By Matt Fleming. As a child, I spent an inordinate amount of time watching movies on cable and VHS. My mother would insist I come outside to enjoy the beautiful weather. I would respond, “but Mom, Back To The Future is on HBO right now.” As an adult, I’m attempting to unpack the films of my yesteryear to see how they have held up, how they have affected my life, and where they stand in the annals of nostalgia.
Ernest Scared Stupid (1991).
Prologue: “Ernest P. Worrell And The Case Of The Dry Well.”
Sometime in 1980, Nashville ad agency Carden & Cherry began producing commercials featuring a dim-witted yokel named Ernest P. Worrell, originally promoting local events and products. The character’s popularity led to a regional expansion, the character appearing in car dealership ads in many different markets, and eventually national campaigns, including several Coca-Cola products. Executive John Cherry, an aspiring filmmaker, saw the potential for turning Ernest into a real star. He made some cash compiling Ernest’s greatest hits, and parleyed that money into 1986’s tongue-twisting Dr. Otto And The Riddle Of The Gloom Beam, the first “Ernest movie.”
Jim Varney’s rubber-faced portrayal of the character was certainly the secret to its success. Varney was a serious actor, trained in Shakespeare, and this was his break. As time would tell, however, it would also be his curse. Cherry and Varney saw some success in the later ‘80s with the kid-centric Ernest Goes To Camp, Ernest Saves Christmas, and Ernest Goes To Jail. Each film was pretty low budget, and each managed to make about 25 million bucks. Whatever is to be said about the schlocky, campy, and repetitive nature of the Ernest films, they started out as relative hits, and as a kid, I loved all things Ernest. The logic behind placing Ernest in every possible holiday and any plausible scenario seems like a smart move with the likeable (and bankable) star character.
Unfortunately, Ernest Scared Stupid marked the beginning of the end for Ernest’s glory.
Part One: The Plot, or “Stupid Is, And Stupid Does.”
Ernest P. Worrell (the late Jim Varney), lovable oaf and friend to downtrodden children, is working sanitation engineering in the small midwestern town of Briarville, where his ancestors were once intelligent leaders of their community. However, when Rev. Phineas P. Worrell defeated Trantor the Troll in the late 1800s, his bloodline was cursed with degrading intelligence, eventually leading to one of his stupid descendants freeing the troll. We get to see Ernest’s mouth-breathing idiocy in action, and within the first ten minutes, he almost dies in a trash compactor. He is rescued by the sheriff’s son Kenny and his girlfriend Elizabeth (Austin Nagler and Shay Astor, respectively), two kids who get abused by the mayor’s bully-children. In an attempt to turn the tables on the junior jerks, Ernest helps his young friends build a treehouse full of food-fighting assault weapons. Of course, the tree is currently trapping Trantor, and he is released through Ernest’s obliviousness.
Upon his release, Trantor makes haste in building a troll army. He must abduct five children by midnight (it is Halloween, of course), turning each into a wooden doll and placing them into his tree, which results in trolls growing like blossoms from the branches. Ernest manages to escape the treehouse as Trantor flees, but the troll nabs Joey, an inconsequential friend of Kenny and Elizabeth. Meanwhile, Old Lady Hackmore (the wonderful Eartha Kitt), local folklorist/industrial artist, scolds Ernest for his ineptitude and convinces him to become a troll hunter. He purchases a surplus of novelty supplies from local pawn brokers, the Tulip Brothers (returning Bill Byrge and newcomer John Cadenhead), which includes a “giant album of every troll love song ever written.” The kids look for Joey back at the treehouse (where the forest now contains an ‘80s music video’s-worth of floor fog), and discover the wooden replica. They retreat to Old Lady Hackmore’s house, where Ernest is showing off his ignorance, and Trantor abducts another random child.
Hackmore studies the riddle at the heart of stopping Trantor, Ernest sets elaborate traps about town, and Kenny desperately seeks the help of his father. At Kenny’s behest, Elizabeth hides out at home, trying to avoid the town’s big Halloween party. Despite her protestations, Elizabeth’s mother doesn’t believe the legend of the troll, and she unwittingly subjects her daughter to what appears to be borderline troll-rape. At this point, the film is fattened up with pratfalls, meandering jokes, troll grunts, and foreshadowing. Using his ability to mimic voices, Trantor nearly catches Kenny, the voice of Elizabeth echoing from the mouth of a troll with two noses. Things take a typical Ernest-movie turn when he mistakenly captures the mayor’s brats in one of his garbage-traps and gets canned.
