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The Walter Paisley Universe: Tracking the History of Cult Cinema’s Favorite Recurring Character

Roger Corman’s 1959 horror-tinged beatnik satire A Bucket of Blood may have been the start of one of the least likely shared universes in movie history.

Well, okay. Not officially. Not even unofficially, really. In reality, it’s not a shared universe at all, and really just a running in-joke that popped up in a string of unrelated films scattered throughout the 35 years that followed the release of this film. But shared universes are all the rage nowadays, so who knows? Maybe if we find a way to retroactively make these movies a shared universe, Walter Paisley could be as big as Iron Man or whoever the hell Tom Cruise played in the recent Mummy movie. Maybe it’s time for the world to embrace the Paisley-verse.

A Bucket of Blood is a surprisingly vicious satire that targets the pretentiousness and narcissism of beatnik culture in the 1950s. It stars the great Dick Miller as Walter Paisley, a busboy at a beatnik coffeehouse who accidentally becomes the toast of the hip crowd with a series of sculptures he “creates.” The catch is that, unbeknownst to all the cool cats digging his vibe, they’re actually the bodies of dead people (and a dead cat) that Walter has covered in clay and passed off as sculptures. The deaths he turns into celebrated art are accidental at first, but of course, once he gets a taste of being the talk of the town, he ultimately resorts to intentional murder rather than mere manslaughter, which he justifies by convincing himself that he’s actually liberating them from the trivial temporality of existence and immortalizing them by turning them into works of art that will be appreciated for centuries to come.

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Walter Paisley with his first celebrated sculpture.

In A Bucket of Blood, Walter Paisley is a clumsy, timid loser who gradually becomes a desperate, arrogant sociopath. Dick Miller imbues him with the natural charm that he’s given to so many of his characters over his long acting career, and it’s his rather distinct style of acting — natural, cool, effortlessly magnetic — that makes Walter Paisley much more intriguing and complex than the dozens of other characters who have followed that similar arc of desperation leading to corruption in countless other films and works of literature throughout history. There’s not an entire sea change in his character like a lot of other characters of this type tend to undergo; rather, he feels fundamentally the same at the beginning and end of the film, implying both that he’s still a naive loser at the end and that even when that’s all people thought he was, there was already a deranged killer lurking somewhere inside of him. It’s not necessarily a transformation so much as a convergence of two seemingly disparate sides of his personality, and while I certainly don’t claim to know much about the craft of acting, I imagine it’s much harder to play an ever-wavering balance of two sides of a character than it is to simply play one side and then switch to another at a certain point in the character’s arc.

The movie ends with Walter Paisley’s dark secret about his sculptures being discovered during his first gallery, when the clay starts to crack and the corpses beneath are revealed. He rushes home and hangs himself, to which one of his fellow beatniks — a poet named Maxwell whom he idolized before overtaking his role as the preeminent artiste in the community — remarks, “I suppose he would have called it ‘Hanging Man’…his greatest work!” Walter Paisley started to believe his own delusions about the immortality of art, and in his last act, rather than accepting the shame of living as a fraud, in his mind chose to die as an artist.

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A man who clearly does not have a problem with suffering in the name of art.

While Walter Paisley is undoubtedly a fascinating character, his cult popularity actually has little to do with his portrayal in A Bucket of Blood. To be sure, it’s a great movie that holds up incredibly well almost sixty years later now, and its darkly comic lampooning of beatniks remains bitingly spot-on. It easily ranks as one of Roger Corman’s best directorial efforts, and Dick Miller’s performance as Walter Paisley is arguably the main reason it works so well. But in a way, the legacy of Walter Paisley — the myth, if you will — has overshadowed it to the point that I’m not even sure how many people who are familiar with the Walter Paisley in-joke know where the character originated.

For you see, seventeen years later, Walter Paisley resurfaced. Yes, the character had died, but in an ironic twist of fate, he actually got his wish to be immortalized in a way. The 1976 movie industry satire Hollywood Boulevard was produced by — you guessed it — Roger Corman, and it was co-directed by his proteges Allan Arkush and Joe Dante, both making their directorial debuts. They later went on to co-direct Rock ‘n’ Roll High School together (though Dante was uncredited) before Dante’s career really took off in the ’80s with films such as The Howling, Gremlins, and The ‘Burbs. But being the cult movie buffs that they both were, they decided to pay homage to their producer in their first film by casting Dick Miller in a role as a Hollywood agent named — again, you guessed it — Walter Paisley.

