It’s like riding a bicycle apparently,¹ though not very complicated to be sure. The weekend was ending, and I’d managed to corral my other interests (comics, primarily!), only to find myself with a mere hour or so before I’d intended on crawling into bed for the upcoming work week. My original plan (Melville’s L’armée des ombres) was less “cutting it close” and more “severing it completely”, so I perused my collection for something unwatched and short. Drop back a few decades and shave the budget down pretty far, and you find movies with runtimes like this one–sixty-six minutes, title to credits. Like many a release, it’s been sitting in my collection for almost a decade now, unwatched. It felt like it would likely be an easy watch to get into alongside its short runtime, unlike, say, early Sam Fuller, though we’ll see if that holds to be a clever assumption at a later date.
Walter Paisley (Dick Miller, in his ninth [!] Corman flick up to the filming) is a lonely schlub of a busboy at The Yellow Door, a beatnik-y art club-slash-café run by Leonard de Santis (Antony Carbone, who would do a few more Corman productions as well, but mostly focus on television roles²) and frequented by pretentious poet Maxwell Brock (Julian H. Burton, not a Corman regular at all, and primarily a television actor over time). Nursing a nervous crush on Carla (Barboura Morris, almost exclusively a Corman actor), who also works at the club (perhaps co-owns it?), Paisley dreams of being famous and respected enough as a thinker to catch Carla’s eye. When his phenomenal memory fails to impress (also hitting upon the wall of Brock’s pretension, via his insistence that “repetition is dead”) and his attempt at home to sculpt fail, an unhappy accident turns to a happy one when he brings to Carla and Leonard his new sculpture: “Dead Cat”. Touched with the wisps of fame and the respect of Brock, Walter finds himself in need of a new piece but has no idea how to replicate the success of his feline-encasing sculpture, when fortune again intervenes…
I saw that Leonard Maltin got a pull-quote on the back of this sucker calling it “a nifty semi-spoof of dead-bodies-in-the-wax-museum genre” (perhaps most disturbingly, “genre” is a fairly justifiable term in context)–knowing how and when I bought this, that is likely related to my decision to pick it up, as I carried a Maltin film guide around in those days³ and gave the movie 3 stars (his scale was 4). Of course, starring Dick Miller never hurts anything–perhaps the quintessential genre cult character actor (I know him best as Murray Futterman of Gremlins fame).
This is not only a Corman-directed movie, it’s one written by Charles B. Griffith, who wrote something like 20 Corman pictures, including this one and the more famous Death Race 2000 and the original Little Shop of Horrors (filmed, apparently, on the same sets, and returning to the well of “loveable schlub who gets caught up in murdering people for love and continued fame”). Anyway, the point is: this was done on the cheap. But Corman and co. work with what they have. The club comes off as beatnik-y without becoming laughable (though I was struck with the urge to confirm or deny the snapping-applause trope after plain clapping followed Brock’s opening poem), and the murder shots and sculptures are sufficiently effective in their relative horror.
Miller and Carbone play things perhaps most broadly–Miller sinks into himself to be the eager, dullest-in-the-toolshed Walter (an extra layer of sympathy does come from Walter’s clear inability to fully comprehend what’s going on around him, nevermind what Brock’s poetics metaphorically mean), emotionally immature as well as intellectually. Carbone really goes for it as the only one who has put together what’s going on, making sure the audience has no doubt that he understands the ramifications of Walter’s new pieces. Burton and Morris, in contrast, play the straight foils; Burton is actually rather larger-than-life himself, but this is in keeping with a character like Brock, who would be called a character even as an actual person, while Morris brings some nice reality and believable artistic intellectual thought to Carla.
There are weird tinges of humour like the reactions of Carbone and Myrtle Vail (who plays Walter’s landlady, Mrs. Swickert) to any number of things, but there are also two constantly-high frequenters of the Yellow Door–Oscar (John Shaner) and Will (John Brinkley)–who irritate Brock and have the uninhibited commentary of two wits under the influence, as well as the muted or questionable reactions. There are plenty of broad strokes, such as the actually rather clever decision to have Walter repeat half of what he hears, supplanting the voiceover-for-plot-reminder, but also colouring in Walter’s mental state nicely. But there are also some more subtle nudges here and there that hold the audience’s hand less readily for a morbid or dry (or both!) joke here or there.
In the end: it’s only about an hour, and it’s a pretty fun and complete one–plus, hey, it apparently led to Little Shop, so you’ve got to give it that at least.
¹Discounting the fact that I never learned how to do that in the most literal of senses.
²And eventually play the titular “Jack” in the Tales from the Darkside adaptation of Clive Barker’s “The Yattering and Jack”, from his Books of Blood. This isn’t a point of reference meaningful to many, I imagine, but it pleases me.
³The Maltin rule, according to me: If he says it’s good, it is. If he says it isn’t…probably watch it yourself, because who knows.