There's absolutely no reason to expect much of The Ice Cream Truck, and maybe it's for that reason that I found it to be such a fetching affair. In at least two very noticeable respects, the film flagrantly boasts the limitations of its teeny-weeny budget: the dialogue, particularly in outdoor scenes, has the unmissable, overly crisp quality of hastily-mixed audio captured with a good-enough microphone rather than an actually-good one. And a few not-terribly-critical roles are filled by actors obviously enjoying the chance to go full-on Desperate Housewife without having to modulate any of their scene-chewing excess, all in the name of Anti-Suburban Satire. And it's really more annoying than anything.

Otherwise? It's a pretty damn satisfying hybrid, actually. The script, by director Megan Freels Johnston, takes a look at a few hectic days in the life of Mary (Deanna Russo), a healthy part of the way through her 30s, recently moved back to her hometown after long enough away that nobody remembers her and she doesn't remember anybody. She's come back in advance of her husband and two kids, to set up house and get some proper writing done without distractions. She does none of the latter, and little of the former. Instead, she finds herself amused and repulsed by the local neighborhood mom squad, Christina (Lisa Ann Walter), Jessica (Hilary Barraford), and Katie (LaTeace Towns-Cuellar), and their smiling plastic ways. She'd much rather hang out and smoke dope with Christina's hunky son Max (John Redlinger), just out of high school that very week, and his girlfriend Tracy (Bailey Anne Borders), in the most obvious manifestation of Mary's virtually unhidden desire to regress back to the effortless pleasures of young adulthood (Max's habit of shirtlessness likely does not hurt matters). Meanwhile, nobody besides her seems to find it weird that a very old-fashioned ice cream truck, driven by a staring, pasty reed of an ice cream man (Emil Johnsen), keeps creaking its way around the neighborhood at all hours, though she can't put her finger on why. You know who can? The people the ice cream man brutally murders for breaking his conservative rules of decorum, starting with poor Tracy.

The Ice Cream Truck causes itself unnecessary trouble by positioning itself as a merry old slasher film throwback. Not because it isn't such a thing - it is, and a charmingly cheesy one at that - but because it all but guarantees the wrong audience is going to find the film. And judging from the tenor of online reviews, it seems that the wrong audience did find the film. The thing is, while there's immense charm to The Ice Cream Truck's engagement with hoary slasher film tropes played mostly sincerely, but with a sense of humor about it, that's not the film's best strength (and even if it were, it would be at least partially invalidated by the strange, not very successful ending). I do very much appreciate Johnston's eye for the way '80s slasher movies staged their killing scenes; she even copies, accidentally or not, the strategies used by penny-pinching directors and producers who only had enough stage blood for a couple of killings and needed to use innuendo for the rest.

But the film's slasher movie elements are frankly subservient to its other two strands: its satiric take on suburban conformity, and its altogether inexplicable success as a character drama. The former isn't worth spending much time on: "people in the suburbs are synthetic monsters" is a worn-out trope, and it's not given much new life by Walter's haughty camp performance, which triumphantly gallops into the hammy and overstated without much payoff. Though I do appreciate the laid back interplay between Russo and Redlinger, which operates in more of a "I'm bored and fuck this" mode than "the suburbs are for devouring consumerist monsters" mode. Either way, the film is taking a lot of its cues from American Beauty, which is never a statement I'm going to make in fulsome praise.

The main focus of the film is on Mary's late-blooming sense of arrested development, and this part is actually kind of great. Russo's performance is of great importance here, helping Johnston to craft a character who has just the right mix of boredom, nervous loneliness, and a wry strand of "oh come on now, really" self-amusement at the over-the-top nature of the genre collision all around her. It's a good-natured character study, rather than a particularly serious and probing one; this is just as well, given that the primary storytelling mechanism is a rogue ice cream truck with a murderous driver. At any rate, I found the character to be a genuinely interesting figure, not so much rising above the film as recasting it. If it's to be a thriller, it's a thriller mostly about Mary feeling "off", rather than running for her life against a knife-wielding killer (and here, the strange ending does in fact do its job quite well).

None of which is to rob the film of its strengths as a slasher movie. If nothing else, the way that the tinny jingling of "Turkey in the Straw" keeps creeping into the soundtrack, buried deep in the mix so that you rather feel it than strictly speaking hear it, is the stuff of a terribly fine horror movie, letting tension bleed in around the edges rather than flatten us with it. And Johnsen's gaunt, milky-white dweeb of a killer is awfully damn good at seeming dangerous and threatening through his aura, despite being laughably unimposing as a physical presence. It's not a world-beating horror film, and I can't imagine that it set out to be, but it's a largely satisfying homage to the ebullient crumminess of one of history's most reliably schlocky subgenres, with just enough real menace to avoid falling into the trap of sarcastic postmodernism that claims so many latter-day slashers.