A review requested by Andrew Johnson, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Santa Claus and the Ice Cream Bunny isn't an inexplicable movie. Hell, I'm about to explicate it here in just a moment. But it's exactly the kind of movie that feels inexplicable, colliding random nonsense in a matrix that we're obliged to call a narrative more out of habit than accuracy. The plot more resembles a transcription of a bad peyote experience than a motion picture, and its execution is at places so determinedly bereft of even the most limited, accidental filmmaking talent that it doesn't seem right to call the resultant object an actual work of cinema.

So with that to whet your appetite, let's go into the thing in proper chronological order, which naturally begins with the world of Florida roadside attractions. Here, we find among many such places an amusement park, Pirates World of Dania, near the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. The place opened in 1967, apparently built largely out of bits and pieces bought on the cheap from other parks that had picked up nicer, newer toys; some rides were salvaged from the wreck of the underperforming 1964-'65 New York World's Fair. It was, naturally enough, themed to piracy, with its signature ride a cruise on a full-scale pirate ship, but among its themed lands was a fairy tale exhibit.

Cursory research - undoubtedly there is such a thing as deep research full of footnotes and recovered historical documents, but there's also such a thing as wasting your goddamn time on a surreally terrible kids' movie - has not revealed to me who made the decision or when, but there came a point when the Pirates World powers that be decided to promote their park with a series of movies. Three of these came out in 1970: the documentary Musical Mutiny, about a concert held at the park, and the fantasies Jack and the Beanstalk and Thumbelina, all directed by Barry Mahon, who spent the '60s cranking out nudie flicks by the handful in the burgeoning Florida exploitation scene; his only film prior to his trilogy for Pirates World that wasn't smut was 1969's The Wonderful Land of Oz. Meanwhile, his Wikipedia page, at the time of this writing, almost exclusively focuses on his World War II record. Barry Mahon is a fascinating and slippery enigma, I mean to say.

Jack and Thumbelina were both aimed squarely at the kiddie matinee marketplace, and I do not know how well they did - cursory research, folks - but by the end of 1971, Pirates World had more to worry about than residuals from the cheap-ass films shot on their properties as a bit of feature-length advertising. For in October of that year, the Walt Disney Company cut the ribbon on Walt Disney World in Orlando, some 200 miles north of Dania, and the nature of Florida tourism was irrevocably changed forever. With the beefiest tourist trap ever devised by man or some dark angel serving as a black hole in the middle of the state, sucking in all the visitors to the state, a rinky-dink little amusement park had virtually no chance of surviving, and Pirates World didn't - its holding company declared bankruptcy in 1973 and the park was gone by the end of 1975. Before that happened, though, the Pirates World folks rolled the dice on one more movie. It visibly bears the scars of a production that had no budget for resources: got a cheap Santa suit and a hideous Easter Bunny costume? Then you have a movie starring Santa and the Easter Ice Cream Bunny, whatever the actual fuck an ice cream bunny is. Not one that gives out ice cream, that's for sure. And in the time-honored tradition of chiseling film producers throughout history, the minds behind Santa Claus and the Ice Cream Bunny figured that you could surely save some money if, instead of building a whole feature from scratch, you take a feature that's already just sitting there and add crap to it. Which is why almost two-thirds of the alleged Santa Claus and the Ice Cream Bunny is composed of the entirety of Mahon's 62-minute Thumbelina, presented so uncut that it even includes its original opening and closing credits, with a little more than a half hour of new movie directed by the shadowy R. Winer, apparently working without benefit of cinematographers, editors, or any other credited crew.

