Friday, April 9, 2021

Life as an Obscure Hobo in “A Bucket of Blood”

In Roger Corman’s birthday week, it seems right to focus on the master, now 95, and some of his most memorable achievements. Like the horror comedies written by the irrepressible Chuck Griffith and ground out by Roger in a few days on impossibly low budgets. A few weeks ago I was interviewed at length by a scholarly type with the wonderfully biblical name of Adam Abraham, who’s writing a book on the history of  The Little Shop of Horrors. His fascination with the film began when he encountered Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s masterful transfiguration of the 72-minute black-&-white flick into a sparkling stage musical that began Off-Broadway and is doubtless playing somewhere in the world at this very moment. (Eventually, of course, it became a splashy full-color all-star 1986 movie musical that lacked the original’s mordant charm. And now there’s talk of a remake.)

 Adam is convinced that the original Little Shop remains in the public imagination today mostly because of the transformative skill of Ashman and Menken’s work. I’m not so sure. Clearly the stage musical brought new fans to the 1960 Corman flick. My Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers traces how Roger – cashing in on the play’s success -- eventually made a nice bundle off a three-day production he had not even bothered to copyright. Still, Jonathan Haze, Jackie Joseph, Mel Welles, and company are still fondly remembered by B-movie aficionados everywhere.

 Still, I believe that Roger and Chuck’s earlier effort, 1959’s A Bucket of Blood, is the better, smarter black comedy.  If you like morbid satire, this film’s for you. Running a tight 66 minutes, it boldly pokes fun at the high seriousness of beatnik culture, in which bearded and beret-wearing hipsters sit around in coffee houses pontificating on the meaning of life. Its hero, of sorts, is the coffee-house busboy, a young loser who wants so badly to be admired for his artistic talent that he eventually resorts to mayhem. This poor shnook, a would-be sculptor named Walter Paisley, is played by the always memorable Dick Miller with such intensity that the film isn’t easy to dismiss – like Little Shop -- as outrageous fun. No wacky man-eating plant here, just a deeply flawed character making the wrong choices and (almost) finding himself rewarded for getting away with murder. (Dick was originally offered by Roger the lead role in Little Shop, but turned it down because he didn’t want to be typecast as a schlemiel; he appears instead as a flower-shop patron, the petal-munching Burson Fouch.) 

 Even in its own day, A Bucket of Blood seemed darker, more real, and less laughably goofy than Little Shop. That, I suspect, is why Howard Ashman, who had grown up with Corman’s horror comedies, turned to Little Shop as material for his first really big outing as a theatre lyricist, librettist, and director. Still, A Bucket of Blood has also had a bit of an afterlife. In 1996, as part of a TV outing called Roger Corman Presents, Anthony Michael Hall starred in an updated version that found a place for lots more blood and nudity, as well as cameos by such comic favorites as Will Farrell. In 2009 an enterprising Chicago team hoping to be the next Ashman and Menken launched Bucket of Blood: The Original Beatnik Musical. (Nothing seems to remain of it but a nifty website, which includes lively recordings of some of the score.) And for the rest of Dick Miller’s life, he was cast by famous Corman alumni as characters affectionately named Walter Paisley. Even, ultimately, Rabbi Walter Paisley.




No comments:

Post a Comment