“Make it new” was the dictum of poet Ezra Pound (1885-1972). And it’s a nice thought, really, but let’s face facts. Making something altogether new is a lot of work. And, besides, why bother making it new when there’s plenty of good old stuff you can recycle? Even Ezra may have borrowed his own slogan from the ancient Chinese.
According to film critic Roger Ebert, his partner Gene Siskel’s motto was: “Write it once. Sell it five times.” Once Siskel had seen a movie, he could review it in various TV and print forums and essentially be paid over and over for the same material. Ebert must have agreed, since he also got plenty of mileage out of repackaging his old reviews and articles.
Another man after Siskel’s own heart, at least when it comes to creative recycling, is legendary independent producer-director Roger Corman. A man whose name is all but synonymous with cheapness — he even titled his 1998 autobiography How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime — Corman was unabashed about reusing music, sets, plots, and footage from his previous productions.
Perhaps the greatest saga of creative recycling in the Corman canon begins with 1959’s A Bucket of Blood. Roger directed this grungy, low-budget black comedy himself, based on a script by the prolific Charles B. “Chuck” Griffith. Set in the Los Angeles beatnik community, Bucket tells the strange story of Walter Paisley (Corman mainstay Dick Miller), a feeble-minded busboy at a hip coffeehouse called The Yellow Door. Poor Walter endures constant haranguing from his cheapskate boss Leonard (Antony Carbone). The would-be hipsters who hang out at The Yellow Door, including pompous poet Maxwell (Julian Burton), give Walter little consideration. Only Walter’s comely coworker Carla (Barboura Morris) shows him any kindness whatsoever.
Walter’s home life is no better. He dwells in a truly pathetic apartment on the bad side of town and endures yet more haranguing from his busybody landlady Mrs. Swickert (played by Chuck Griffith’s grandmother, Myrtle Vail). He hopes to join the ranks of the art world by practicing sculpture in his dimly-lit kitchen, but he utterly fails to make a hunk of clay resemble his beloved Carla. “Be a nose!” he screams in frustration.
Very improbably, Walter’s luck begins to change when he accidentally kills the landlady’s cat, Frankie. Instead of burying the body, Walter instead covers the unfortunate animal in clay and passes it off as a statue called Dead Cat. The artwork is quite a hit at The Yellow Door the next day, and both Maxwell and Carla hail Walter as an important new artist. Leonard is skeptical and quickly discovers Walter’s grim shortcut, but he keeps his mouth shut because Walter’s art is attracting attention from wealthy art patrons. The coffee shop owner desperately needs some cash, so he appoints himself as Walter’s “agent.”
But Walter’s newfound success quickly goes to his head. With barely a child’s understanding of right and wrong, he begins to create more “statues” from corpses — this time, human ones. His victims include a nosy undercover cop (Burt Convy), an ill-tempered figure model (Lynn Storey), and a completely innocent lumberyard worker (an uncredited extra). After Carla rebuffs his romantic advances, Walter plans to turn even her into a work of art! It all comes to a head at an exhibition of Walter’s work at The Yellow Door. His nauseating secret is laid bare for the world, and the newly-minted sculptor is chased down by an angry mob before meeting a grisly, but appropriate fate.
A Bucket of Blood may not have set the box office on fire in 1959, but it was quick and cheap to make, and Corman was generally happy with how it came out. The very next year, when he wanted to take advantage of some standing sets and shoot an entire film in under a week, he again turned to Chuck Griffith. The result was the durable cult classic The Little Shop of Horrors, a parable about a meek flower shop employee named Seymour (Joanathan Haze) and his bloodthirsty, talking killer plant (voiced by Griffith). The lowly janitor becomes an immediate media sensation thanks to the vegetable and begins romancing coworker Audrey (Jackie Joseph), but he has to keep feeding freshly-murdered human victims to the plant to keep it from wilting. Grouchy boss Mr. Mushnick (Mel Welles) knows Seymour’s secret, but stays mum for business reasons. And just like Walter, Seymour is exposed at a very public function meant to be his crowning moment.
Little Shop has long eclipsed Bucket in terms of popularity, but the similarities between the two films cannot be ignored. The Little Shop of Horrors Book (1988) by John McCarty and Mark Thomas McGee puts it very plainly:
“The plots of A Bucket of Blood and Little Shop are identical. The heroes are well-meaning schlepps who inadvertently become murderers. Their crimes ultimately bring them fame and fortune, but to remain successful, they must keep on killing. When the truth is finally revealed, they commit suicide.“
That may be a little reductive, but it’s definitely fair to say that Little Shop follows the Bucket of Blood template very closely. The characters of Walter and Seymour are so similar, in fact, that Dick Miller turned down the lead in Little Shop for fear of repeating himself. “I didn’t want to do the same part again,” he told McCarty and McGee, chalking up his decision to “youthful artistic integrity.” Instead, Miller plays Burson Fouch, a bohemian know-it-all who convinces Mushnick that Seymour’s weird plant could bring in new customers. Miller’s character is analogous to the bloviating beatnik Maxwell from Bucket.
In fact, most of the main characters from Little Shop have counterparts in the earlier film. Seymour’s nagging mother, for instance, is extremely similar to Walter’s landlady, even down to being played by the same actress. The greedy boss, the pesky cops, they’re all there. The two films actually share a jazzy score by Fred Katz. And the nighttime chase scenes are filmed in a very similar way, i.e. “film noir” on a tight budget.
