Bloody Nebbishes: The Relationship Between Roger Corman’s Two Finest Comedies

Bloody Nebbishes: The Relationship Between Roger Corman’s Two Finest Comedies

Greetings, readers.  Now, if you’ve been reading my articles here, it should come as no surprise that I’m a little off from the rest of the crowd.  At times I’m not sure I even truly qualify as a “horror fan.”  I haven’t seen many of the supposed modern classics of the genre, or came to them late enough to surprise most people.  No, my area is the low-budget weirdo schlock cinema, the bizarre drive-in fare, creature features and Z-grade film fromage.  That’s where I really shine.

As such, it should come as no surprise that I am a hopping, frothing, cackling fan of Roger Corman, the “King of the Bs.”  The man is an inspiration, not just for showing just how far a dollar can stretch, not just for giving everyone from James Cameron to Joe Dante to William Shatner to Jack Nicholson to Martin Scorsese to Peter Bogdanovitch their start, but for making so many movies that are so damn fun.  And that’s the thing.  What’s the point of a movie that’s not enjoyable?

Introductory statements out of the way, I thought it would be fun to take a look at two closely-related Roger Corman films that brilliantly combine horror with ghoulish dark comedy.  Released less than a year apart, both scripted by Charles B. Griffith and shot cheaply and quickly even by Corman’s standards, I present to you A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959) and THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960).

A BUCKET OF BLOOD (1959)

In this delightful little romp (filmed in five days), veteran character actor Dick Miller (I’m a fan) plays in his single starring role, as Walter Paisley, a chronically-unlucky schlub of a busboy, jockeying coffee cups around a cafe that caters to beatniks, artists, poets, the chronically-unemployable, and anyone who can turn being an unwashed opinionated blowhard into a few bucks.  In short, yours truly would fit right in.  After accidentally stabbing his landlady’s cat with a steak knife, he attempts to hide his crime and inadvertently becomes the “next big thing” at the coffee shop.  He quickly discovers that being the “next big thing” is nothing to be proud of — he finds himself surrounded by hypocrites, flakes, con artists and drug-dealers.  And what’s worse, there’s also the pressure to continue producing new “sculptures”…

A BUCKET OF BLOOD exists largely as Corman and Griffith’s satirical skewering of the Beatnik subculture, the forerunners of today’s smirking unwashed hipster kids.  The group in the film are particularly unpleasant, stuffing their faces with wheat germ pancakes washed down with tomato juice and cappucinos, smoking obnoxious quantities of cigarettes and spouting off high-minded-sounding but empty commentary on Art and Life: “I refuse to say anything twice. Repetition is death… When you repeat something, you are reliving a moment, wasting it, severing it from the other end of your life. I believe only in new impressions, new stimuli, new life!” and “Life is an obscure hobo, bumming a ride on the omnibus of Art.”  Blow it out your ear. They’re especially fond of spouting about the worthlessness of money compared to the sublime act of Creating Art…until they hear that Walter’s been offered a hefty sum for one of his sculptures.

Once Walter reveals his “skills” as a “sculptor,” the Beatniks welcome him, though never in any way except sardonically.  He’s still the stupid, useless (since he’s not an artist like them) busboy who fumbles their empty coffee cups.  Despite his yearning for their approval, there is never any sense that they are anything except mocking towards him.  The viewer at all points is presented with Walter as the Hero of the film; his alienation and search for approval becomes the audiences’.  Thus there is a sweet satisfaction in seeing these pretentious “Artists” come to the realization of just what they’ve been smirking at and applauding.

THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS (1960)

Filmed even more quickly (two days and a night) in order to squeeze an extra film out of some sets Corman had rented, THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS is perhaps Corman’s most familiar film to non-genre fans…or at least, they may have seen the play based on the film, or the musical comedy film from 1986 starring Rick Moranis and Steve Martin.

In this edgy, subversive original, Seymour Krelboin (Jonathan Haze) is a loser stockboy working at a skid row florist’s shop.  His mother’s an alcoholic hypochondriac (and played by the same actress, Myrtle Vail, as Walter Paisley’s landlady), his boss is an overbearing Slav and his only joys in life are his shy friendship with coworker Audrey and horticulture.  Doing a little bit of experimental plant-crossing in his free time, Seymour has created an ugly but unique little plant that he calls “Audrey Jr.”

