183. SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY (1972)

“…one of the strangest and most baffling pieces of outsider art that Mike, Kevin and Bill have ever riffed.”–Rifftrax ad copy for Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny

Beware

DIRECTED BY: R. Winer,  (Thumbelina)

FEATURING: Jay Ripley, Shay Garner

PLOT: Santa’s sleigh is stuck in the Florida sand. After a series of animals fail to dislodge it, St. Nick tells the assembled children the story of “Thumbelina,” visualized as a movie-inside-the-movie, which also has its own wraparound sequence about a girl visiting the “Pirates World” theme park to view a series of fairy tale dioramas. Eventually,  a creature known as “the Ice Cream Bunny” rides out of Pirates World in a firetruck and rescues Santa.
Still from Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972)
BACKGROUND:

  • Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny was selected to go on the List of the 366 Weirdest Movies in the 5th Readers Choice Poll.
  • Thumbelina, the movie-within-a-movie that is actually longer than the Santa Claus story itself, is directed by , the nudie-cutie specialist responsible for such erotic atrocities as Cuban Rebel Girls, Fanny Hill Meets Lady Chatterly, and The Diary of Knockers McCalla.
  • Director “R. Winer” never worked again (or if he did, he used a different pseudonym).
  • Pirates World (the park’s official name has no possessive apostrophe) was a pre-Diney World theme park in Dania, Florida that closed sometime between 1937-1975. The Thumbelina insert footage was produced by Pirates World, and the Ice Cream Bunny also drives through the park on his way to rescue Santa.
  • There are reports that some prints of the film contained a retelling of Jack and the Beanstalk rather than Thumbelina as the movie-within-a-movie.
  • The uncut VHS version of the movie runs 96 minutes, while the Legend/Rifftrax DVD version has a run time of 83 minutes due to the omission of a few Thumbelina musical numbers. According to some reviewers, on an alternate VHS release Thumbelina is presented after the Santa Claus plotline has resolved, as a bonus feature.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The first question is, which movie should the indelible image come from: the Santa Claus wraparound, or the Thumbelina story that actually takes up most of the runtime? As much as we like (by which I mean, shudder at) the image of the furry black monstrosities (flies?) in white bibs and striped swim trunks who hop around the yellow toadstools hunting Thumbelina, we have to go with the title creature (not Santa, the other one). The Bunny is a nightmarish apparition, half mothballed-Easter mascot from a defunct department store, half Frank from Donnie Darko. Your blood will run cold as you watch him dance a happy jig and pat a shivering blonde tyke on the top of her pony-tailed head.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: It’s got a sweaty Santa stranded in Florida, a guy in a gorilla suit, an Ice Cream Bunny (whatever that is), Thumbelina, and scenic footage of Pirates World. Not weird enough for you?  Well, how about the fact that Tom Sawyer (in a Hawaiian shirt) and Huck Finn (with a raccoon) also show up? They may be intended as symbolic stand-ins for the audience, because they seem totally nonplussed by the proceedings. When I initially reviewed Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, on a sudden whim as a way to fill a column on December 25, 2011, I wrote: “Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is weird enough to make the List, but the fact that it can only be endured by injecting Novocaine directly into the part of the brain responsible for processing continuity would make Certifying this movie a public health risk.” Rejecting our nanny-site policies, readers overwhelmingly spoke out in favor of honoring Ice Cream Bunny as one of the weirdest films of all time. Your wish is our command, but don’t say we didn’t warn you.


Clip from Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny

COMMENTS: When someone like me, who’s watched They Saved Hitler’s Brain multiple times—voluntarily, not as part of a CIA experiment in breaking interrogee’s wills—tells you that Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is quite possibly the worst movie they’ve ever seen, you should take notice. First off, there’s the paradoxical fact that Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is hardly Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny at all. It’s actually much more Thumbelina. Or, maybe it’s primarily an advertisement for a sad-sack, pre-Disneyland southern Florida bemusement park called Pirates [sic] World. If you’re confused, and not concerned with the prospect of having Ice Cream Bunny‘s plot spoiled, then read on.

