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CONE AND THE BARBARIAN
THE ICE CREAM TRUCK (15)
Director: Megan Freels Johnston
Screenplay: Megan Freels Johnston
Review: David Stephens
Dark forests and deserted mansions might raise the hairs on the back of your neck, but for total terror you can’t beat real-life and the mind-numbing hideousness of suburbia. Far from the ideal of the American Dream, white picket fences and the perfect nuclear family; these days people cower from the thought of home-invasions, child-snatchers, and random violence. This has been exploited by the genre over the years, whether it’s Michael Myers peeking from behind the garden hedges and stalking the neighbourhood in “Halloween” (1978), or the senseless torture of homebound innocents in “The Strangers” (2008) or “Funny Games (2007). Yup, your home and street can be as scary as Camp Crystal Lake if the conditions are just right (or wrong). “The Ice Cream Truck” plays on the hidden horrors of suburbia in an unorthodox way, and even though it’s been marketed as a slasher, it’s slightly more complex than that. It was written, produced, and directed by Megan Freels Johnston (the Granddaughter of legendary crime writer Elmore Leonard). Starring Deanna Russo (“Being Human” – the US version), the film was recently made available on US home media. So YGROY buys a choc-ice (but that strawberry sauce looks a bit clotted and smells funny) before sitting down to watch…
Starting a with Carpenter-esque ominous soundtrack, we’re greeted with the regular sights and sounds of a Middle-America suburban street. Immaculately cut hedges, swimming pools, and a peaceful haven from city life. Mary (a perfectly cast Russo) groggily walks out of her new home and picks up her sodden and useless newspaper (NB: As Brits, we still don’t get why this form of delivery is acceptable). She’s just bought the house, and is waiting for her husband and two kids to finish up work/school and then travel cross-country to join her. In the meantime, she’s in the place by herself and left to her own devices, whilst half-heartedly performing some freelance writing. She meets up with the local wives and is invited to a graduation party, where she meets (and flirts) with neighbour’s son Max (John Redlinger). Attempting to reclaim some of her youth, she’s drawn back to some bad behaviour and feels a little revitalised. But she’s also disturbed by the seemingly constant presence of an old-fashioned ice-cream truck that prowls the street. The driver (Emil Johnsen) is mild-mannered but creepy and she’s unnerved by him. That irritating jingle from the truck seems to be everywhere as well, and then somebody in the neighbourhood goes missing…
If you’re expecting a straightforward goofy horror like “Ice Cream Man” (Clint Howard – 1995), then that’s not what you’re getting here. Instead, this is more of a well-observed character study, with some slasher tropes and themes occasionally infiltrating the narrative. Sometimes it feels like an updated and skewed version of “The Secret Life of an American Wife” (1968), with a sprinkle of “Halloween” thrown in there. You won’t be seeing a high body-count, but you will be seeing a neat distillation of suburban fears and worries. Although having said that, someone still gets their head bludgeoned with an ice-cream scoop and there’s a “Driller Killer” moment … so there’s that.
For the most part though, the narrative nicely dissects the worst aspects of modern living in a community. So we get; pushy/bitchy/nosy soccer-moms, douchey delivery-guys, moody teenagers, and low-key verbal sparring. Not to mention; the obligatory under-age drinking, pot-smoking, and sexist behaviour from paunchy dudes.
Through it all, Russo’s performance is the lynch-pin, and it’s a wonderfully judged piece of acting. “Freed” from her family responsibilities for several days, she starts to hanker for her youth again, which is embodied by the moment she dons hot-pants and blows bubble-gum. It’s not a stereotypical MILF role, and you relate to her feelings. Russo rises to the role in several ways; nervously tiptoeing into a party after getting high, giving a brilliant response to a neighbour on the subject of cheating, and delivering some snarky lines to perfection (“Where have you been all my life Mary?”, “In Seattle with my husband” or “The only music I hear these days is Disney”). It could have been a one-note character, but the actress really sells it.
When the story does switch back to slasher territory, Johnsen does a nice job with the overly mannered dairy server. There’s a subtle glint in his eye when someone gets near the truck, and his Mr Rogers niceness is just the right side of creepy. And in a comic touch, when he goes to a house to use the bathroom, it’s not subterfuge and that’s genuinely what he wants to do … along with the other stuff. As stated, the horror elements and murders are fairly minimal, and it’s a third of the way into the movie before any real nastiness occurs. But they can be seen to represent the underlying danger and nastiness of suburbia, and there’s a case for (misguided) morality judgement as well, like Jigsaw or Jason Voorhees, but with less entrails.
If truth be told, the promotional images which advertise it as an out-and-out slasher are somewhat misleading. It is very slow-burn in several respects, and the pacing is a little too slow at times. Then there’s the denouement, which will inevitably be divisive to many. It contains some annoying decisions and details (which are sort of qualified), but the climax can be read in a number of ways which will undoubtedly not work for some of the audience, but will still add an edge to it for others and maintains the central theme (especially with the final scene).
TICT is a clever and well-made film with a great turn from Russo, some relevant observations, and cool dialogue. Despite the blood and effective presence of Johnsen, it’s surprisingly difficult to view it as an out-and-out horror. It is genre, but it’s certainly not a simplistic slasher. If you approach the movie with that knowledge and are open to something other than just a goofy stalker film, one with a wider and more intellectual scope to it, then you’ll get a lot more from the experience. Icy what they did there…
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