The Ice Cream Man (1995)

Any true cinephile has to really feel for Clint Howard.   His older brother Ron has become a national icon—twice—first by playing Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show and then Richie Cunningham on Happy Days.  After his years in front of the camera were over, Ron Howard went on to become perhaps the most extraordinarily competent director in Hollywood, churning out a highly successful run of Oscar bait for almost 25 years now.   To the extent that anyone recognizes Clint Howard, meanwhile, it is most likely as Balok the uncanny MOS space baby from the original Star Trek. 

Which is really too bad, because any objective observer would have to agree that Clint Howard has pursued a much more interesting career.  Ron Howard has given us Cocoon (1985), Far and Away (1992), and The Da Vinci Code (2006).  Ask yourself, what would it take to compel you to see any of those films a second time?  Meanwhile, Clint Howard has appeared in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979), The Wraith (1986), Carnosaur (1993), Ticks (1994), Leprechaun 2 (1994), Barb Wire (1996), Santa with Muscles (1996), The Dentist 2: Brace Yourself (1998), Little Nicky (2000), House of the Dead (2003), and the upcoming crime against both cinema and nature, Bloodrayne: The Third Reich (2010).  Not only that, he’s been in just about every one of his more famous brother’s movies, including a made-for-TV flick inexplicably shot at my high school in Dallas (Cotton Candy—1978).  

One of Clint Howard’s more memorable films is The Ice Cream Man (1995), a probing drama of confectionary psychosis directed by Paul Norman.  If that name isn’t familiar, it’s because you’re not watching enough pornography, or perhaps skipping the credits of whatever pornography you may or may not be watching.  Before directing Howard in The Ice Cream Man, Norman’s oeuvre included Edward Penishands (1991), Transitions: An Anal Adventure (1993), and Intercourse with the Vampire (1994).  After The Ice Cream Man failed to launch a horror franchise, Norman returned to more familiar territory with Fetish (1997), Hungry Holes (2000), and a writing credit for Bitches in Heat: Pt. 1 Locked in a Basement (1995).  The Ice Cream Man appears to have been Norman’s lone bid for a “legit” non-X feature.  IMDB lists his last directing credit as Sperm Bitches (2001).  Sperm Bitches.  Few titles so perfectly encapsulate the history and politics of their parent genre.  If I had had the honor of bringing the Sperm Bitches screenplay to life , I think I would retire from the director’s chair as well.  Where else is there to go in the genre?   

Of its many merits, The Ice Cream Man is particularly notable for its oddly unstable tone.  How “tone” manifests in any film is one of the great mysteries of cinematic poetics, an ineffable alchemy that becomes even more profoundly enigmatic when tone is slightly “off.”  Sometimes artful filmmakers mismatch tone and subject intentionally for a particular effect, like the recently brilliant Observe and Report (2009).  At other times, for whatever reason, a film simply “misses” the tone it sets out to capture, making the movie either tediously insufferable (Interiors—1978) or unintentionally sublime (The Apple-1980).

I’m not sure exactly where to put The Ice Cream Man in this respect.  The idea, apparently, was to mix horror and comedy, but in failing to find a dominant one way or the other, the story is haunted by ambiguity and uncertainty.  In the opening act, for example, the film appears to be going for a vibe of dark childhood whimsy.  It’s summer.  A group of pre-teeners thinks the new ice cream man is a little weird, no doubt because he is Clint Howard and he takes their orders from behind what look to be prison bars welded to the side of his “Good Humor” truck.  At this early juncture, the movie could become Stand By Me (1986), Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), The Goonies (1985) or even To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) (Clint Howard would make a great Boo Radley).

