Letterboxd Review: A Bucket of Blood (1959)

My first attempt at making a film, when I was all of 15, consisted of my friends and I lampooning little avant-garde vignettes that seemed "artsy." The opening shot (by far the most creative thing I've ever done) was a clown loudly sobbing while scarfing down a bowl of Lucky Charms. I don't know what I was trying to say, or prove, but the 15-minute movie was eventually titled "Art." My idea of teenage rebellion. Go figure.

Within that context, it's unsurprising that I find A Bucket of Blood to be one of Roger Corman's finest hours. It is a perfectly clever and functional serial killer yarn about a young man trying so desperately to fit in with a crowd that he eventually thinks nothing of grisly murder to keep their adoration. But more than that, it's also a scathing indictment of the superficial nonsense and the pretentious garbage wafting around the beatnik scene in coffee shops and art galleries at the time. And, indeed, now. It's a movie whose sharp wit still nails its targets to the wall over fifty years later.

That would be impressive enough if the movie wasn't famously made for only $50,000 and shot in only five days. I've always had a perverse respect for Corman because of his savvy way of making profitable movies, regardless of how little respect they receive as art. He has a unique understanding of production value that he imparted to assistants and crew members who went on to become such respected masters of crowd-pleasing movie genres. Joe Dante. Jonathan Demme. Francis Ford Coppola. James Cameron. But this might be the Corman cheapie with the most to say, the biggest message that echoes throughout his career. Corman will never win grand awards for making art, he will never be recognized as one of those respected masters. It might be because he's never seen the value in striving for great artistic expression so much as making a product that ordinary people would pay to see.

The most striking aspect of the movie is the starring performance from the now dearly departed Dick Miller, whose career was largely built of small and shining appearances as working-class guys in the margins of a bigger story. The Miller seen here is not the gruff, weary character actor of which he is remembered by movie fans. Instead, as Walter Paisley, he is vulnerable. Impressionable. The character is often described as being dim-witted, but I disagree. There's a conscious drive for dignity to Walter, with his plainspoken enthusiasm for the poetry and drawings circulating through the Yellow Door café. His feelings of living on the periphery of something bigger than himself, and his eventual motivations to seize his place within it, are conveyed wonderfully by Miller with a careful approach.

Joaquin Phoenix's Oscar-winning Joker performance owes something to Dick Miller's Walter Paisley, just as much as it might owe something to Robert De Niro's similar outcasts in Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy. I feel like I'm going to lose someone's respect for saying as much, but I can live with that. I just wish I could have said as much to Dick Miller.

Rating: ✰✰✰✰

This review is a part of Kyle's Letterboxd profile, which includes reviews and movie lists not covered here at the blog, including a ranking of several franchises and excerpts from the book, Cinema Autopsy, which is available on the Amazon Kindle store.

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