In last December’s article on Manos: The Hands of Fate, I may have undersold the work of cultural archaeology the crew of Mystery Science Theater’s Satellite of Love (named after — how’s this for synchronicity? — a track Lou Reed dropped in 1972) did in rescuing this strange, strange little film from (deserved?) obscurity. And that’s work they’ve continued since the show was canceled in their second life with RiffTrax. If anything, the oddities and obscurities they’ve dug up have gotten even odder and more obscure. There’s certainly few movies those words describe as well as Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny.
At least with Manos, you have some idea what it was supposed to be. For all its incompetence, you can still tell that Hal Warren set out to make a pretty conventional horror movie. He didn’t actually succeed (or at least, it wasn’t scary in the way he meant it to be), but at least you’ve got a barometer to judge his success or failure by. But Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny? It doesn’t seem to have any desire to entertain anyone in any way. It might have been a kind of advertisement for Pirates World (not Pirates’ World, just some pirates, and also a world) a cheap-jack, dirtbag theme park in Orlando — and since Disney World opened across town the previous year, you can imagine the movie didn’t help much.
Some digging on Wikipedia revealed it was an attempt to repackage two existing kiddie cheapies directed by Barry Mahon, who divided his time between directing wholesome children’s adventures and pornos with names like Fanny Hill Meets Dr. Erotico, for the Christmas season. And it should tell you something that Wikipedia, with its often hilariously personality-free house style, couldn’t resist editorializing long enough to call the plot “threadbare.”
Even with that context, Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is less a movie in any traditional sense and more some kind of horrible heat-stroke-induced fever dream. As a result of my watching this on Amazon Prime, my parents had it unexpectedly thrust upon them by autoplay after Blow the Man Down ended. (Mom, pop, if you’re reading this: I am so, so sorry.) They only made it through the credits but, to hear them tell it, it was quite an experience. If they only knew what they’d escaped… That strikes me as the best way to see this movie: like an unasked for and unwanted transmission from God only knows where (sunken Ry’leh, maybe?).
Here’s how RiffTrax’s site describes the movie: “‘What a story!’ This was the original studio tagline for Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny. You will have to ignore, of course, that Santa & the Ice Cream Bunny barely contains a story, let alone a coherent thought.” If you try to put it into words, though, Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny sounds like your average “save Christmas” movie. It’s Christmas Eve (not that you’d know it from all the hot Florida sun) and Santa Claus and his sleigh are stranded on the beach, so he calls some kids to get him back to the North Pole in time.
The thing is, when I say “stuck,” I mean in an inch or less of loose sand. And when I say “Santa Claus,” I don’t mean the jolly old elf beloved by children everywhere. I mean some guy in an ill-fitting beard and a red suit with a suspicious brown stain on the seat of its pants. He grunts and rambles nonsense like “I’d better get my coat on… very quickly…can’t let anybody see Santa Claus…uch…without his…coat…ahh…and his belt! Just put this belt on…quickly as we can, and…uch…see what’s going on,” or “Uh…we’ve established that, uh…we will try to make it…won’t we?” in a disturbingly guttural croak.
And whether through incompetence or just boredom, director R. Winer created something almost avant garde, in its own maddening way. There’s loads of shots of trees or grass or water or other random objects that come and go so fast you can’t be sure if you’ve actually seen them. The titular Ice Cream Bunny is introduced with a shot of a fire engine tire that’s so brief that RiffTrax’s Bill Corbett (aka Crow T. Robot) asks, “Did you guys just see that, or is my brain fully melted?” At one point, the screen just goes black for no apparent reason. At another, Santa’s shot from below with the sun directly behind him like he’s some enormous monolith, all with the camera tilted sideways.
As Santa “sings” (actually just more tuneless croaking), we see unexplained and inexplicable scenes of random children playing before they each suddenly freeze, often in midair. Santa’s voice, echoing nightmarishly, calls them to come help him, and they run across a horrible, rust-covered junkyard to his sleigh, the film apparently slowed down just enough to drive you crazy trying to figure out whether it’s slowed down at all or not, all while a chorus of off-key kazoos — kazoos! — plays. And that’s not even the most teeth-grindingly awful use of the instrument. A kazoo cover of Paul Robeson’s civil rights anthem “Old Man River” (?) introduces a cameo by Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (??) who are dressed less like Mark Twain’s iconic characters and more like they’re on their way to a beach-themed frat party (???).
