Walter Paisley is Born: A Review of A Bucket of Blood (1959)
Amy M. Vaughn
16 October 2019
A Bucket of Blood is B-movie magic. Made in five days for $50,000 (roughly $450,000 in 2019 money) on the leftover sets from Diary of High School Bride (1959), it is one of three classic horror comedies written by Charles B. Griffith and directed and produced by Roger Corman. The other two are The Little Shop of Horrors (1986) and Creature from the Haunted Sea (1961).
All three of them are shlocky good fun, but A Bucket of Blood has something the others don’t: Dick Miller playing Walter Paisley. Walter is a dimwitted busboy at The Yellow Door, a coffee house where beatniks perform and hang out, and he’s tired of being a nobody. After accidentally killing his landlady’s cat, he covers it with clay and is declared a master sculptor, gaining the attention he so desperately desires. But how to keep the attention coming? That’s the question.
Dick Miller was already well known in B-movie circles as a reliable character actor and occasional lead. With his strong Bronx accent, he was most often cast as a fast talking, no-nonsense everyman. Giving him the part of a slow and down-trodden wannabe was a stroke of genius (or possibly serendipitous convenience). It’s a heads-up from the get-go that we’re in for something off-kilter.
A Bucket of Blood opens on the pompous Maxwell H. Brock, played by Julian Burton, rapping a beat-style poem over a saxophone solo.
“I will talk to you of Art,
“For there is nothing else to talk about,
“For there is nothing else.
“Life is an obscure hobo bumming a ride on the omnibus of Art.”
Walter is seen going about his busboy duties through this long and seemingly rambling recitation; however, we quickly discover Walter was paying close attention. He recites lines from the poem back to Brock and to a square middle-aged couple who think he’s an artist. Later, segments of the same poem give Walter the idea and permission to create his “sculptures.”
That night, Walter accidentally stabs his landlady’s cat to death while he’s trying to free it from the wall of his apartment. Does it matter that the cat he takes out of the wall is obviously taxidermied? Or that his later human sculptures are obviously mannequins hardly covered in clay? Yes it matters! Because (as I put forward in “Kensington Gore, or Why Hammer is the Hot Chocolate of Horror”) low production value played straight creates a sense of complicity in the right audience. Instead of feeling duped or annoyed or disappointed, we become willing participants in allowing ourselves to be entertained. A Bucket of Blood plays that game to the hilt.
Having gained the other artists’ approval, Walter becomes the toast of The Yellow Door. He has the admiration of his peers, the attention of women, and money—well, $50 out of the $500 the owner of the coffee house—Leonard de Santis played by Antony Carbone—expects to receive for “Dead Cat.”
“Yeah, you’re a real artist now. Now go on back and scrub down those garbage cans.”
And so it goes. Walter tries to maintain his prestige; de Santis, who discovers Walter’s secret, tries to quell his conscience enough to make some scratch; and the hostess, who admires Walter’s work, tries to support him, deflect his advances, and finally stay alive. And all of it is played straight, to great comedic effect. But this is more than just a silly, throw-away B-movie.
A Bucket of Blood has layers. It’s completely unlike the other horror comedies of its time, which had been mostly of the Abbot and Costello Meet . . . variety. It’s a teenage, drive-in exploitation flick and a satire of the beat subculture and the art world, including all the greed, gate keeping, sycophants, and desperation for attention that come with it. In that way, it’s a forerunner of movies like Murder Party(2007) and Velvet Buzzsaw(2019). Can we say, then, that it was groundbreaking and prescient? Not without sounding snooty, but it could be true.
“His work has enormous realism. You can hardly tell it from the real thing.”
“Boy, that sounds like a real put down.”
When Walter has a party thrown in his honor, the pompous poet recites again, and this poem has a refrain: “Walter Paisley is born.”
Indeed, A Bucket of Blood did give birth to Walter Paisley. During his long and varied acting career, Dick Miller would play at least four more and very different Walter Paisleys: a fast-talking casting agent in Hollywood Boulevard(1976); an occult bookstore owner in The Howling(1981); a diner owner in Twilight Zone: The Movie(1983); and a janitor in Chopping Mall(1986). But the original Walter Paisley will always be that poor sap who felt so ignored and invisible he would literally kill to be seen.
4 out of 5 Dead Cats
A Bucket of Blood can be found on Public Domain Movies, YouTube, Tubi, and Amazon Prime.
Amy M. Vaughn writes weird little books. Among them are Skull Nuggets (Bizarro Pulp Press) and The Shelter (Cabal Books, forthcoming). She is also serving as editor for Dog Doors to Outer Space: A Compilation of Bizarro Writing Prompts (Filthy Loot, forthcoming). Amy lives in Tucson and online wherever writers go to avoid writing.