If might be pushing it to say that artistic merit distinguishes Roger Corman’s contributions to the low-budget teenpic of the 1950s; it’s more like technical competence: the actors are believable enough, the boom stays out of the shots, and the scripts are thoroughly plotted (no flashbacks that end twice here!) The criticism often leveled at Corman’s 1950s productions are that the premises are unbelievably goofy- but in the case of this horror/comedy hybrid that satirizes beatniks, Modern Art and celebrity culture, it is an element that actually works in the film’s favor.
Shot for $50,000 in five days on sets leftover from Diary of a High School Bride (and which would be recycled yet again for Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors), the film is essentially a hipster retelling of 1933’s Mystery of the Wax Museum (which had already remade as House of Wax in 1953).
Hapless, socially awkward Walter Paisley (Dick Miller) is a busboy at The Yellow Door coffeehouse, where beat poet Maxwell H. Brock (Julian Burton, sporting what has to be American-International’s largest fake beard) holds court among his devoted followers and fellow artists and writers, including Carla, the waitress whom Walter has a crush on.
Hoping to break into the art world himself, and inspired by Maxwell’s latest spoken-word piece (All that is comes through the eye of the artist! The rest are blind fish swimming in the cave of aloneness! Swim on you maddened muddling maudlin fools!), Walter returns to his boarding house that night to sculpt, only to be distracted by his landlady’s cat, which has become trapped inside his wall. He accidentally stabs the cat trying to free it, and covers up the deed by covering the cat, knife and all, in clay.
He brings the “sculpture” to his sleazy, beret-wearing boss the next morning, who agrees to display it at the coffeehouse, and split the commission with him if it sells. The other Yellow Door habitués congratulate him on his ascent into their ranks at last, and is showered with admiration by his #1 fan, Naolia, who tells Walter that he’s “got a hot light bulb glowing inside of you and I want to be warmed by it!” He doesn’t get the hint, but she does give him a vile of heroin, which is observed by undercover narc Lou Raby. Detective Raby follows Walter home to arrest him for possession (“Where do you get your Horse?!?”), but Walter panics and hits him over the head with a frying pan, killing him.
The next morning he shows up at work with his latest piece, “Murdered Man”, which is the point where his boss starts to get a little suspicious…
Walter is now held as an equal with the other artistes as he prepares for his first exhibition; his arrival is only spoiled by the arrival of blonde model Alice (just back from Big Sur, where she was stalking Henry Miller), who demands to know why the bus boy is allowed to sit at the table. Alice informs him that she is a model (“I only charge $25 an hour- would you like to do me?”) and in short order Walter has produced his third masterpiece:
Barging into to Maxwell’s artist colony and interrupting everyone’s breakfast of “soy and wheat germ pancakes, organic guava nectar, calcium lactate and tomato juice and garbanzo omelets sprinkled with smoked yeast” he demands an assessment of his work- Maxwell is so impressed that he announces that he will throw a party in Walter’s honor that very night.
Drunk on success (and liquor), Walter is unable to quit the cycle of murderin’ and art makin’. His boss is on to him by this point, but the lure of an opening and the cold hard cash coming in from rich L.A. squares proves to be too much, and he schedules a show for Walter.
Success proves to be Walter’s undoing: so successful with the art critics he snubs his old beatnik friends, and when Carla discovers his secret at his opening, they pursue him (endlessly, in the one scene that really drags) through the streets of Los Angeles- having nowhere to go and haunted by the voices of his victims, Walter has no recourse but to turn himself into art. Maxwell pompously intones that it is his greatest work- “I suppose he would have called it ‘Hanged Man’”.
Overall, the movie is a success: Corman effectively stretches his tiny budget, and the characterizations are broad, but sharper (and therefore funnier) than most movies and T.V. shows taking aim at beat culture. It is worth investing 65 minutes in.
Leading man Dick Miller later took ‘Walter Paisley’ as his stage name for several other AIP productions.
The voiceover from the trailer (“Come to the land of living dreams! Beatniks at their bawdiest!”) is familiar to listeners of Little Steven’s Underground Underground Garage