Before we go any further, there’s one question I feel I have to address — aren’t this movie’s scrappy cheapness and apathy to linear narrative the exact things I just finished saying were virtues in Snoopy Come Home? Well, yes, and no. Bill Melendez had limited resources, but he knew how to use them to create striking images with a craftsman’s care. The props and costumes in Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (or possibly the film itself) look like they were fished out of a dumpster. And Melendez knew how to depart from the story without detracting from it. Put it this way: Roger Ebert described that pioneer of Slow Cinema, Yasujiro Ozu, in terms of Japanese poetry, comparing the filmmaker’s plot-irrelevant images to the tradition of “pillow words.” Imagine a poet interrupting their work mid-phrase with pillow words — or better yet, plonking them in the middle of another word — and you’ve got Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny.
Certainly, the child acting in this movie is nowhere near the same league as Snoopy Come Home – as Samuel L. Jackson said in Pulp Fiction, it’s not even the same sport. At one point, Winer apparently calls his stars to all nod along with Santa, but fails to cut them off before they start frantically headbanging for nearly a minute; in the same way, the kids lipsync to a song by jerking their heads around at random. Later, he directs them to smile but fails to realize they seem to have instead gone completely insane. And this girl more or less captures my expression all through the film.
Then we get some padded scenes (this is another movie that’s just barely over an hour but still only has enough plot for about five minutes) of the kids bringing in various farm animals to unstick Santa’s sleigh. Well, mostly farm animals. They start (as RiffTrax’s Mike Nelson reminds us, “Keep in mind, this is Plan A.”) with a man in a gorilla suit who makes noises that seem more appropriate for Fanny Hill Meets Dr. Erotico. The nightmarish sound design doesn’t stop there, either. The kids also try to help out with a pig and remind all us city folk that real pigs don’t make a cute “oink oink oink” noise but something more like the screams of the damned.
Once that’s over with, Santa decides to sit the kids down and tell them a story that will encourage them to “always believe and have faith and never give up hope.” That all seems pretty hypocritical after we just saw him give up immediately on every animal the kids try, most of them before he can even get them hitched to the sleigh (he even preemptively vetoes letting their dog pull it), but whatever. Depending on which version of the movie you see, that story (or, as the credits call it, “insert”) is either Jack and the Beanstalk or Thumbelina. The Jack and the Beanstalk version is available to Amazon Prime subscribers; RiffTrax dubbed Thumbelina the first time around, but they returned with Jack for a simulcast live show. If it wasn’t clear already, I can’t recommend that RiffTrax commentary highly enough — with the major caveat that there’s a brief transphobic joke during the “Thumbelina insert.”
Either one of these stories would be the low point of a better movie, but they’re a welcome relief from the feverish insanity of the framing sequence (if you want to call it that — Santa’s antics and the fairy tale sequences each take up exactly half the movie, making it hard to tell which is interrupting what). Of the two, Thumbelina matches the energy better, with a framing device inside a framing device, as some girl wanders around Pirates World while some ear-bleedingly high-pitched singer sings something about Thumbelina (“AAAH!” says Mike, “Someone’s vivisecting a dog!”). Eventually, we follow her into one of the park’s least exciting attractions, a set of dioramas in bargain-basement plywood cabinets in a bare, beige room, which tell the story while a blown-out speaker box reads it out. This leads into a second credits sequence before the story finally begins.
Thumbelina also features bottom-dollar sets that were apparently made out of papier-maché, including a magenta mole tunnel that looks more like the inside of someone’s lower intestine. And there’s some even bottomer-dollar animal costumes (maybe to soften us up for the Ice Cream Bunny itself when it finally appears). There’s moles whose clapping mouths reach all the way back to their ears, and some unidentifiable bug…bird…things that the RiffTrax crew can only respond to with bloodcurdling screams. And then, every once in a while, we cut back to Pirates World with shots of the intercom and the very bored-looking girl listening along.
