Terror Trash is an October series celebrating and delighting in some less-than-sterling entries in the horror movie genre. After several years of highlighting great films in our Century of Terror and ABCs of Horror series, it’s time for a loving appraisal of some decidedly more trashy, incompetent, or enjoyably cheesy material.
I would wager that you could pretty neatly separate movie fans into two categories, and that the dividing line between those categories would demonstrably cleave viewers into conventional and unconventional camps. On one hand, there’s the legion of relatively normal, well-adjusted everyday cinemagoers who would have no idea who to envision when someone says the name “Clint Howard.” And then … well, there’s the rest of us, who know exactly who you’re talking about, as the legendary character actor’s unmistakable face immediately swims to mind. As if it needs to be said, we are the weirdos. We’re the bad movie devotees, the genre enthusiasts, the zealots of shlock. It’s not that Clint Howard is some kind of bad movie luminary, it’s just that there’s simply no reason for a person who doesn’t enjoy bizarre cinema—or maybe a Star Trek geek—to instantly be able to recall the visage of Ron Howard’s strange little brother. If you know who the man is from name alone, then surely you’ve been baptized into the fanciful world of cult cinema.
But even then, have you ever seen a movie starring Clint Howard as its title character? There aren’t many opportunities to do so, I assure you, but one of the few prominent exceptions to the rule is 1995’s comedic slasher The Ice Cream Man. Here, we’re confronted by Clint in all his glory, anchoring a truly strange low-budget slasher from the middle of a decade where the genre had nearly extinguished itself via repetition and a lack of inspiration. A year later, Scream would launch a new era for slasher cinema, but here in 1995, the genre is arguably at its absolute rare, an outdated 1980s remnant funneling movies toward the burgeoning straight-to-video horror market to stock the shelves of your local Blockbuster Video. Perhaps those are the conditions we can thank for The Ice Cream Man and its often hilarious lack of concern for its own competency.
This movie is a curious combination of camp, genre parody and sheer laziness, made instantly memorable by Howard as the titular villain, but also by a bevy of supporting players who are various shades of miscast, incompetent, or very clearly embarrassed to be there. Its attempts to poke fun at the moribund slasher genre even work on occasion, although the audience’s ability to take anything in The Ice Cream Man seriously, or appreciate it as intended, are undone by its simultaneous failings, most of which feel like the result of a director who couldn’t be bothered to care even a little bit. Then again, this was directed by one Norman Apstein, a fairly prolific director of pornography in the 1980s and early 1990s (under the name Paul Norman), so perhaps his standards just were n’t very high.
Regardless, The Ice Cream Man revolves around title character Gregory, who as a boyned witnessed the neighborhood ice cream man gun down by the mob in an extended drive-by shooting that occurs during the opening credits. Warped by the experience and concerned about “who will bring me ice cream now?” Gregory spends time in a corrupt mental institution, becomes a serial killer and takes on the role of the neighborhood ice cream man, delivering cones full of “hard pack” (these words are spoken a disturbing number of times), that are also rippled with the body parts of his victims, to the local kids. He’s implied to have been doing this for quite a while, right under the nose of the bumbling police and his neighbor Nurse Wharton (black christmas‘ Olivia Hussey, in old age makeup), who has looked after him ever since his days in the asylum. This kind of casting is par for the course, taking the radiant Hussey and making her play an old biddy, despite her previous role in one of the genre’s most important and foundational slashers.
The lack of regard for the audience, however, is what often makes The Ice Cream Man a laugh-out-loud viewing experience. Even when compared with other, zero-budget horror films of the same era, there are decisions being made here that make you question whether anyone on the set cared about the results.
