An early effort from Roger Corman that pre-dates some of his better known, and in some cases better, films like Little Shop of Horrors and The Intruder, A Bucket of Blood takes some of its concept from House of Wax 6 years earlier (which itself – maybe because of the Vincent Price affiliation – sounds like a Corman production). Still, the film is a very successful, kind of hilarious satire on the art world, and shows some of Corman’s prowess with the camera and a fast-moving narrative.
A Bucket of Blood really functions best as a send-up of the art world. Everything about it is structured to do so: the beat poet who spouts on and on, the art dealer who makes some pretty significant moral compromises with the promise of a large sale, the would-be artist willing to make a near-Faustian deal to be recognized. The poet Maxwell (played beautifully by Julian Burton) has one of the great exchanges with protagonist Walter (Dick Miller):
Maxwell: “You’re going to make $25,000!”
Walter: “I thought you put money down.”
Maxwell: “I do…but 25 thou!”
This and many other lines paint a picture of a stuffy art world. Corman never shied away from taking potshots at various institutions and this is one of his most successful. Aside from one classically bad character decision (when running away from the killer don’t leave a safely populated place for empty dark streets and warehouses).
Like The Intruder (which I prefer, and which I wrote about here), Corman does show a keen eye, despite directing only a fraction of the enormous amount (400+!) films he’s produced. IMDb lists the budget for the film as an incredible $50,000, though this number shouldn’t come as a surprise for anyone familiar with Corman’s history. If you aren’t, I highly recommend you read his book How I Made A Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.
The opening of the film promises at least some of that savvy. The film begins in close-up on Maxwell as he monologues:
And then the camera slowly dollies away from him for the opening credits:
The camera continues moving back, now with Walter (in black, busing the tables below)
The shot isn’t entirely complicated. It’s essentially a straight dolly back, doesn’t have the burden to really follow anyone, nor is there any blocking beyond the simple crossing of characters. Still, it’s a nice two-fold introduction. On one hand it sets the tone right away. Maxwell’s monologue could be any Vincent Price voiceover (he kind of sounds like Price) and by starting on him in close-up we’re being told that his words have extra importance (he’s stating the theme, in fact). On the other hand, Walter soon takes control of the frame, and ultimately it’s he who the camera follows, hence introducing our leading man. Not too shabby.
One of the highlights of A Bucket of Blood are the horrific sculptures that Walter makes, like this one-
Presumably done by art director Daniel Heller they’re superb and make a pretty eerily lasting impression.