Jack and the Beanstalk is far more watchable. Some of the shenanigans with the con man who sells Jack his magic beans are even — dare I say it —entertaining! And in the way they were meant to be too! That character (Honest John, who I’m certain bears no relation to the beloved Pinocchio character) inexplicably dresses like an 18th-century fop with disturbingly short pants, even though he’s surrounded by characters wearing the seventiesiest clothes imaginable.
Here, the golden hen is played by a vaguely hen-shaped block of wood that’s been spray-painted gold, and the magical harp has the incredible magical ability to vaguely wiggle its strings a little. As in Thumbelina, most of the actors seem to be reading all their lines off of cue cards for the very first time, putting emphasis on random words and adding pauses in random places. (“Oh, that silly bird,” says Thumbelina‘s Mrs. Mole, “I wish he would up! And fly away.”) The actor playing the giant, specifically, doesn’t seem to realize that a good monster voice needs the right tone and inflection and not just volume. He sounds less threatening and more like he’s trying to get your attention from across the room. And when he sings “Fee Fi Fo Fum” over, and over, and over again (which I’m certain bears no relation to the musical version of “Fee Fi Fo Fum” in Mickey and the Beanstalk) he suddenly switches to a dubbed-in operatic baritone that his lipsyncing in no way matches. But even with the vocal change, it’s still hard to feel threatened by him when he stares shyly into the camera, looking for all the world like Casey from the Tim and Eric show. And then there’s the matter of how our intrepid filmmakers made him appear giant: just like Thumbelina’s mother, the effect involves projecting a grungy old film, which is so nasty it makes the grungy old film the rest of the movie is shot on look pristine, on the wall behind the other actors. The effect looks more than a little like one of Mike and the bots’ viewing parties on Mystery Science Theater.
Unfortunately, our rest from the madness has to come to an end. In fact, it only gets worse when the Ice Cream Bunny finally appears, in a costume that fits like it was designed for Jack’s giant. This long, long scene is far more unsettling than most movies that try to be scary on purpose as he drives his fire truck through Pirates World and down a dirt road and nearly runs over the dog, some birds, and the camera. All this in dead silence except for the horrible, incessant sound of the siren that occasionally mingles dissonantly with Pirates World’s carnival calliope. The only other sound through this whole sequence is the occasional barking of the dog, who’s clearly every bit as terrified as we are. We spend a long time looking into the Ice Cream Bunny’s dead, expressionless face. It’s all the more disturbing because the kids behind him are all moving their lips as if they were singing without making a peep. It would seem the filmmakers couldn’t find room in their surely lavish budget for direct sound. When the audio finally does kick in, it’s almost inaudible over the siren. But then, from what I could make out, it’s probably better that way. Mike said it best: “Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in 150+ movies, RiffTrax has…nothing to say.”
So, just who or what is the Ice Cream Bunny? Why is the Ice Cream Bunny? The movie doesn’t provide any answers, but it sure does want to make you feel stupid for not knowing already.
“That character looks mighty, mighty familiar,” the narrator says, putting in a surprise appearance after her absence for most of the movie. “Could it be?”
“The Ice Cream Bunny!” Santa Claus says, “Of course!”
Whoever and whatever it is, the Ice Cream Bunny gives Santa a ride home in his truck. But what about the sleigh? Well, after Santa leaves, it vanishes back to the North Pole, making the whole plot of the movie (if you want to call it that) completely and totally pointless. Santa’d even explicitly told the kids he couldn’t do that when they suggested he flag down one of the planes that was flying overhead for a ride! “Like magic,” the narrator says, not entirely convinced, as the kids stand staring at the empty sand. A “Merry Christmas” greeting appears over the film, and then it doesn’t so much end as screech to a halt, leaving nothing behind but a gnawing sense of dread. It’s hard to imagine any audience unfortunate enough to watch this movie feeling any kind of merriment for a very long time.
But you can give Sam a little merriment for the low, low price of whatever you feel like donating to his Patreon!