But then the bloodletting begins, instantly taking this charming tale of childhood suspicion into the hard-R territory of a splatter film.  Even here, however, the film continues to struggle with its tonal mix.   For example, our initial confirmation that the ice cream man is indeed deranged comes with the first shot revealing the inside of his ice-cream truck.  As the kids queue for their hard-packs, push-ups, and bomb-pops, we see a little white mouse scurrying over what appears to be a tub of raspberry sherbet.   For whatever reason—basic visual legibility perhaps--Norman holds back here on the more obvious choice for signifying psychotic putridity—the Norwegian roof-rat.  The little white mouse is kind of cute, really, even if he is further pelleting the chocolate chip.  The camera then pans over to reveal that the next tub of ice cream is infested with bugs, but even these appear to be more “crickety” than “roachy”—an initial hesitation, perhaps, to cross the line from Nicktoons gross to grindhouse abjection.  
And yet, only moments later, the ice cream man takes advantage of a recently dislodged eyeball, dicing it up to make fresh  “marshmallows” for a spontaneously mixed batch of Rocky Road.  Audaciously, he feeds it to a detective looking for a missing kid who, in a rather creepy nod to the pedophilic side of Frankenstein, is a prisoner back at the ice cream man’s ice creamery (they’re both “misfits” observes i.c.m.). Here Norman is not content to simply show the cop eating a cone we know to be full of minced eyeball, but instead cuts to an extreme close-up of his tongue as it extracts and savors a sliver of vitreous humor from the melting vanilla.  Here we have the strongest stylistic evidence of Norman’s training in pornography—it is in effect a “money shot,” only with a very different configuration of vision, tongues, and cream.   

Observant readers may have noted that the “ice cream man” appears to have no other name than “ice cream man,” and this is in fact the case.  He is like “the stranger” in High Plains Drifter (1973) or “the driver” in Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), an abstract emblem of forces operating on the larger field of mythopoesis.  This causes problems, however, in that the film also operates within the more quotidian logics of suburbia and the crime procedural.  This leads to a number of odd dialogue exchanges.  When the cops visit his truck in search of the missing child, for example, the ice cream man asks, “Got any suspects?”  To this the cop responds, “That’s classified, ice cream man.  Classified.”  Whether they are mocking him or paying homage to his symbolic position in the American mythos of summer community remains, like so many other things in the movie, unclear.

Like most modern serial-killing psychos, the ice cream man not only murders people, but does so in a manner that speaks to his particular psychosocial profile as “the ice cream man.”  A serial-killing insurance salesman, for example, might leave behind actuary tables with “time’s up” written in blood, while a murdering podiatrist might harvest feet as type of fetishistic trophy.  Clint Howard already had experience with this genre convention in The Dentist 2: Brace Yourself, where he played an unlucky patient drilled to death by Corbin Bernsen.  How to horrify with ice cream?  As we saw above, one strategy is simply to defile it with gross additives--eyeballs, bugs, dead dogs and such.  One might also imagine drowning victims in large vats of churning cream, or perhaps freezing them to death in a locker full of fudgesicles.  Happily, The Ice Cream Man has more imagination than this.  For example, when the town floozy begins making sexual overtures to the ice cream man, he returns the favor by bringing her a severed head perched atop a specially made waffle cone.

It is an extraordinary image in its own way, and one that brings the film’s overall struggle to achieve appropriate tone to a full-blown crisis.  Is this shot meant to be cleverly funny or unbelievably horrific?  At first glance, it appears the goal is humor.  In his limited romantic vocabulary, the ice cream man has taken the time to fashion a very special treat for his lady friend, one that compels the viewer to ask several questions.  How would one go about making a waffle cone that big?  Does “waffle” possess the tensile strength necessary to support a human head, generally agreed to weigh around 8 pounds?  Is that blood or some form of cherry syrup on the cone and uniform?  The second scoop with a cherry on top only adds to the whimsy of the overall presentation.  

But now look at the image again and imagine that it comes, not from a goofy horror movie with Clint Howard, but from the scrapbook of an actual serial killer.  That is, imagine if you can that this image is “real,” that someone really has severed a head and plopped it atop a waffle cone along with a bonus scoop and a cherry.  Just how sick is that?  Would this not be one of the most harrowing images of the century, right up there with the crime scene photos at 10050 Cielo Drive or that truly disturbing picture of John Wayne Gacy shaking hands with first-lady Rosalyn Carter?  Born of goofy perhaps even parodic genre play, it is an image that with further contemplation actually becomes severly disturbing and/or disturbed.  

How does it all end?  The kids have a club called "The Rocketeers" or some such nonsense, and they end up firing a model rocket into the ice cream truck.  Having abandoned any pretense of securing a PG rating an hour earlier, it’s really a mystery as to why the filmmakers felt a need to return to such rascally shenanigans at the end—perhaps it is a merciful device that helps contain the horror of contemplating a severed head served in a waffle cone.  Who can say?  All I know is I would gladly stare that cone down alone in a room for two hours rather than sit through Frost/Nixon again. 

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