Friday, December 4, 2015

Rifftrax Presents "Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny" (Rifftrax, 2015; original film by R & S Film Enterprises, 1972)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The movie we went to was a Rifftrax presentation of a thoroughly terrible movie called Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, made in 1972 as a promotion for a pathetically inept theme park in Dania, Florida called Pirate’s World that attempted to duplicate the success of Walt Disney World and — predictably, if the rest of the place was as dull as what we see in this movie — went out of business in 1975. Rifftrax is a project of the final cast of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 — Mike Nelson, Kevin “Tom Servo” Murphy and Bill “Crow” Corbett — and though Murphy and Corbett no longer play their robot personae the concept is still basically the same: the three make jokes while a thoroughly rotten movie is playing. And not just dumb jokes, either; one of their lines last night referenced John Cage and their dialogue is a marvelous mash-up of high, low and middlebrow culture along with general snideness. It occurred to me that Charles and I were having a date night that was nostalgic for the early days of our relationship — we’d eaten at a restaurant we’d frequented when we were just starting out as a couple and now we were enjoying a new project from the crew of Mystery Science Theatre 3000, which had been in the latter stages of its original run when we first got together. To fill out Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny the Rifftrax crew dug up three Christmas-themed shorts and riffed on them. One was Santa Claus Story (1945), a weird farrago of The Night Before Christmas, the “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” article and documentary footage of monkeys fighting over a pretzel (I’m not making this up, you know!). The actor playing Santa was a repulsive presence with a beard whose webbing was all too visible, but at least he was better than the Santas we saw in the other movies, and it probably helped that Santa Claus Story was in black-and-white so we didn’t have to see his bright red costume in Runnycolor. Then they showed Custard the Dragon, a 1965 short so obscure doesn’t even have a page for it; it’s based on a 1936 poem by Ogden Nash that might have been a perfectly nice piece of whimsy on the page (the Rifftrax crew invidiously compared Nash to Dr. Seuss but I’ve always liked him — I was especially fond of a poem he wrote comparing a romance to various fruits and vegetables even though the only line from it I remember is, “If we cantaloupe, lettuce marry”) but looked absolutely absurd with children in ill-fitting and really tacky trick-or-treat costumes enacting it on screen.

The plot, if you cared, is about Custard the Dragon coming out of his “cage” (actually a crib set up to look like an isolation cell at Abu Ghraib) to vanquish a pirate, then going back in his cage again. After that the Rifftraxers inflicted on us a short that, like their feature, was aimed at promoting a really cheesy theme park (these places compared to Disneyland about as well as Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny compares to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) called Santa’s Enchanted Village, in which one of the actors seems to have accordions in his shoes (at least that’s what we hear on the soundtrack “music,” if — as Dwight Macdonald said about talentless actresses — I may use the term for courtesy) called Santa’s Village, which was apparently constructed on identical plans in both California and Illinois. The hope that the abysmal quality of these films might make Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny look good — or even mediocre — by comparison was quickly dashed. It seems that this wasn’t the first attempt of the Pirate’s World management to dabble in filmmaking; in 1970 they’d filmed short versions of three classic fairy tales, Thumbelina, Jack and the Beanstalk and an Oz story (how they got away with the last remains a mystery, since the rights to the first Wizard of Oz were still owned by what was left of MGM and the rest of the Oz books had been sewn up by Disney), and in the original version of Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny they spliced in their version of Thumbelina in the middle as a moral tale Santa narrated to the kids who are trying to get his sled unstuck from the Florida beach where he’s been stranded. That’s the plot of Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny: Santa got stuck on a Florida beach when his reindeer decided it was too hot for them down there and bolted back to the North Pole, and various local kids (introduced in footage so grainy and ineptly staged it looks like they borrowed their parents’ home movies and spliced them in) bring in various animals (including a pig, a cow, a dray horse and an unusually fat sheep) to try to pull Santa’s sleigh out.

The plot, such as it is, stops in the middle so Santa can narrate a fairy tale from one of the Pirate’s World people’s previous productions — originally it was Thumbelina but in the version the Rifftraxers were riffing on, it was Jack and the Beanstalk, which was considerably better than the feature it was included in. While no great shakes as a movie or a fairy-tale adaptation (just as the gap in quality between films set in the California mission country is between Vertigo at the top and Incubus at the bottom, the gap between musical adaptations of Jack and the Beanstalk puts Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s Into the Woods at the top and this one at the bottom), it’s at least more watchable than the framing film: Mitchell Poulos as an adolescent Jack is at least cute and fun to look at (he can’t act for shit, but what do you expect?), and Christopher Brooks as “Honest John,” a parody of a used-car salesman who sells Jack the magic beans for his cow, actually has some acting talent even though he’s obviously channeling Gene Wilder. (Well, there are worse models.) Also the photography is considerably clearer, crisper and brighter than that of Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, whose plot resolves itself (in a manner of speaking) when the second title character (an actor in a preposterously ill-fitting and tacky rabbit suit) arrives in a slow-moving red fire engine that looks like it began life as a Model “T” Ford and gives Santa a ride — whereupon the sleigh magically teleports itself back to the North Pole (as one contributor pointed out, if the sleigh could do that why didn’t Santa just use it to teleport back home at the start? Because then we wouldn’t have a movie, which would have been just fine by me except it wouldn’t have given the Rifftrax people something to riff off of). The news of a possible MST3K reunion (with the original host, Joel Hodgson, instead of Mike Nelson) seems rather appalling in its way — one fears it would be like all those wretched “comeback tours” of old rock bands like the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac — but the Rifftraxers are still good at providing their odd sort of entertainment and they made Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny far more watchable than it would have been au naturel.