Take, for instance, the gaggle of kids who make up our group of protagonists, even though Gregory’s villain is arguably the actual main character of The Ice Cream Man. They’re a motley crew of would-be Stephen King ragamuffins, calling their little gang “The Rocketeers” after the exceedingly inconvenient model rockets they’ve strapped to their bikes. One sees the rockets and expects them to lead to some kind of silly sequence where they would ignite, using the extra propulsion to escape from/chase down The Ice Cream Man, but no—instead, one of the kids at one point fires his rocket at local police, rather than at the villain of the film. They have the collective look of Stephen King’s Losers Club, as interpreted by someone who had only had it and The Goonies described to him in passing by a too-enthusiastic Uber driver.
The Rocketeers consist of pretty much every prominent Movie Kid archetype, but they really outdo themselves when it comes to the “fat kid,” a boy by the name of “Tuna.” Apparently unable to be bothered to put out a casting call for heavy child actors to fill the part, Tuna is instead played by … a completely normal child, who everyone else just inexplicably treats as if he’s morbidly obese. This is as bizarre as it sounds. Or I should say, the actor would be completely normal looking, if not for the fact that he very clearly has a lumpy pillow stuffed under his shirt. This is what the filmmaker deemed acceptable: A “fat kid” character whose body improbably juts out at random angles throughout, owing to the pillow under his shirt getting bunched up in every other scene. They considered this a better option than simply hiring an actor who looked right for the part. To quote the classic MST3K catchphrase: “They just didn’t care.”
This kind of absurdity permeates The Ice Cream Man, from the gaggle of Rocketeers donning tactical gear and military berets to do nighttime reconnaissance on an ice cream truck, to the kid whose police officer wannabe older brother says things like “I’ve got the gun already; the badge will follow!” There’s one other sequence, however, that catapults the film from mere shlock and into some kind of stratum of the divine. It occurs during the police investigation of Gregory’s mental asylum origins, stars Rick and Morty Punchline Jan-Michael Vincent, and is genuinely unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a bad horror movie before or since.
The sequence begins with a pair of police detectives, one played by a sour-faced Vincent, investigating the private mental hospital/asylum where Gregory was raised. They quickly discover that the asylum director is himself insane, and that the patients wander the halls at will, fighting with each other and scrawling apocalyptic screeds on the walls. I can only presume that the script then describes the subsequent scene as something akin to “the two men flee and fight their way out against hordes of adversaries,” or something of the like. It certainly seems like an exciting chase and escape is what is called for … except for the fact that Vincent utterly refuses to participate in it.
No actor has ever resented the movie they’re in as forcefully as Jan Michael Vincent in The Ice Cream Man.
While his detective partner flees to the car and fights mental patients on his own, Jan-Michael Vincent just begins sauntering casually toward the camera, and the sequence just keeps going that way, with his character acting completely oblivious to the dozens of homicidal mental patients threatening him from all sides. Extras in fright makeup leap up at Vincent and get in his face, and he casually brushes past them as if they are n’t even there. The entire thing has the energy of a grown man in a haunted house attraction who has decided he’s too cool to be there, and refuses to interact with any of the workers attempting to scare him, determined to not give them the satisfaction of a reaction. Never in my life have I seen an actor so thoroughly disregard what the script must be telling him to do in that moment. I have no idea how this sequence could have stayed in The Ice Cream Man and not ended up on the cutting room floor, but it is side-splitting in its absurdity. The first time I saw the movie, at a midnight screening of a local Atlanta theater, I could barely draw a breath for minutes afterward. In a movie full of memorably odd moments, it’s something special.
And yet, you can’t really describe The Ice Cream Man as possessing “cult classic” status, even today. Too many low-budget horror geeks still haven’t had the opportunity to appreciate it, despite attempts by Clint Howard himself to inflate its infamy in recent years. In fact, Howard launched a Kickstarter campaign back in 2014 to produce a sequel, titled Ice Cream Man 2: Sundae Bloody Sundaeseeking roughly $300,000 for the project.
The campaign shut down three weeks later, having made only $4,000. If that’s not the perfect way to kick off a month of essays dedicated to bad horror movies, I’m not sure what is.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident horror guru. you can follow him on Twitter for much more film writing.