Seymour’s a little disconcerted when he finds out that Audrey Jr. needs to consume fresh human blood to survive, and even more so when the the vampire vegetable finds a voice and begins demanding “Feed me! Feeeeed meeeeee!” But, Audrey Jr.’s novelty value is the only thing keeping Seymour employed, so…

THE LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, in its original film version, is a delicious little flick.  Everything is taken to the point of self-parody; the hardboiled cops are so hardboiled (“Them’s the breaks,” one shrugs in reference to his son dying in a fire), the poor Eastern Europeans of skid row are so poor, and so Eastern European…The ultimate instance of this, I think, is Seymour’s mother; she lays in bed bemoaning the fact that her son can’t buy her an iron lung, waiting for him to come home with her “medicine” – “alcohol content 98%!” The food she feeds Seymour is filled with cod liver oil, aspirin, and a variety of patent medicines.  Dick Miller shows up in a cameo role as “Burson Fouch,” a man who hangs around the flower shop eating the merchandise.  It’s all very weird.

***

So what can we say about these two films together? What links them besides the name “Roger Corman”? And, well, besides the obvious: Both written by Charles B. Griffith, both featuring Dick Miller in a memorable role, and both being filmed at break-neck scheduling?

Walter Paisley and Seymour Krelboin are LOSERS.  These two pathetic, bumbling nerds (a piece of film criticism I read a couple months back refers to both of them as “Schlimazels”; a Yiddish term referring to the chronically, catastrophically unlucky) are the focus of their respective films, and the audiences’ perspective into the stories.  Everything we see we see from the perspective of Paisley and Krelboin.  If you’ll forgive me an arty-farty moment here, it reminds of of Kurosawa’s THE HIDDEN FORTRESS in which the audiences’ perspective is through Tahei and Matakishi, a pair of peasants who tag along through the film, providing comic relief.  It may be a bit of a jump to discuss Kurosawa’s vision of warring empires seen through to eyes of the lowliest inhabitants in conjunction with a pair of quickie Creepy Cheapies Corman churned out in under a week, but the matter of perspective is an interesting one.

What’s more, if you trace their descent into madness and murder there are similarities.  Both start with an accident (Paisley killing the cat and Seymour’s papercut) and a lot of self-searching questioning and doubt.  However, when they are rewarded for their accidents, another, bigger accident occurs (Paisley kills a cop trying to bust him on a drug-charge, and Seymour kills a hobo).  Seeing their reward grow, both men begin to pursue the crime that made them famous, becoming more and more daring until finally, their work is their own undoing; Paisley, running from the cops, covers himself in clay before hanging himself, while Seymour, in a similar situation, throws himself into Audrey Jr.’s gaping maw.

The two nebbishes go full circle; from nobodies, to celebrities, to criminals, to a horrible end.  From dust they arose, and to dust they returned.  Dorks to the end.


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Bill Adcock likes long walks off short piers and eating endangered species. In addition to his work for the Blood Sprayer, his writing can also be found at his personal site, Radiation-Scarred Reviews, which he's maintained since 2008. Bill has also contributed, as of this writing, to GRINDHOUSE PURGATORY issues 2 and 3, and CINEMA SEWER issue 27.

2 Responses to “Bloody Nebbishes: The Relationship Between Roger Corman’s Two Finest Comedies”

  1. Bill, this is a fantastic article. Your appreciation and passion for these lovingly low grade films shines through immensely and can’t help but get me giddy just by reading them! I remember watching Little Shop late on Christmas Eve; I was tired, excited, and just in a plain funky mood, and watching that flick just made the evening all the more wonderfully stranger. Your essay has brought back that feeling along with a new appreciation for Corman’s films. Keep up the stellar work!

  2. What a coincidence. I just wrote about The Little Shop of Horrors a couple days ago for a blog. I love, love, LOVE this film…both versions of it. I must say, though, your love of the B-side certainly rivals my own and your skill to express your passion is very well received :).

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