Firstly, I’d just like to say thank you to Judrina Kymantas and Uncork’d Entertainment for allowing me access to an online screener of the Horror/Slasher film “The Ice Cream Truck”, Written and Directed by Megan Freels Johnston. The Ice Cream Truck centers around young wife and mother, Mary (played by Deanna Russo of Rest Stop) who moves back to her suburban hometown in LA. With her husband on the road for work, kids in tow, she agrees to go ahead and start setting up the new home early. Shortly after arriving she’s introduced to a nosy trio of mothers, headed by Jessica (Hilary Barraford), she encounters strange delivery men and Max (played by John Redlinger), a younger man from the neighborhood. Life in the burbs is not quite how Mary remembered it, that and there’s something not right about the local ice cream truck and the creepy man who drives it. The film also stars Emil Johnson, Sam Schweikert, Bailey Anne Borders (Raze) and Jeff Daniel Phillips (31 and The Lords Of Salem). I’ve followed the developments of The Ice Cream Truck since it’s inception and I’m glad to see it’s finally been completed.
It’s evident right from the beginning of The Ice Cream Truck, in which the quiet, picturesque serenity of small town suburbia is established, that Johnston’s scoop of the slasher cone is clearly inspired by similar films from the 80’s and 90’s. The original one sheet (which can be seen above) looks superior to that of the latest artwork, hence I’m hoping it’s the official cover art. With the classic central image and eye-catching pink font and bordering, it really has that 80’s vibe down pat. DP, Stephen Tringali’s extensive work on short films has certainly held him in good stead for shooting feature lengths. The cinematography in The Ice Cream Truck is simple but effective, everything is well shot and nicely framed (likely in 4k). Tringali makes use of some brief and gentle panning, as well as a particularly smart aerial shot, hovering over the lifeless bodies of a young adult couple. This gorgeous and vibrant part of Los Angeles lends itself to a high quality image, that and the warm color grading really lifts the production value on what is likely a modest, low-budget film (I’d wager to bet). During the day, the streets have that feeling of being almost too quiet, the neighborhood too perfect like something out of “The Stepford Wives”. At night, the lane and its luminous street lights give off the same sinister vibe that Elm St did for Nancy Thompson in Wes Craven’s iconic film “The Nightmare On Elm St”. With sizeable chunks of the film taking place outdoors, it’s nice to hear a consistently clear audio track. Michael Boateng’s energetic and superbly composed synth score is perhaps my favourite thing about The Ice Cream Truck. He gauges a similar atmosphere to what was created in films like “Maniac” and “The Funhouse”, keeping things moody with the bass but pumping the odd keyboard spike. Like most of us, I’m sure Megan has seen plenty of films in the genre. Influences from filmmakers like Dario Argento can’t be denied when you watch scenes like Mary in front of the mirror, head in frame, bathed in purple and pink lighting, synth slowly building in the mix, I love that kind of stuff.
I feel like I’m saying it with every new actor that I’m introduced to, but Jesus everyone looks like someone else these days (haha). Deanna Russo is a beautiful young woman, a cross between actresses Olivia Wilde and Summer Glau. Her performance is probably the best of the bunch, and those who’ve ever had an identity crisis or felt lost, wondering where they fit in, should be able to relate to Mary (at least on some level). I was interested to see how Jeff Daniel Phillips fit into the film, and although he’s not given much screen time, he was aptly cast as an intimidating delivery man and did it well. The trio of mature ladies (played by Barraford, Lisa Ann Walter and LaTeace Towns-Cuellar) that live in the street embody that Stepford Wives element I spoke of earlier. They’re a little to eager to engage with Mary, but at the same time quietly compete against and judge her. Christina’s (Walter) eighteen year old son, Max, takes an interest in Mary after sensing her reservations to engage with the nosy neighbors. Mary may be well into her 30’s but she’s young at heart and that acts as the catalyst for her internal conflict and moral dilemma as the film wears on. Redlinger, who looks like Dominic Monahan crossed with my buddy Gabriel Lee, turns in a serviceable performance, albeit a little inconsistent at times. I liked the fresh casting of Norwegian born, Emil Johnson as the Ice Cream Man. He doesn’t look like your obvious villain, and while not necessarily scary, for all intents and purposes it works in the confines of the films aesthetics. Given the amount of time Johnson spent in different countries around the world, I think his American accent was spot on. There’s not a big body count on display in The Ice Cream Truck but the practical blood looks good and there’s a couple of thrilling kills involving a scooper and a knife.