After a moment of dejection, Ernest springs into action, returns to the treehouse, and engages Trantor in full-on combat. (Actually, this sequence features our hero and his troll-foe fighting in the back of Ernest’s truck, which is being driven by his Jack Russell terrier, Rimshot.) Eventually the fracas makes its way to the school’s Halloween party, where the community finally learns the truth of Ernest’s claims, and Trantor traps his fifth and final soul. To add insult to injury, he transforms Rimshot into a side of bark, costing Ernest his best friend.
As Ernest and other townsfolk race to the troll’s tree, Kenny discovers the ancient tree-demon’s weakness: milk. Kenny gets some kids together, they ride their bikes into the local grocery store, and they steal a bunch of Super Soakers® and Vitamin D.
Back at the treehouse, Trantor’s troll-pods fall to the ground and sprout his army of cool-looking nasties. The new batch begins to attack the adults who have come in search of their kids, and they are easily handled by the trolls. Luckily, Kenny and the gang arrive with their secret weapons (although you never see them load the milk into the Super Soakers®), and the trolls start to fall into piles of goo. The kids and Ernest (in his many personalities) defeat the troll army, but Trantor has been powering up via demons, and he turns Kenny into wood. Super Trantor is too powerful for milk, but both Hackmore and Ernest figure out the real weakness is “unconditional love/the heart of a child.” So, Ernest smiles, dances the troll in circles, and kisses him on his snotty mouth. And then the troll explodes. All of the children who were rendered wooden return to their human form. This includes Old Lady Hackmore’s sister and some other old-timey kids, which I think makes her 100-years-old. Of course, Rimshot the dog is fine now, too. All that’s left is for Eartha Kitt to peer into the camera and ham it up. The end.
Part Two: The Cast, or “The Importance Of Being Ernest.”
The primary difficulty in discussing the cast of Ernest Scared Stupid is that there are really only two significant actors of repute, Jim Varney and Eartha Kitt. The rest of the cast is filled out by glorified extras, kids who did very little acting (both in their careers and this movie), and a couple returning faces from the Ernest oeuvre. Seriously, I spent a lot of time on IMDB. The casting process for this must have consisted of an open call to a Nashville school district and an elaborate game of “pulling names out of a hat.”
John Cherry and Jim Varney gained a small group of repertory players in their years, especially in their one-season Saturday morning TV series, Hey Vern, It’s Ernest!, and many familiar faces from the show are here in bit roles. The most notable omission is the versatile and charming Gailard Sartain, famous as Chuck of “Chuck and Bobby,” the sorta-Laurel and Hardy of the Ernest universe. Sartain’s portrayal of an ingenuitive schemer alongside his mute brother Bobby (funny-faced Bill Byrge) was always a highlight, and his absence here is palpable.
Anyway, Jim Varney is visibly feeling the strain of carrying another paint-by-numbers Ernest adventure. The years of talent wasted in the doldrums of pratfalls and catchphrases as a glorified mascot have degraded the carefree innocence of an actor who loved to play. With previous films, Varney could fully inhabit and transform the world his character was stuck in, whereas in Scared Stupid, he seems trapped in a C-grade Halloween version of Groundhog Day, doomed to repeat the buffoonery over and over again. The moments when Ernest translates his boyish naivete into philosophical genius (when he realizes unconditional love will kill trolls) reveal a true actor, finally given a chance to transcend dopey faces and Stooge-like slapstick. Of course, the rest of the film, Varney is reduced to a babbling town fool, a man-child who consistently puts himself and children in danger, drawing the ire of intolerant adults everywhere. Even his loyal dog, Rimshot, tries to kill him. Varney takes a very bad script and runs with it, and eventually loses his breath.
The other headline act is Eartha Kitt, moxie-filled-minx turned old witch. Kitt began her career as an alluring singer, breaking through on Broadway and in Hollywood, and even spent a season as Catwoman on the 1960’s Batman series. She has always been eclectic, both in voice and style, which makes her an ideal, if still bizarre, choice for the crazy “Old Lady” Hackmore. Oddly, she seems to outsmart the script, choosing a slow, deliberate delivery of her dialogue, coupled with a varying of tone and volume. Her physical performance is actually very witchy, and where other actresses would have certainly gone over the top with such a role, Kitt knows how to raise the quality of low budget with some very interesting choices. At one point, Hackmore steals a bicycle from the school and sets toward the troll-inhabited forest behind her creepy house. However, when we next see her, she has thrown the bike chain, and kneels next to it, puzzling over it, as Kenny and his gang race past her. Eventually, after a notable pause, she throws the bike to the ground in a fit and flails behind the rest of the troll hunters. The scene seems more than a few beats longer than it should have been, but it stands out as a mark of someone trying to subtly elevate low art. In the last shot of the film Kitt communicates more emotion, with simple facial expressions and gestures, than anyone should ever expect from an Ernest movie. She’s the perfect kind of weird.