In the beginning of the movie, though, we know none of this. All we get is the in medias res spectacle of a workshop full of North Pole elves busying themselves while waiting for Santa to return from parts unknown. It takes, I'm not exaggerating in the slightest, less than 15 seconds to determine just how impossible Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is going to be. For that gives us enough time to gawk in dismal amazement at R. Winer's complete inability to do, like anything right: by that point, the camera has already visibly wobbled on its tripod, and the cluster of child actors playing the elves have sung enough of their shrill jingle that we can tell how none of them were rehearsed, or possibly even given a full set of lyrics. The most salient aspect of their song, in the early going, is that they're not all singing in time, or the same key, and it's nigh impossible to make out what the hell it is they're trying to communicate. Which is just as well, because as it becomes more audible, we find those lyrics consist of vile passages like:
Tra-la-la-la-la, oh where is Santa Claus?
Tra-la-la-la-la, Santa isn't here
Tra-la-la-la-la, we'll just have to work some more
Tra-la-la-la-la, Santa's never been late before
Complete with the inconsistent rhyme scheme and burst of arrhythmia in the last line, all shouted out to a gratingly tuneless melody. It's like beat poetry as improvised by preteens. Who are, incidentally, credited as "Kids" from Ruth Foreman's Pied Piper Playhouse, with "Kids" in exactly those scare quotes, and so I start to thinking, if they're not really "kids", then what the fuck are they? Eventually, one of the girl-elves peeks out the front door to see stock footage of caribou in a pleasant, grassy-covered springtime glade, and deduces from this that Santa's reindeer came back to the North Pole without him. Where is Santa? Santa's nev'r been late b'fore! The film has not yet celebrated its 60th second at this point, but it has already mounted a compelling argument that it's the worst thing ever made with a motion picture camera.

Santa, anyway, got stuck on a beach in Florida. It's a few days before Christmas, and he was touring the States on his last-minute "Naughty or Nice" check, when something happened to I don't know what. But it left him without reindeer, and his sleigh mired intractably in the sand. Like, centimeters of sand. Since it is clearly impossible for the powers of a demigod to fight such a monstrous fate, Santa uses telepathic powers to summon local suburban children to his aid, and this is depicted with a vibrato post-production effect that makes him sound like the leader of a death cult. Oh, but before that happens, he gets a little song about how lonely, scared, and hot he is. And the outside footage was filmed without synchronised sound, so Jay Clark, in the role of Santa, isn't actually singing, he's just pantomiming. And, seemingly not pantomiming to the actual song, but just assured by R. Winer that he should wave his hands around like he's dancing, or conducting an orchestra of ghosts, and they'd make it work. They didn't make it work. Clark jerks his hands around without being more than incidentally in time with the music, while his or somebody else's voice floats above the film. If the idea was to communicate that Santa is about to drop dead from heat stroke, then mission accomplished.

So the kids - beg pardon, the "kids" arrive to be given their instructions from this terrifying beast with the hollow voice emanating from underneath a fake beard that was not even a little bit up to the demands of south Florida humidity, and looks like Clark was carrying it around in his pocket before gluing it to his face. Those instructions involve rounding up animals to serve as surrogate reindeer, and for something like seven or eight hours we get to watch as Santa demands that the kids try to back the animals up to his sleigh to be hooked up, only to be stymied by the fact that most quadrupeds are not terribly keen on being forced to back up. So it doesn't even get as far as "Ho ho ho! This sheep can't fly!" (yes, sheep, the favored house pet of all suburban Florida children), because we're too busy watching Santa trying to bully animals and saying condescending things to kids while he just stands there like doing nothing at all. Also, the first animal is a gorilla, in a remarkably stupid misjudgment of comic pacing: you do a couple of more or less normal animals first, then you trot out the dude in the gorilla suit, as an absurd twist. But you sure as shit don't lead with the gorilla, because that promises zaniness, and the endless minutes that follow are the closest thing I can imagine to the polar opposite of zany.

Watching all of this unfold are none other than Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, classic boy heroes of Mark Twain's beloved novels. Tom at one point has a raccoon on a raft with him, and boy, I guarantee you've never seen an animal in a movie as monumentally freaked the fuck out as that raccoon is to be on that raft, getting thrown around by some idiot kid. Tom and Huck never interact with the rest of the characters, and eventually sort of drift away; I gather that they are the inspiration for the silent, Christ-like Watcher in Kieล›lowski's Dekalog.

Eventually, Santa gives up, gathers his clan around him, and decides to cheer them up by telling a story. Or by letting them get a peek at the foot-long patch of sweat blackening the seat of his pants, proudly showcased in a shot that R. Winer actually permitted to be included in his film. I get that films like this are shot fast and without a chance for re-takes, but seriously. If you accidentally get a shot of Santa gushing sweat out of his ass crack, you find way to fix it, even if it means that you don't have time for all 19 inserts of grass during his mopey song from earlier.