As I said, The Ice Cream Truck is a slick and polished looking independent film, but unfortunately it ends up becoming more of an attempt at an emotionally weighty expression on ideals rather than staying the course of a conventional slasher film. Hardcore fans of the genre will probably be caught off guard, but for those who like a more well-rounded dramatic arc, you’ll probably end up appreciating Johnston’s writing. The hardest pill for me to swallow here is John Redlinger attempting to pass for an eighteen year old. Now I’ll admit, I don’t know how old John is, and sure, the guys a bit of a baby face but if Mary supposed to be in her 30’s (which Russo is) then surely Max has to be pushing thirty as well. It’s revealed in the first act that he’s just graduated and is getting ready to head off to college but I just couldn’t look past that detail once the interactions developed between him and Mary. The companionship between the two just feels like a juvenile stretch and it’s only further highlighted by some of Mary’s reactions to his advances. It just feels awkward when it shouldn’t, especially when it wasn’t a necessity to have Redlinger playing a character that age. The film is not without the odd continuity glitch, most notably when Max’s friend Nick (Schweikert), visits Brie (Dana Gaier) and brings her an ice cream. Before she can even open the door to see what it is she joyfully says “Oh for me!”, like she knows what it’s going to be, making me think that take was done numerous times.
It would have been an interesting creation to see The Ice Cream Truck set in the 50’s instead of modern-day. The man, himself, seems about as far removed from modern times as you can get, plus the husband and wife and suburbia dynamics were totally different in that era and it might have made for some interesting humor as well, just a thought. The film only runs 87 minutes but still feels a little sluggish, a number of shots linger longer than they need to. There was a missed opportunity to get up close and personal with the ice cream man, which I think would’ve been a good addition. He uses a victims bathroom at one point, presumably to clean up, but the camera is pulled back at a distance in the hallway. Up until then he hadn’t had time to revel in his mayhem, probably due to location or his surroundings, but I think that moment would have been beneficial for an insight into his mindset. A tight shot in on his face comes to mind in order to see his eyes and the facial expression (or lack there of), Does he have a dialogue with himself? How does he wash his hands? something, anything to give us so he’s not just a carbon copy killer. While the first kill is an on-screen and practical death, it doesn’t come until 25 minutes into the film. When you’re working in the horror genre (or more appropriately the slasher sub-genre) you’re wise to follow the fundamentals, the primary of which is to have a death inside that first 10-15 minute window to get viewers locked in. Johnston had a chance in the remainder of the film to make up for that missing element, but sadly I don’t think there was enough action or adequate variation in the kills and the effects.
Megan Johnston’s second feature film, The Ice Cream Truck isn’t quite what I expected. It feels like a blend of the 90’s Slasher/Comedy “Ice Scream” and the aforementioned “The Stepford Wives” by way of TV’s “Desperate Housewives”. I love the cinematography and the brightness of the image, along with the idyllic suburb setting that takes me back to the slashers of the 80’s. With so many filmmakers traits thrown into the mix, Boateng’s pulsating synth score ends up being one of the best this year and the lighting is another wonderful aspect too. Russo is lovely and delivers a really solid performance, as to, do most of the supporting players. Some of the kills are good fun and there’s practical blood on display. I’ll be the first to admit that I thought I was in for something a little more violent and run of the mill than what I got though. I couldn’t look past the casting of Redlinger, or more accurately, the age he was supposed to be playing. Either Johnston’s writing needed to change or that casting decision, one of the two in order for the Mary/Max development to be even remotely believed. The film does have a few continuity problems and it lags in places. I can’t help but think some opportunities were missed when it came to the ice cream man himself, not to mention the body count could have been larger and the deaths more dynamic. In the end it seemed more about Mary’s cross-road in life and her identity crisis rather than the slashing most fans will be asking for. The Ice Cream Truck is still a reasonably fun time and I can say it’s worth a watch if you’re a fan of these types of films. Keep an eye out for the film on VOD, August 18th and check out the trailer below.
My rating for “The Ice Cream Truck” is 5.5/10