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So many horror movies recycle one formula or another with such predictability that it’s refreshing when one refuses to fit into a particular niche — no matter how messy its nonconformity may be. A good share of “The Ice Cream Truck’s” appeal is trying to suss just what writer-director Megan Freels Johnston was intending with a movie whose various elements of slasher flick, social satire and psychological portrait not only fail to mesh, but barely intersect. Are the tonal disconnects and narrative gaps deliberate? Were they casualties of a budgetary or editorial crisis? Whatever the explanation, this watchable if ultimately baffling exercise in suburban suspense is eccentric enough to be somewhat endearing, however exasperated those with conventional expectations may be by its thoroughly arbitrary close.
Protagonist Mary (Deanna Russo) is a writer and housewife who’s moved back to her hometown — where she doesn’t seem to know anyone, the first among many odd logic lapses — because her husband’s job has transferred here. But he won’t be joining her for several days, along with their two kids who are finishing out a school term.
Mary has arrived early to set up house for them all, something that ought to be pretty demanding. But instead she appears to have loads of time on her hands, enough to get lured into a neighbor’s high school graduation party for son Max (John Redlinger), who immediately detects a kindred soul in this not-much-older, foxy newcomer. They become acquainted while getting stoned on the sly with Max’s girlfriend Tracy (Bailey Anne Borders). Nobody seems to pay much notice when the latter disappears that night. Only we know she’s suffered a gruesome end at the hands of the Ice Cream Man (Emil Johnsen), a cheery yet eerie figure who drives around an ancient-looking van purveying sweets to the sweet and excessive payback to the rest.
Norwegian thesp Johnsen tries to imbue this ghoul with an off-kilter cartoonishness, but the character is neither shaded realistically nor given the mythology apt for a true boogeyman. His kills are staged perfunctorily, and his motivations are murky: sometimes he seems to be punishing rudeness, elsewhere racking up victims just cuz. Whether he’s even real at all is a question raised primarily by the obliviousness with which this community treats so many of its members going missing within a short span. Meanwhile, a creepy moving-company employee (Rob Zombie regular Jeff Daniel Phillips) gets introduced with considerable ominous fanfare, then simply vanishes from the story.
If the horror aspects are underdeveloped, so are Johnston’s other major ideas: She takes a vaguely droll stance towards this humid, vapid middle-class setting, one that flirts with both “Stepford Wives”-type surrealism and the bitchier sendups of “plastic” suburban complacency in ’60s movies like “The Graduate” and “The Swimmer” (or more recently, “Little Children”). But no consistent point emerges, despite amusingly offhand moments and nice use of the San Fernando Valley locations.
At times, the movie also seems to be a veiled commentary on sexual unrest, as Mary finds herself drawn to chiseled young Max, and leered at by practically every male she meets. Yet she also seems to genuinely miss her family enough that this premature mini-mid-life crisis fails to compute. Russo projects a bemused intelligence that’s engaging, but often Mary and the scene rhythms seem to come to a dazed standstill, as if stunned by too much pot, or summer heat, or both.
Perhaps Johnston is aiming for something as provocatively strange as “Blue Velvet” (her prior feature “Rebound” won Lynch comparisons), but the different concepts fail to coalesce here. And that impression of confused intent registers well before a whopper of an ending simply undoes the logic of nearly everything preceding it, with no explanation whatsoever.
All this may sound simply inept, but in practice, ‘’Ice Cream Truck” goes down rather easy, the clashing tactics holding a perverse charm when the pacing or story focus seems to drift for minutes at a time. It helps that Johnston’s leads are very attractive — Russo in a more old-school glamorous way than today’s favored aerobics-hottie look, while Redlinger (though an improbable 18-year-old) is a chip off the boyishly hunky Zac Efron block — and have real chemistry together. There’s also a certain wit to the packaging, notably in Stephen Tringali’s crisp widescreen cinematography and composer Michael Boateng’s homage to ’80s direct-to-video horror soundtracks.