It begins with what looks like home-movie footage of Santa’s sleigh stuck in the sand on a Florida beach. The tone-deaf Kris Kringle sings a plaintive (dubbed) tune of lament, then falls asleep, then psychically summons the neighborhood children to help him. (This sequence of events suggests that the entire movie may be St. Nick’s heat-stroke influenced nightmare). At any rate, the children flock to his aid, bringing livestock (?) and a man in a gorilla suit (??) to attempt to dislodge the sleigh out of the half-inch of sand it’s buried in (why did the kids think a pig would succeed where eight magical reindeer had failed?) When this brain-dead plan predictably bears no fruit, Santa decides to tell everyone a story—a story of eternal hope, a story about a magical place called Pirates World.

Actually, the story is the fairy tale “Thumbelina.” But we can’t simply jump into it. That would be disorienting. Instead, we watch a teenage girl in a red miniskirt (Shay Garner, the only cast member of Ice Cream Bunny to find acting work later in life) sample various rides at Pirates World, including their famous “reindeer on a rail” thrill ride, as a disembodied castrato warbles “if I were Thumbelina…” Miniskirt girl walks into Pirates World’s “Hans Christen Andersen Fairy Land” Theater, and suddenly the Thumbelina credits roll. The movie inside the movie-inside-a-movie begins with the girl staring into a diorama box while a droning female voice coming out of a speaker on a wall relates the tale of the two-inch-high Thumbelina, who is born out of a flower via a witch’s spell, is abducted by a matrimony-minded frog, and then barely escapes being married off to a decrepit old mole. Miniskirt-girl imagines herself as the heroine in the story: we see many, many shots of her staring with unbelievably rapt attention at the display. The actual Thumbelina segments occupy about an hour of the running time, and the production values are significantly higher than in the Santa segments—which is to say, they look like a filmed version of a high school play instead of a ten-year-old’s attempts to make a home movie. Although the acting is as mind-numbingly unemotive as the rest of Ice Cream Bunny, Thumbelina at least includes colorful (if cheap) costumes and sets, including a forest with toadstools that get covered in ice during the winter months, and flower petals large enough to hide skinny teenagers. Thumbelina finally escapes the constant threat of bestiality and, much like Liza Minelli, eventually marries a fairy prince. Her alter-ego, miniskirt chick, earns an even more exciting reward: she’s allowed to stroll out of Pirates World.

Back in Ice Cream Bunny, Santa explains the moral of the story he’s just told, which, surprisingly, isn’t “be sure to visit Pirates World!” but rather “never give up hope.” Following his own advice, in his own way, sweaty Santa sheds his fur coat to reveal his festive red pit-stained t-shirt, and takes another nap. He’s awakened by the sound of a fire engine siren. It seems the children’s dog has informed  the Ice Cream Bunny (so named, I presume, because he serves frozen treats at Pirates World when not acting in feature films or saving Christmas—no specific connection to the otherwise  delicious dessert is specified in the script) of St. Nick’s plight, and he’s come to help. Santa gets dressed so the kids won’t see him out of uniform; he has plenty of time to do so, as the ICB’s antique vehicle is only capable of a top speed of about 5 mph, and we watch every second of his journey from the amusement park to the beach. Saving Santa is no problem for the resourceful Bunny; he simply dumps the jolly old elf into his fire truck and leaves the sleigh behind. Santa (or someone) later uses magic to telekinetically transmit the sled back to the North Pole—making us wonder, what exactly was Kringle’s dilemma in the first place?

Ice Cream Bunny is less fun than it sounds.  Every shot seems interminable; we watch people slowly walking through Pirates World, we watch the ICB slowly plow his way through the Everglades in his fire truck, we watch Santa slowly strip to his sweat-soaked skivvies in the sweltering heat, then slowly put it all back on. The frequent musical numbers are horrifying; the children are incapable of singing the same note at the same time. To try to disguise this fact, kazoos make frequent appearances. Naturally, the audio quality is terrible; everything sounds tinny and distorted, lending a nightmarish edge to the songs. The voices in the wraparound segments are dubbed, and Santa ad-libs all his dialogue; obviously, given the number of flubbed lines and nonsensical comments, only one take was allowed. Visually, the movie manages to capture the look of a bad shot-on-video feature before there actually were shot-on-video features. The cinematography (if that’s what it is) makes sunny south Florida looks about as appealing as a strip mall in south Philadelphia.

