A Bucket of Blood and Motel Hell: A Comparative Movie Review
A Bucket of Blood
Our first film up is A Bucket of Blood, released on October 21, 1959. The screenplay was by a Charles B. Griffith; and it was directed by Roger Corman. The star should be a familiar face, for those of you, who, like myself, are of a certain age, in so-called "character" roles: Dick Miller.
Miller plays a socially awkward, fawning, sycophantic waiter named Walter Paisley. Walter Paisley is desperate to be an artist, desperate to find a way into the hip, beatnik crowd, desperate to win the heart of a young woman of that world, a young woman called Carla (Barboura Morris).
But of course, Carla barely registers his existence. What's more, this discouraging state of affairs is unlikely to turn around anytime soon for poor Walter Paisley, because the man simply has not got any talent for art. None. Zero.
Walter's talentless artistic interest focuses on sculpture. The kind of artist he would like to be is a sculptor. But again: no talent.
He does find a way to fake it, however. One day, when he accidentally kills his pet cat, he is struck with an inspiration: He covers the dead cat, with a knife sticking out of his side, with clay and simply shapes the clay around the cat's features. We're meant to see this, I think, as the sculpting equivalent of tracing.
He brings the cat around to the gang and is a hit from the first. Why, this "sculpture" is quite interesting. Say, maybe Walter has a little something at that.
Walter is intoxicated by the approval. At one point, with his big, goofy, and frankly, creepy ear-to-ear smile he says in a gosh golly Miss Molly sort of way, "Does this mean I'm an artist?" Kind of creepy.
Inspired, Walter continues with his art, moving on to more challenging subjects: People, whom Walter kills first and then sculpture-traces in clay.
Walter can do no wrong with his creations. The plaudits pile up. Why, none of the gang had ever even suspected that he had been hiding his light under a bushel, sitting on such magisterial talent all this time.
But things cannot go on this way forever. And they don't, since the movie is only sixty-five minutes and some seconds long.
Here's the thing
I usually define dark comedy like so: Serious drama propelled by an absurd premise. That is to say, something wacky, goofball, bizarre has to start things up; but this "absurd" premise must be strained through a filter of realism.
That is to say, the subsequent unfolding of the plot must take the "absurdity" seriously. When that happens, you have achieved a form of irony, as I see; or let us call it the straight man effect. Those of you, like me, who are of a certain age, will remember Laurel and Hardy, Abbot and Costello, Burns and Allen, for that matter, and so on.
You will recall that in comedy duos of the past, one was the punch line guy and the other was the "straight man," who looked at the audience as if to say: Look at what an idiot I'm with! It was this combination that was so brilliant.
Anyway, in narrative, I understand "dark" or "black" comedy to express the "straight man" effect.
Now, this formula of mine has a broader application. I tend to make a decision about a movie: What is the balance of "ends" and "means"? Is the goal the protagonist(s) is fighting for worth it?
For example, there is a Kung Fu movie called Five Fingers of Death (otherwise known as "King Boxer"), first released March 21, 1973. Lieh Lo, who usually played villains, starred as a good guy.
I'm not going to bother discussing that film. But I just want to say that when I first saw it, I thought that it was not effective because the goal that the protagonists were pursuing was far too small for all the blood and mayhem that attended the pursuit of that goal; there was a gross, fundamental imbalance in that way.
For those of you who are fans of Kung Fu films, as I am, let me just say there was no concern, in Five Fingers of Death, for restoring the "rightful" rulers of China, the Han or the Ming, to the throne; as you all know, this is a very common background theme of this type of film.
Take the movie Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. It was directed by Jim Jarmusch and released on March 3, 2000. It starred Forest Whitaker as the Ghost Dog himself: an urban, African-American, cornrow-headed, apparently self-taught but quite skilled, ghetto samurai, whose code of honor attaches himself to the service of a Mafia "capo."
I had such high hopes for this film, going in. It was an interesting film in many ways; but ultimately, I came to think that it had not reached its potential, because the story that such an intriguing character as the Ghost Dog, was asked to play in was far too small for him.
You see, I like for compelling characters to have adventures that are worthy of them. That did not happen, in my eyes, with Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.
"Balance," then, is a big deal to me. There must be balance between means and ends; and there must be balance between characters and what they are used for.
Let's get back to "A Bucket of Blood." If an "absurd" premise strained through the filter of realism gives you "dark" comedy, gives you irony of a sort, gives you the "straight man" effect, so to speak; what does an absurd premise strained through an equally absurd filter give you?
Well, for one thing this means that there is nobody around to tell absurdity that it is absurd. And this means that you're one step away from a literal cartoon. The movie might as well be a cartoon and would probably work better that way.
The absurd premise in A Bucket of Blood is Walter Paisley's idea that he can make art by killing people and then sculpture-tracing them with impunity. This becomes even more apparent when you see where and how Paisley, a bachelor, lives. He simply does not have the resources for concealment. He is not an evil genius with secret, hideaway facilities.
He cannot kill someone in Los Angeles, make a sculpture-tracing of that person in Miami, and then sell the creation to a buyer in Hong Kong or Singapore. If he could, then he would probably be some kind of James Bond villain. This would work, by the way, because in James Bond films, especially the earlier Sean Connery, Roger Moore incarnations, "reality" is understood to begin at a higher pitch, if you will.
