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Roger Corman Slays Snooty Pretension, Leaves Only ‘A Bucket of Blood’

By  · Published on January 26th, 2013

It has been the common self-effacing jab around the Junkfood Cinema lab that the canon of movies we feature and love are indicative of our total lack of taste. Of late however, the idea of a person stricken with a total absence of taste has seemed more and more a self-contradicting paradox. Taste is a wholly subjective construct as idiosyncratic as a fingerprint. It is a function of synaptic response. Our brains all see the same images, but how we perceive them on a critical thinking level is informed by our experiences and our individual archetypes for quality art. Therefore the only way for a person to indeed harbor no film taste whatsoever would be to never have watched a single one. You may take issue with the films a friend chooses to watch, but the very fact that they have a preference for those films precludes the idea that they have no taste.

Such musing brings us naturally to A Bucket of Blood; in much the same way the Disney Monorail brings one naturally to Beirut. But kindly replace your necks to the un-whiplashed position and allow me to explain. A Bucket of Blood is a 1959 horror film from b-movie maverick Roger Corman. Corman is a name revered by some, reviled by others, and, sadly, unknown by most. The bulk of his catalog is typically written off as exploitation junk; white noise in the din of cheap cinema. His movies are to be appreciated only ironically, lest resurface the overripe accusation of being possessed of no taste. The reality is that Corman’s movies often offer something more substantial than their reputations or indeed even a first glance may suggest. And no film in his catalog more sums up the enigma of Corman moreso than A Bucket of Blood.

A Bucket of Blood is the story of a struggling artist. When we first meet Walter Paisley, played by frequent Corman collaborator Dick Miller, he’s busing tables at a coffee house and struggling to find a foothold among the trendy art scene. He desperately wants to be taken seriously as a creative person, but his attempts to imitate the celebrated work of his generation prove fruitless. One day, Walter tries to release a noisy cat from its confinement within his wall; an occurrence that is evidently rather frequent in his place of residence, which we assume is called the Edgar Allen Arms. When he accidentally kills the cat, his guilt leads him to cover the beast in clay. You know, as guilt often does. The clay cat, with the rather unseemly knife protruding from its side, is mistaken for a piece of sculpture and Walter becomes the toast of his beatnik-infested community. His desire to remain à la mode, which somehow involves no ice cream whatsoever, becomes therefore directly proportional to his town’s steadily rising murder rate.

With a title like A Bucket of Blood, one assumes to know precisely what to expect from this film. And yet there is no reference to buckets in the movie, and very little blood. While most thumb their nose and walk away, the misleading title is akin to a secret invitation from Corman to his core audience into an elaborate joke. A Bucket of Blood is a pointed, bitingly satirical take on manufactured, face-value intellectualism. The film wears its distaste for pedantic hepcats on its latte-stained sleeve.

The most admired poet stands before the rabble and not-so-eloquently gum flaps the following nugget…

“What is not creation is graham crackers.”

Delicious as that world view may be, instead of reacting logically, that is to say booing the poet off stage and lobbing biscotti at the bearded garbage factory just above his shoulders, the crowd of culture puppets thunders into applause. Their appreciation of the trumped-up throat clapping they just heard is clearly not a product of their grasp of art, as the following reactionary conversation demonstrates.

“That was marvelous! What did he say?” – First dixie-fried dolt
“Didn’t you hear him?” – Second, equally doltish daddy-o
“No man, I’m too far out.” – The first dolt revealing himself to be both highfaluting and woeful misunderstanding of his own slang.

The snobby nature of artistic criticism and the contagion of pretension are his primary targets in A Bucket of Blood. One can imagine Corman sitting in some far out, happenin’ coffee shop in the late 1950s, sneering at the snooty beatnick poets as he completes his shooting notes on Attack of the Crab Monsters. Given the criticisms lobbed against Corman his entire career, it’s not difficult to see how he would enjoy sending up those so absurdly assured of their own brilliance. He begins by bucking his own critics by taking a base, horror-styled concept and crafting a legitimately strong movie out of it. Again, individual tastes are going to factor heavily into your own agreement or disagreement with that statement, but then Corman is simultaneously not presenting his work as high art. Like Walter, he’s doing the best he can within his means, sculpting something that he hopes will be appreciated, but holds no delusions about his film’s appeal to the high-brow sect. However, it is well-shot, moves at a light, brisk pace considering its subject matter, and features a poised, empathetic, and surprisingly complex performance from Miller.

Is it silly? Yes, but in only in amounts exacting enough to highlight the satire. Sitting on a throne with a paper crown, holding a plunger as a scepter, it would be easy to label Walter Paisley the fool of our play. But he’s not the one who bestowed the crown upon the head of a murderer. Walter is able to pass off the ghastly products of foul deeds as avant garde artwork. Despite their being hideous earthen snapshots of death, one person purportedly in the know touts the sculptures as genius and suddenly everyone is positively gaga for Walter’s homicidal souvenirs. In some respects, A Bucket of Blood is a strange take on that classic parable of the naked monarch sold invisible clothing by a con artist playing to his vanity. “The emperor has no threads, you dig?”And yet Corman flips the fable. It is now the Emperor selling something to the people, shining a light on the artistic literati who for all their blustering wouldn’t know real art if they were beaten over the head with it and their bodies then used to create morbid sculptures.

But ultimately the message of A Bucket of Blood is far simpler. It is a portent against taking things at face value. Consider for example how the walls finally close in for our antihero. Walter is undone when someone takes their fingernail to one of his sculptures and discovers the human remains bound in clay, though one obviously wonders how the smell of rotting flesh coming from his art projects didn’t give him away first. In other words, Corman is asking us to ponder what lies beneath if we are literally willing to scratch the surface. This message also serves as a mantra for Corman’s career as well as a battle cry for all-encompassing film appreciation. Corman is a filmmaker unburdened with pretension, but as a result, one who has seen the entirety of canon cast aside onto the same critical dung heap. The fact is that the standards for defining a good versus a bad film need to be reevaluated. This exchange from Bucket may sum it up perfectly…

“I’ll give him $1500 for this,” declares one of Walter’s adoring patrons
“After you read my review, it’ll probably cost you $5000,” a patronizing art critic counters

The line of thinking that art has no intrinsic value, and that its worth is determined by standardized curricula is soundly refuted time and time again within Corman’s catalog. A Bucket of Blood is a smart movie, it is a well-constructed movie, and just because some stuffy-shirted academic looks down on it, doesn’t invalidate your enjoyment. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Junkfood Cinema is based on a similar (and again with the none-too-fine-a-point) rejection of film school absolutism. If we avoided all movies that the top critical minds had deigned unworthy of our time, our cinematic experiences would be predetermined by text books; eliminating any and all sense of discovery. In the case of Corman, who launched the careers of a staggering number of auteurs, that snobbishness would keep us from witnessing the first films of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and James Cameron just to name a few.

Finding someone who legitimately has “no taste” is as difficult as finding an actual bucket of blood in A Bucket of Blood, but more horrifying is the prospect of letting pretentious snobbery imbue us all with the exact same taste in film.

Junkfood Pairing: Marshmallow Dream Bar

Starbucks likes to pretend it’s upscale, that you can’t in fact sneeze without inevitably making more work for the poor theater major in charge of cleaning the windows. That is indeed the ultimate folly of The Buck. Among their menu of supposedly gourmet baked goods, or at least baked goods for which they charge gourmet prices, is a little item called the Marshmallow Dream Bar. They can call it anything they want, adopt any pretentious nomenclature they think will sell to chumps, but it’s still a Rice Krispie treat with marshmallows shoved up its snack hole.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.