But anyway, storytime. And guess what, it's Thumbelina! Which we see in its entirety for the next hour, and I have to say, it's an enormous relief. By any imaginable yardstick, it's terrible, but it has this in its favor: the actors move their mouths and sound comes out in a way that generally matches their lips. And Shay Garner, playing Thumbelina, is a stilted, unnatural performer, but when she's not talking, she's actually in possession of a commanding screen presence. So anyway, Thumbelina takes place in Pirates World, at the Hans Christian Andersen hut, or whatever, where a teen girl (Garner) wanders around looking at dioramas while listening to Andersen's fairy tale being related over loudspeakers by a narrator (Dorothy Brown Green) who turns out to be playing a character in the story. And as she does this, the girl visualises herself as the tiny little human girl who was kidnapped from her home and almost raped by frogs before being almost shamed into marriage to an elderly mole.

Though he wasn't going around trying to burn the very notion of the cinema down to the ground, like R. Winer would two years later, Mahon directs the movie pretty much exactly the way that you'd expect from a pornographer in his second year making children's films. There's an awkward, tableau-like staging everywhere you turn, and the plot beats are all coaxed out with the same dull, unsurprised energy of a woman who accidentally just took a shower while the TV repairman was in her apartment. The sets could not possibly resemble plaster over a wire frame more than they do, except for the mole's tunnel, which looks like an enormous birth canal made out of plastic and the broken dreams of children. The costumes, at least, are a bit fancy, with all kinds of articulating parts, but they're at least a bit nightmare-inducing; the moles have long beak-shaped faces that make them look like a cross between a rat, a raven, and that one dream where the shadow men were chasing you through the cemetery in the forest.

But you know what? It's functional. Ugly, cheap, blandly-staged, and tone-deaf. But functional. The way scenes are cut together indicates some understanding of how we process visual relationships in cinema. This praise cannot be extended to the framing narrative of Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, which frequently jams in cutaways to nothing at all, while finding a way to make the physical position of a bunch of kids sitting still in front of an unmoving sleigh difficult to parse. And it always, always calls the most attention to how much Santa's voice has nothing to do with Santa's staring, unmoving face.

After a blissful hour of boring, unattractive kiddie crap, Thumbelina spits its girl back out into the wonderful land of Pirates World, full of fun rides and exciting adventures, and Santa stops narrating whatever the hell he's narrating - I get that it would have taken, like, an extra day to cut out all the parts of Thumbelina that suggest the whole thing takes place in a room full of dioramas in a threadbare theme park, but surely they could have spared one day? - to resign himself to the fate of dying in the hot Florida sun, and he chases all the kids away. There's a long passage in which he talks about removing his coat, and then removes it. But just in time, Santa's very good friend the Ice Cream Bunny shows up, riding his... vintage fire truck... through Pirates World. In something like real time - oh my, the nice, long attention paid to the Ice Cream Bunny's path through a wooded road and to the beach! Now you start caring about continuity, eh R. Winer? There's a shot of Santa just sitting there, waiting like he's just sat there waiting for everything in the whole movie, watching as the Ice Cream Bunny, and his truck full of children, drive in from all the way back on the Z-axis. As a study in the slowness of movement and the gradual development of time, it is the rival of Oleg Yankovsky carrying a lit candle from one of a pool to the other and back in Nostalghia.

Eventually, the Ice Cream Bunny arrives, and it is an eldritch abomination; there's a long shot of a dog jumping and barking at it frantically, and I think we're meant to take it as "oh, the happy dog, it wants to jump up and lick the Ice Cream Bunny!", but anyone who knows dogs will immediately understand it as the natural response of canine fury to something horrifying and wrong that needs to barked all the way back to hell. And it's not just the freaky design of the thing, though its coal-black eyes, the right one of which sags in a sorry approximation of a wink, would cause any dog or man to feel the chill grip of the abyss. Even worse, in a film that has to this point only evinced a rough relationship with the basics of editing, things collapse complete when the Ice Cream Bunny shows up; it's a flurry of dissociated shots hacked together in a rough arrhythmia that resembles a freak-out scene in a psychedelic movie. But Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny is no head film. It's a bad enough trip while totally sober. There's nothing in it that makes any kind of linear sense, with its plot - such as it is - lazily meandering forward while the images only occasionally tie into that plot, and all of it frequently erupting in moments of the most repellent attempt to appeal to children with a sweaty, rumpled Santa and a Cthulhic humanoid rabbit.

Anyway, it's on the Internet Archive, so I leave you now to your best judgment.

Author's note: let me know in comments if that link goes away!