It was just a small wink at first. It would have only been an amusing footnote to a little-known B-movie from the mid-’70s that it contained a reference to a slightly better-known B-movie from the late ’50s had it ended there. But the legend of Walter Paisley was only just beginning. In Joe Dante’s aforementioned 1981 film The Howling, Dick Miller has a small but important role as an occult bookshop owner…named Walter Paisley. Now far from the anxious, impressionable creep he was in A Bucket of Blood twenty-two years earlier, Walter is like a sage of the supernatural and occult, and while it could be argued that his main function in the film is to provide exposition to help explain things to the audience, again Dick Miller is such a natural onscreen that the character never once feels like anything less than a fully fleshed out person, and even when he’s reciting dialogue that’s designed to simply fill in some gaps in the plot, it doesn’t feel at all forced. There’s no doubt that Walter Paisley is a completely realized character, and he only needs a few minutes of screen time and some expository dialogue to get that across. Perhaps it’s the familiarity of seeing Dick Miller in this role that helps with that? I’m just saying…

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If there’s something strange in your werewolf commune, who you gonna call?

Two years later, the anthology film Twilight Zone: The Movie was released, featuring four segments (three of which are adaptations of classic Twilight Zone television episodes), each by a different well-known director. The directors in question were Steven Spielberg, John Landis, George Miller, and last but not least, Joe Dante. Dante’s segment, based on the famous episode “It’s a Good Life,” is about a young boy named Anthony who has psychic powers that he uses to ensure that he always gets his way in every aspect of life. This adaptation deviates from the original episode in that rather than focusing on the boy’s family as the main characters, the protagonist in this one is a woman new to town who initially serves as an outside observer of all the strange goings-on. She stops at a bar to ask for directions, and that’s where she first encounters young Anthony. But who is it whom she asks for directions before the plot gets going? Why, the bar’s owner is played by none other than Dick Miller, and sure enough, he’s back in the role of Walter Paisley. This was the shortest of the Walter Paisley appearances to date, but even a mere cameo is a real treat when it comes to this fascinating character who was already starting to seem almost omnipresent in genre films of the time.

Okay, so Walter Paisley had appeared in four films by this point, but there was still a direct lineage among them. A Bucket of Blood was directed by Roger Corman, Hollywood Boulevard was produced by Corman and co-directed by Joe Dante, and The Howling and the “It’s a Good Life” segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie were both directed by Dante, who was just carrying on his own tradition of paying homage to this character. But this is where the myth of Walter Paisley ventures outside the ouevre of Joe Dante, because in 1986, there were two more Walter Paisley appearances, neither of them in a film directed by Dante. Granted, Chopping Mall was produced by Roger Corman’s wife Julie, so there’s still a Corman connection for one of them. But nonetheless, it was clear that what Joe Dante started by turning Walter Paisley into a recurring character throughout different films had become such a popular in-joke that other directors decided they wanted to get in on the joke as well.

In Chopping Mall, the deliciously ’80s horror-comedy (note: I’m using “’80s” as a descriptive adjective, not just as a time period) about a group of teens spending the night in a mall guarded by security robots that go rogue, was directed by the insanely prolific Jim Wynorski, who has made films in nearly every genre of exploitation from monster movies to cheap children’s films to softcore porn…actually, I’m pretty sure the bulk of his filmography is softcore porn, but my point is he’s made a ton of movies in many different genres. Anyway, shortly after the teenage protagonists begin their obligatory partying, drinking, and various sexual activities, a janitor elsewhere in the mall encounters some of the robots and fails to pass their security test, leading to his untimely demise via electrocution. The janitor, played with an extra helping of no-bullshit attitude by Dick Miller, never has his name spoken aloud during the film, but Wynorski makes sure his name tag is made perfectly visible to the audience. And sure enough, his name is indeed Walter Paisley. This was another brief cameo for the character, but one that nonetheless added immensely to his ever growing legacy.

