During the protracted climax of Ice Cream Man (1995), the title character has a miniature meltdown. He screams, “You kids don’t want to play with the ice cream man? You like his treats, but you don’t stick by him when he needs ya!” This, after he’s committed several murders and a kidnapping. The tirade really captures the mood of this cheap, obscure oddity: child-oriented, sprinkled with occasional pathos, and very messed up, mostly thanks to Clint Howard (Ron’s brother) and his hysterical performance as a homicidal purveyor of frozen treats.
I’m still not clear on who Ice Cream Man’s target audience is. The protagonists—a group of white suburban preteens who call themselves the “Rocketeers”—could be right out of an episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark? or Goosebumps, both of which were on TV at the time this film was made. The characters, setting, inane dialogue, and syrupy music all make Ice Cream Man feel like a big-screen analogue of those shows, similarly intended for consumption by kids under age 13 or so.
However, it’s also extremely gory, containing some mutilations, decapitations, a dog killing, and other gruesome sights clearly not meant for kids’ eyes. Plus, it was directed by “Norman Apstein,” aka porno director Paul Norman, whose most recent releases include Hungry Holes (2000) and Sperm Bitches (2001). The film reflects that fact, to some degree, in the weird softcore sequences where the ice cream man is nearly seduced by a local horny housewife (and, naturally, ends up splattered in her blood). So: who was Ice Cream Man intended for? Was it specifically made to be forgotten, and then rediscovered by nostalgic adults over a decade later?
These apparent contradictions are compounded by all the film’s deeply quirky touches. For example, one of the kids’ fathers is a minister with a British accent, and while giving a sermon he appears to have stigmata. (No explanation given, of course.) Later, the film seems to forget that it’s even about an ice cream man, as it follows a pair of cops into the chaotic Wishing Well Sanitarium, where the babbling inmates run the asylum. (As you can guess, this film doesn’t exactly give an accurate portrayal of mental illness.) This is just skimming the surface, though, as it’d take a while to catalog the film’s bizarre glimpses of Stockholm syndrome, police brutality, and amateur pornography.
For all its pervasive strangeness, though, the real crux of Ice Cream Man is Clint Howard as the severely disturbed ice cream man Gregory Tudor. It’s hard to tell where he’s coming from with his erratic, demented performance; he dishes out Fudgesicles as if he’s Igor handing Dr. Frankenstein a human brain. Howard, with his giant forehead and crooked teeth, is perfectly equipped for every tic, twitch, and menacing inflection that defines Gregory’s psychosis. He’s like Pee-Wee Herman, Freddy Krueger, and Larry from the Three Stooges rolled into one. (Ashley adds an uglier, creepier version of Paul Giamatti as a point of comparison.)
Needless to say, Howard makes for a very unique slasher villain, and the film’s only real selling point. I can’t seriously recommend it as anything like a “good movie,” but it’s definitely ironically enjoyable. If you’re into gratuitous gore, it has plenty of that as well, including a memorable hacked-off-heads-as-puppets scenes and what may be the only death-by-waffle-iron in all of cinema. It’s a curio of the mid-’90s, when the late-period slasher film collided with the surge of children’s horror media under the guidance of an experienced pornographer—and the result was deeply, powerfully weird.