But anyway, Walter kills people locally, sculpture-traces them locally, and presents them to his local Beatnik associates, with whom he is trying to ingratiate himself. He absurdly believes that he can wheel about his 100-170 pound "sculptures" hither and thither, to show his "friends," without any possibility of his murders being discovered.
I have to say, Dick Miller's performance in this film was extremely creepy. But I guess if you only have sixty-five minutes and some seconds to do your thing, there's no other way to go but full throttle.
The ending disappointed me. It comes to pass that Walter Paisley's crimes are discovered. He finds himself running for his freedom and his life.
He makes it back to his one-room apartment. Then he decides to "hide" "where they will never find me."
What happens then? He simply hangs himself. When his body is discovered some says, "... his greatest work."
What a gip!
You know what would have been a cool ending? What if he got away by encasing himself within a sculpture, like a replica of the statue of David or something? But to avoid actually dying, he would be provided with a tiny breathing tube.
But such an end would have required Walter Paisley to have had at least one friend and accomplice. But of course, the whole point of the film is that he had not one, until he started producing art, which he did for the purpose of winning friends and influencing people.
Motel Hell is a criminal-horror movie directed by Kevin Connor. It was released on October 18, 1980. The most recognizable thespian is Rory Calhoun, a veteran Western actor.
First of all, let me say that it seems to me that Motel Hell executed its assignment more effectively than A Bucket of Blood. In the former an absurd premise is handled as realistically as possible under the circumstances. The mission runs into certain constraints, which forces it to turn back in on itself, to acknowledge its own absurdity.
When that happens, a certain tone is struck. The very nature of the plot seems to dictate its tone; function follows form.
Let me explain.
The story goes like this: Farmer Vincent Smith (Rory Calhoun) and his sister Ida (Nancy Parsons) run Motel Hello---when the bulb for the 'o' in the sign goes out, you get Motel Hell, get it?
Anyway, in addition to the motel, they run a farm; and in addition to that they own and operate Farmer Vincent's Meats. Farmer Vincent personally smokes and distributes his fine meat products around the county. That is the main business. Coming into town you can see a billboard with his giant smiling face, next to a caption that reads: "Farmer Vincent's Meats. This is it!" Or something like that.
Once you've tried Farmer Vincent's meats, you'll wonder how you ever lived without it. The flavor is out of this world.
Well friends, that "flavor" comes from the tourists Vincent and Ida kidnap, kill, and them cut up and grind up into sausage and the like.
Now, the couple have a truly upstanding brother, known as Sheriff Bruce (Paul Linke). The situation will drive to a climax, in which there is nothing left for Vincent to do but don a giant pig helmet-mask and engage his copper brother to a chainsaw battle to the death.
The absurd premise is this: Because of Vincent and Ida's view or understanding that the world is overpopulated with too little food to feed all the people, somebody ought to "take responsibility" and, well, let's say, kill off the world's excess folks. And converting them into the sweet, savory, fine Farmer Vincent's smoked meats, sort of "takes care of both problems at the same time."
This absurd premise is strained through reality, even if that reality contains one or two wacky features.
The strain through the filter of reality goes like this: Vincent and Ida, as farmers and hoteliers, self-employed entrepreneurs, and all that, have land holdings. Therefore they do have a means of concealment of their crimes, their mass murder.
They stage their attacks at night, trapping whoever seems likely driving down the main road. They use a variety of traps and devices to obscure events and cover their tracks.
Here's the thing: They often acquire captives in bulk. Because of the relatively modest size of the meat distributing operation, they cannot "smoke" them all at one time. They have to smoke them one at a time, with an interval in between.
This means that they have to store their captives---those they do not smoke right away---and store them alive. This is exactly what they do.
They plant the still-living captives in the ground like plants, straight up and down, up to their necks. We mustn't forget to slash the vocal cords so the darlings cannot cry out for help. Then put a potato sack over their heads and there you go.
My point is this: Given the enterprise the pair have decided to go into, their moves are all logical and practical. But their logic and practicality do not make them any less wacky; and it is in that space where the laughs come.
Finally, it seems to me that Rory Calhoun and Nancy Parsons (Vincent and Ida) were well directed to strike the right note.
One the one hand, yes, they are committing mass murder, and that is serious.
But on the other hand, they come out of the other end of their mass murder, by turning their victims into Farmer Vincent's savory smoked meats, which they cheerfully distribute around the county.
They really do believe that they are doing a critical service to humanity and the world by "taking responsibility" in their way. And they hope that one day that they will be openly acknowledged and honored for "the work we're doing."
Add to that, the story we hear Vincent tell. It was about their "Granny," who "never put any distinctions on God's creatures." One day there was this dog that kept barking, seemingly for no reason, disturbing Granny as she was trying to watch her "stories" on television.
She told a young Vincent to "shush" it. And Vincent "shushed it alright." And Granny smoked the beast that evening.
And so we get an idea of where Vincent and Ida's pathology may have come from. After all, "Meat's meat and man's gotta eat!"
Thank you very much!