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Don’t worry, I won’t make a joke about this being a “shocking” scene…

The second Walter Paisley appearance of 1986 came in Fred Dekker’s tremendously fun Night of the Creeps, a mishmash of so many different horror subgenres that on the surface it might seem prone to becoming a huge mess of a movie, but somehow Dekker incorporates all of them seamlessly into one reference-happy joyride of a movie. One look at the list of last names used for all of the main characters should cue you into the kind of movie this is: Romero, Cronenberg, Cameron, Carpenter-Hooper (two in one there!), Landis, Raimi, and Miner. Oh, and the setting is a place called Corman University. Yes, this is just one giant love letter to horror and sci-fi movies, and so it should come as no real surprise that when Dick Miller shows up as a police officer, it’s not long after that we find out his name is Officer Paisley. And just in case there was still any lingering doubt as to whether or not this counted, he is listed in the end credits as “Walt.”

Finally, in 1994, a series was created for the premium cable channel Showtime called Rebel Highway. Each episode was a feature-length remake of an American International Pictures B-movie from the ’50s, but updated for the ’90s. So you know…”edgy” and whatnot. Only ten episodes were produced, but they managed to attract some big directors like William Friedkin, Robert Rodriguez, and Joe Dante (wait for it…), and some of the actors who played roles throughout the series later went on to become big celebrities, such as Paul Rudd, Alicia Silverstone (these two were in this show — albeit in separate episodes — a year before they co-starred together in Clueless, so there’s a fun fact for you), Salma Hayek, Jared Leto, and Adrien Brody.

Now I know that when you saw Joe Dante’s name listed among the directors there, you immediately thought, “Okay, there’s our Walter Paisley appearance.” But guess what? Dick Miller plays a part in the episode he directed…but NOT as Walter Paisley. However, Dick Miller also appeared in another episode of the series, which was directed by none other than Allan Arkush, who — lest we forget — co-directed Hollywood Boulevard with Dante, which is where the Walter Paisley homages started. Not to be outdone by his more famous collaborator whom he started the ongoing homage with, it was Arkush who was responsible for the last official appearance of Walter Paisley (“official,” you see, because Dick Miller has played an awful lot of unnamed characters, so who knows how far the Paisley-verse extends?).

Arkush’s episode was a remake of the 1956 rocksploitation musical Shake, Rattle & Rock! This updated version starred Renée Zellweger (yet another actor who would go on to become a big-name celebrity) in the lead role, with a supporting cast filled out by several alumni of Roger Corman films, including Mary Woronov, P.J. Soles, Gerrit Graham, and of course, our main man Dick Miller. Here he yet again plays a cop named Officer Paisley, which could be seen not only as the latest in the Walter Paisley lineage, but also a nod to the prior appearance he made in Night of the Creeps (perhaps implying there was now an actual continuity to the character?).

While that was the last we’d see of Walter Paisley (officially, anyway), the legacy of the character is an interesting one. What started as an homage and turned into a running in-joke has become arguably Dick Miller’s greatest claim to fame in some circles — the circles inhabited by fans of cult and horror films, that is. In That Guy Dick Miller, the very good 2015 documentary about his life and career, a significant portion of the film is spent discussing the Walter Paisley phenomenon. Dick Miller himself mainly seems amused by the whole thing more than anything else, like he’s not sure how or why the character lived on for as long as he did, but he’s fully embraced it, and it appears to be something he’s really proud of. As well he should be.

Now, getting back to where I started, is there actually a Paisley-verse? Did Walter Paisley perhaps not actually die at the end of A Bucket of Blood? Did he fake his hanging as an artistic statement? Did he then abandon the pretenses of beatnik culture to fully embrace his own shallowness and narcissism by becoming a Hollywood agent? Did he get involved in some weird Hollywood cult and develop and interest in the occult, eventually deciding to open his own occult bookshop? Did his occult knowledge lead him to a town basically run by a boy with psychic powers, where he opened up a bar to avoid the boy’s suspicion? Did the crimes that surrounded his career dealing with the occult lead him to want to become involved in law enforcement, and did he have to start at the bottom being a mall security guard before being demoted to a janitor after the robot guards were put into effect, only to bounce back and become a full-fledged police officer? And maybe somewhere in between, he owned a gun shop where he once sold arms to an Austrian-accented android sent from the future to kill Sarah Connor?

Probably not. But it’s fun to think about.

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Perhaps an apocryphal Walter Paisley appearance? James Cameron was also a protege of Roger Corman, after all…

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