutes long!), laugh out loud funny and occasionally, for the time, surprisingly gruesome, A Bucket Of Blood is also a razor sharp lampooning of the creative process and those that position themselves as art lovers in order to be part of a social circle. At the very least, it stands as Corman’s greatest pre-Poe achievement and is a testament on turning in a film that’s slick and stylish on a budget that is two shades shy of cappuccino cash.

Here’s an interview I conducted with Corman about the genesis of this classic bit of bleak, baroque and cruel comedy.

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SHOCK: With A BUCKET OF BLOOD, why did you decide to make a horror/comedy instead of a straight genre piece as AIP had originally requested?

CORMAN: The idea came from a screening I went to for one of my horror pictures. A character was walking down a hallway and I used my usual technique of moving camera, the actor’s POV moving forward, a reverse on him dollying back and building up the suspense. By the time he comes to the end of the hallway and he has to open the door, the audience senses there’s something terrible behind that door. The scene played perfectly and the audience screamed when he opened the door and something fell into his face. Then after the scream, they laughed. I thought “Did I do something wrong? Why did they laugh at a horror film?” I tried to analyze it and realized that I didn’t do anything wrong at all, that I did get the scream I was looking for. The laugh was a release, of course. The tension had been broken. And also, they laughed at the appreciation about being “taken in”. They’d been had by the scene. Then I started thinking about the relationship between humor and horror, which I later started to equate with sex. In each area, you build the tension, build and build and then you snap it quickly. The end result is that you scream in horror, you laugh in comedy or you come in sex. So I did A BUCKET OF BLOOD as a little experiment to see if I could combine horror and humor deliberately. It then of course led to my other horror comedies, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and CREATURE FROM THE HAUNTED SEA.

SHOCK: All three written by the late, great Charles B. Griffith…

CORMAN: Yes, exactly.

SHOCK: The beat generation fascinates me, but of course, it has only and will only ever exist to me in print and film. By 1959, what stage was the beat movement at? Was A BUCKET OF BLOOD meant as an attack on these sorts of people? Were you a beatnik, Roger?

CORMAN: Was I a beatnik? Well I, being a young director and knowing a lot of young directors and writers, hung out with a group that could be considered vaguely beatnik. I was not a beatnik, however. When we made A BUCKET OF BLOOD, the beat scene was more or less at its peak. Once, when we were shooting a picture in Auckland – a little race car movie called THE WILD RIDE starring Jack Nicholson – we finished shooting on Saturday and we decided to go to San Francisco. We went into a place called The Coexistence Bagel Shop, which was well known as being the center of the beatnik scene in San Francisco and San Francisco, of course, was the center of the beat movement everywhere. So we got a table and some well-dressed older people came in, obviously looking for beatniks and they pointed at us immediately. We were there to see beatniks and so were they and they thought we were beatniks! But A BUCKET OF BLOOD was ultimately an affectionate satire on a movement that was soon to be replaced by the hippie generation.

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SHOCK: So you actually knew people like Antony Carbone’s character, then?

CORMAN: Oh yes. As a matter of fact, Chuck Griffith and I worked out the storyline, going from one beat coffee house to another on a Friday night on the Sunset Strip and the final stop was at about 2am at this one shop where our friend, soon to be actress Sally Kellerman, was waiting tables. She closed up and the three of us sat down and worked out the climax of the film together.

SHOCK: I mentioned Antony Carbone, with whom you worked with numerous times. What are your memories of Antony?

CORMAN: Tony was a very intense, thoroughly trained method actor. I’ve always been surprised that he didn’t have a bigger career. He worked steady as a character actor but never hit as hard as I thought he was going to hit.

SHOCK: And Dick Miller…someone who has become a bona fide cult icon….

CORMAN: Yes he has, you’re right. Well, I’ll tell you that in A BUCKET OF BLOOD, we shot the screenplay as written but there was plenty of room for the actors to improvise. Dick Miller was a master at improvisation and a very good actor with excellent comic timing.

SHOCK: Where was A BUCKET OF BLOOD exhibited? Was it designed solely for the drive-in market?

CORMAN: It played, as all low budget horror films did, at all types of theaters. There’s been this ongoing myth that these types of films played only in drive-ins. Not true. Drive-ins were a big component, but the regular theaters, what we called ‘hard tops’ were always more than 50% of the audience.

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SHOCK: I love the dark, playful jazz score by Fred Katz and noticed that you’ve recycled much of it in other films like THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS and THE WASP WOMAN.

CORMAN: I think Fred actually varied it. He was a pretty good jazz musician and composer and, though it was so long ago and I can’t really be sure, I think he just did different variations on the same themes. I’m not sure if we recycled the same cues…

SHOCK: I’m always kind of shocked at how nasty and slightly sleazy A BUCKET OF BLOOD is, especially for its time. Was some of the material controversial for audiences in 1959?

CORMAN: No, it wasn’t controversial at all. It was simply a black comedy, albeit one that was actually funnier when it came out than it is today. It played somewhere recently in West Los Angeles and I went to see it and the audience laughed, but not as much as when it came out. See, a lot of the things we were making fun of are now accepted in today’s society. We had all these things like the vegan lifestyle, people wearing sandals with suits and they’re just not as funny now. What a lot of people don’t realize is that a lot of those things that the beatniks were doing and writing about have become a part of our collective culture.