What separates A Bucket of Blood and The Little Shop of Horrors is tone. Bucket is played more or less as a psychological thriller. What nudges it into the arena of comedy is the oddness of the Walter Paisley character. Walter completely misunderstands the world and the people around him, and his crime spree — murdering people for art –is absurd. But Corman and Griffith almost make this ridiculous story plausible by grounding it in a realistic urban milieu.
Little Shop, on the other hand, is an out-and-out farce, completely with silly character names (like Mrs. Shiva and Hortense Feuchtwanger) and wacky background signs (“Lots Plants Cheap”). Seymour is a Jerry Lewis-esque klutz, and the notion of an evil, sentient plant is obviously impossible. The acting is much broader in Little Shop, with everyone behaving as if they’re in a sitcom or a cartoon. Griffith even structures the entire movie as a parody of the Dragnet TV show.
While both films played for years on the grindhouse and drive-in circuits before becoming late night TV staples, it was Little Shop that had the more spectacular afterlife by far. Something about that cheap, weird, little film must have really resonated with viewers. In 1973, there was an unofficial softcore remake called Please Don’t Eat My Mother!, produced by Harry Novak and starring the ubiquitous Buck Kartalian as a middle-aged schlemiel named Henry Fudd who raises his own man-eating (or girl-eating) plant. Novak failed to acknowledge Corman or Griffith, attributing the screenplay only to veteran writer Eric Norden.
An even bigger development in the story occurred in 1982, when Little Shop of Horrors was reconfigured as an Off-Broadway musical comedy with songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. At the time, stage musicals based on movies — especially B-movies — were not exactly common, and Little Shop became an unexpected hit. Four years after its debut, it inspired an expensive, innovative, and star-studded film version from Warner Bros. This Little Shop was directed by Muppet Show veteran Frank Oz and starred SCTV‘s Rick Moranis as Seymour. Although the 1986 film initially underwhelmed at the box office, it eventually gained a solid fan following, leading to the original stage musical finally reaching Broadway in 2003. As recently as this year, there has been talk of a new Little Shop film with Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson. Should you so desire, you can even buy Little Shop of Horrors Funko Pops, released in 2019.
But what of A Bucket of Blood? The 1959 film has never engendered the same kind of affection as Little Shop, maybe because Walter isn’t as inherently lovable as Seymour and dead cat statutes aren’t as funny as sassy, murderous houseplants. Nevertheless, in 1995, there was a Bucket of Blood remake produced by Roger Corman for the Showtime cable network. This time, former Brat Packer Anthony Michael Hall took on the role of Walter, turning the character into an intense, Peter Lorre-esque creep. This new iteration was directed and co-written by Michael McDonald of MADtv fame, who also cameos.
Unlike the 1986 Little Shop of Horrors, which has a nostalgic vibe and is set the early 1960s to better recapture the spirit of the original film, the new Bucket of Blood (also known as Artist of Death) updates its story to the mid-’90s. The beatniks were long-gone by then, but luckily, pretentious coffee shops were still around, as were performance art and poetry slams. This time, the action revolves around a hipster hangout called Jabberjaw, filled with scenesters and wannabes. For some reason, this film’s version of Carla (played by Family Ties star Justine Bateman) speaks with a weird, quasi-Russian accent. And McDonald adds a smattering of nudity to make this more cable-friendly.
Otherwise, apart from a few cosmetic changes, the 1995 remake is remarkably faithful to the 1959 original. Frankly, if you’ve seen the first one, you’ve seen the second one. Every significant character and scene from Chuck Griffith’s script is carried over. Great big chunks of dialogue are repeated verbatim, too, including most of the highfalutin poetry spouted by Maxwell (played this time by radio host Shadoe Stevens). In a weird way, in its fidelity to the source material, the 1995 version anticipates Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of Psycho.
While this material might have played better as an episode of Tales from the Crypt, the Bucket remake is still worth watching for the cast. Hall is nowhere near as indelible as Dick Miller in the role of Walter, but he’s convincingly demented and never once makes you think of Vacation‘s Rusty Griswold or Sixteen Candles‘ Geek. And the roster of Jabberjaw customers is simply incredible: Jennifer Coolidge, David Cross, Mink Stole, Paul Bartel (another Corman mainstay), and Will Ferrell in his first movie role. This isn’t a classic for the ages, but McDonald didn’t botch the job either.
The original Bucket of Blood is still waiting out there as well. The film long ago passed into the public domain, so it’s been released on DVD numerous times and is available for free streaming on several sites. Some prints are in rough shape, while others are near pristine, showing off just how good Jack Marquette’s cinematography really is. The acting is very solid across the board, much less hammy than Little Shop. Dick Miller, in particular, gives what may be the definitive performance of his long career.
In The Little Shop of Horrors Book, Miller laments the cheapness of Bucket of Blood, but 61 years later, the film’s flimsiness lends it a certain naive charm. It’s also a neat snapshot of the beatnik subculture of the late 1950s, at least as it was envisioned by a Hollywood screenwriter. And at only about 65 minutes, the film doesn’t have time to bore or annoy the viewer. Indeed, the story is quite taut. If you’re shut in for a while and in need of entertainment, you could do worse.
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