Even after watching it, you may believe Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is some sort of elaborate prank, or a home movie. Evidence from vintage posters suggests that the film really did play in theaters. We can only assume that the Santa footage was shot—with the acquiescence (if not the active assistance) of the owners and operators of Pirates World—with the intention of padding out the existing Thumbelina footage to feature length for a holiday matinee parents could drop their unsuspecting kids off at while they shopped for presents. We can only hope that it played for one week only, and only on one Florida screen. To think that adult survivors of 1972’s Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny are wandering among us today, panhandling in our streets and renting themselves out as gorilla labor, is a sad and frightening thought.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… one puzzling, incoherent little film.”–Clinton McClung, WMFU’s Beware of the Blog (DVD)

 “This film is not seized by weirdo-trash quicksand; it’s blessed with a near surgical approach to artless absurdity.”–Joseph A. Ziemba, Bleeding Skull (DVD)

“The resulting product is so insane and disturbing, that I think the director had never met an actual child before making it. If it’s possible to commit a hate crime against all children everywhere, this film is it… [Santa] croaks out a tune about how his ‘predicament lacks its usual cheer’–and as bizarre as this line is, it’s not even close to the weirdest one in the movie.”–Matthew Callan, Scartchbomb (Rifftrax DVD)

IMDB LINK: Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (1972) Move Recap – The Agony Booth provides a sarcastic shot-by-shot, eleven page recap of the film

Santa Claus and the Ice Cream Bunny – 5 minute video review of the VHS cut from Cinemassacre

Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny | Rifftrax – Sample video of Rifftrax quips, plus humorous ad copy

Film/Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny – Someone actually put up a page describing the tropes noted in the film on TV Tropes

Pirates World at Florida’s Lost Tourist Attractions – A little information on the theme park promoted by the film

CAPSULE: SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY (1972) – This site’s original review of Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny (like Bunny itself, the entry you’re reading now is mostly recycled from older material)

DVD INFO: A “definitive” copy of Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny does not exist. Reportedly the movie was sometimes shown with “Thumbelina,” sometimes with “Jack and the Beanstalk,” sometimes with the fairy tale in the middle of the action, and sometimes at the end. The oldest available, presumably most complete version (with Thumbelina in the middle, according to readers’ reviews) is on VHS only (buy).

There is an alternative way to watch Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny which can turn the experience from “bah! humbug!” to “ho, ho, ho!,” and it’s the only alternative we’ll really recommend (until Criterion gets their hands on the intellectual property rights). Rifftrax sells the DVD with a humorous running commentary track from “Mystery Science Theater” alums Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett (buy). Jokes are rapid-fire and often revolve around the decidedly un-jolly appearance of Old St. Nick and the ICB; at other points, simply hearing them rehash the narrative thus far is enough to send you into convulsions of laughter (in character as Santa, Nelson relates “and so the P.A. described how the witch continued to mince about for a while not speaking, just fiddling mostly, ho ho ho ho!”) At one point Murphy breaks out screaming at the appearance of scary Thumbelina insect puppets; at another, the movie seems to break him, and he begs, “have mercy, I’ll pull the sleigh, I’ll marry Mr. Digger, I’ll do whatever you want!” Amateurs have been mocking Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny for generations now. Imagine what professionals do with this material. The movie is available to watch “riffed” or “unriffed,” and the DVD also includes a short feature (a Santa Claus meets Punch and Judy short from the 1950s). The only downside is that this presentation of Ice Cream Bunny is incomplete, with several Thumbelina songs edited out. We still await R. Winer’s director’s cut of this beloved Christmas classic.

The Rifftrax version is available on video-on-demand (rent on-demand), but there is no option to turn off the commentary and watch the movie as  Winer, Mahon and the Pirates World money men intended.

4 thoughts on “183. SANTA AND THE ICE CREAM BUNNY (1972)”

  1. I remember the first time I watched the Rifftrax version this, I thought “This is terrible, but at least it’s a short.” And then the Thumbelina part started and I realized it was a feature length catastrophe. It’s one of only two Rifftrax that I have pledged never to watch again.

    1. The other one is Buffalo Rider. Not because it’s weird, because it’s kind of an animal snuff film. I didn’t even finish that one.

  2. This movie may definitely make film history as being the first whose 2nd act is a separate film complete with its own beginning and end title credits. Never thought of that particular mind screw, did you Bunuel?

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