Friday, October 07, 2011

A bucket of blood and a glass of bourbon for Dick Miller

We here at Light Within Light are going to try to provide you with some horrifying updates this month of October, in the spirit of all things ghoulish and ghastly. Our first offering is a 1959 cult classic by the uncontested champion of such fare, one Roger Corman. The film in question, A Bucket of Blood, stars one of the great unsung but much loved character actors of the big screen, Dick Miller, so I thought that this would be a splendid opportunity to both discuss this fine film as well as raise a glass to Mr. Miller. So please, pour yourself a glass of Tennessee's finest and sit back as we explore the horrors that are cats, blood, murder, mayhem and hairy men in sandals.

A Bucket of Blood is low budged  even by Corman's standards yet it is superior to almost anything you'd find at your local cinemaplex the production cost of which probably equals the GDP of a mid-sized nation. The film originated when Corman and his partner in crime Charles B. Griffith went to a coffee house one day to discuss possible ideas to pitch to American International Pictures. This being the late fifties many coffeehouses in more artistically minded neighborhoods were well under the sway of the beatnik fad. The cultural revolution made manifest in the works and lives of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs and their compatriots had been largely gobbled up by consumerism and turned into a superficial fashion statement (Kerouac bemoaned this fate of the Beat movement almost immediately after On the Road was published). Corman and Griffith decided that these pseudo-Beat coffeehouses were the perfect setting for black comedy, a way to make fun of not only turtleneck-wearing poets and their groovy chicks but to also take a stab (pun gloriously intended) at serious satire by showing the shallowness of the art world and the dangers of jealousy, greed and competition. Corman and Griffith got somewhere around 50.000$ to shoot the film, which Corman pulled off in five days (!). 

Paisly and his "art." Legend has it that a certain movie theater, to increase interest in the film, promised free entrance to the film to anyone who would bring a bucket of blood to the theater box office. This seems like a decidedly bad idea. Hopefully there were no takers. 

Dick Miller plays Walter Paisly, a dim-witted and shy waiter who works at a hip Greenwhich Village coffeehouse frequented by poets, artists and other avant-garde wannabes. Some of these hipsters enjoy fame and success within their little circles, gaining the respect of the beat community as well as the adoration of fawning female fans. Paisly dreams of being a hipster artist to win the adoration of poet Maxwell H. Brock (Julian Burton who is hilarious and wrote much of his own "poetry"), coffeehouse owner Leonard (Antony Corbone) and especially the sensitive and artsy Carla (Barboura Morris). Paisly is the butt of many jokes at the coffee shop and is regularly humiliated by both Leonard and the patrons. After one such day he comes home to find that his landlords cat has somehow gotten stuck in the wall. Paisly grabs a knife and tries to extricate the cat from the wall but ends up accidentally stabbing it in the process. Prior to this Paisly had been making a pathetic attempt at a clay sculpture. The next day he shows up at the coffeehouse with an amazingly "biologically accurate" sculpture of a cat and immediately becomes the toast of the artistic community ("I say! It's the return of realism!"). Things only go downhill from there as Pasily expands his artists repertoire to include full-size sculptures of people and a rather horrifying bust.

The film is often quite hilarious and the humor is espresso black. Miller is very good as Paisly, especially because he plays him as an innocent oaf, the Roger Corman equivalent to Lenny from Of Mice and Men. The film is a lean 66 minutes and it moves at a very brisk pace with astoundingly sure handed direction from Corman and very nice editing by Anthony Carras. The strings do inevitably show from time to time, considering how cheaply and quickly the film was made, and the denouement leaves much to be desired. But this is a highly recommended film, one of those great marriages of horror and comedy that Corman would later perfect in conjunction with the great Vincent Price. 

Screengrab from Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies

As for Miller, many remember him best from bit parts in films such as Joe Dante's Gremlins where he played the hapless Murray Futterman. In fact, Miller has starred in every single film Dante has ever made. Miller, after a brief stint in the Navy where he earned something of a reputation as a talented pugilist, went to work for Corman and AIP in several of their finest, low-budget productions, including Little Shop of Horrors, War of the Satellites and the legendary Big Bad Mama (starring William Shatner and Angie Dickinson). Miller always acted with great verve and spirit and became a favorite of many of Corman's celebrated disciples. Scorcese put him in a small role in New York, New York, Spielberg in 1941 and James Cameron gave him a memorable role as a pawn shop owner in The Terminator. Miller popped up in memorable turns in various horror and comedy films in the 80's and 90's including The 'burbs, Matinee, Night of the Creeps, Chopping Mall, Innerspace and The Howling. In some of these films Miller was actually credited as Walter Paisly, the murderous waiter from A Bucket of Blood, his last appearance being in the 1994 TV movie Shake, Rattle and Roll!. Paisly has therefore haunted the cinematic recesses of the horror genre for 35 years!

Miller in Dante's underrated The 'burbs

The diminutive (5'5) Miller, who was born in 1928, is still alive and well and lives in California (aside from which not much is known about his personal life). He has had a lovely career and always brings a smile to the knowing cinemaphile whenever he shows up, no matter how small the role. He has worked in both television and film and we here at Light Within Light are honored to raise a glass in his name. Sk├íl to you, Mr. Miller.


Reido Bandito said...

Awesome! Miller is great

KateM said...

*tsk*... Tennessee's finest. It's not a glass of bourbon unless it's from Kentucky!

Anonymous said...

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