The kids in this movie are pretty terrible, and I’m guessing that’s why most of them never acted again. As the film’s junior protagonist, Kenny, Austin Nagler plays “cool 12-year-old in the ‘90s” to a tee, which is pretty unbearable. (He also has a strange hand tick that is very distracting and unsettling.) His love interest (“like” interest?), Elizabeth, is played by Shay Astar, the only child actor in this movie with multiple IMDB credits. She is tasked with the burden of delivering the original legend to her classmates, so she comes off as pretty smug later on when trolls are revealed to exist. (Astar can be seen topless in the 2006 direct-to-video flick Jack Ketcham’s The Lost, which gives you an idea of her career trajectory.) The other kids are pretty much plug-and-play: the other one, (Joey, who obviously gets abducted by trolls first), the mayor’s bully kids (who are dumb and fat, like the mayor), and, of course, extras. The script, penned by frequent Cherry-collaborator (and ridiculously named) Coke Sams, sounds like a stereotype of a dad trying to talk like a kid. There’s enough cringe worthy dialogue to remind me that I was not cool when I was twelve.
That leaves the repertory players of the world of Ernest, who do less in Scared Stupid than in any prior entry. Bill Byrge returns, this time as Bobby Tulip, one half of the Tulip Brothers’ One Stop Salvage. Replacing Gailard Sartain’s Chuck is John Cadenhead as Tom Tulip, a fast-talking salesman. (Wait, where have I seen him before?) Anyway, Cadenhead is so one-note as the money-hungry Tulip that Bill Byrge’s Bobby actually has a line. Byrge’s physicality and facial contortions carry the duo, and are evidence that the magic is simply not there without Sartain. Daniel Butler, best known as Earl the Barber on the Hey Vern TV show, plays Kenny’s dad/town sheriff. It is puzzling that an otherwise funny member of the Ernest crew should play such a boring, poorly written straight man, unless he was using the role to launch a serious acting career. Unfortunately, he had to settle for hosting America’s Dumbest Criminals. Larry Black plays Mayor Murdock, a somewhat toned-down version of his role as camp owner in Ernest Goes to Camp, although his primary function is still to call Ernest an idiot. Barkley the dog, as Rimshot, really delivers a career performance as “a dog that can operate heavy machinery.” Overall, the supporting cast is only as good as the script, which is very, very bad.
Part Three: Conclusions, or “Scared To Sleep.”
Ernest Scared Stupid was the last movie in the franchise to be distributed by Touchstone Pictures, a subsidiary of Disney, and the penultimate theatrical release in the series. It’s pretty obvious that Ernest’s schtick is beginning to grow too tired for mainstream audiences, especially when it’s mired in such a terrible script. On one hand, the troll concept is slightly outside the normal monster-mayhem we usually associate with Halloween, but that is most likely a result of budgetary restrictions. John Cherry can’t just rent a Universal monster and make an Ernest Meets… in the vein of the Abbot And Costello classics. The title is pretty clever, though, as it communicates the film’s spirit much more effectively than, say, Ernest Goes To Trolls, or Ernest Goes Trolling. It still winds up being a cheap grab for the last big dollars Ernest P. Worrell can earn.
By the way, this movie is really cheap. The bulk of the budget was likely spent on the Chiodo Brothers’ terrifying troll creatures, which still seem only 75% cooked. Looking at practical effects in similar movies, it becomes clear that Scared Stupid could have used some more extensive mechanics in bringing these trolls to life. The rest of the film is very small-scale, relying on fog machines and medium shots to hide the chintzy set pieces and limited locations. Ernest Scared Stupid is also one of the longest 90-minute films I’ve ever seen, and it’s more goofy filler than plot. It’s fairly obvious that this series was headed to Blockbuster shelves and fledgling TV stations, as this movie is a glorified basic cable production.
It is pretty unfortunate how quickly this series derailed. Ernest Goes To Jail was successful, even if it was insane, and Jim Varney was as likeable as anyone could get. At this point in Ernest P. Worrell’s saga, he is the victim of oversaturation and under-quality. The writers clearly tried to shoehorn some of the heart of the first few movies, and it’s a payoff that isn’t earned. Varney and Cherry would continue to try and recapture some of their old glory, but they, like Ernest, never knew when to quit. Best enjoyed with nostalgia junkies around the witching hour.
-Quote of the film: “How ‘bout a bumper sandwich, booger lips?”
-The entire opening sequence foreshadows the films low budget by splicing public domain horror clips with generic shots of Ernest being scared stupid.
-Trantor the troll uses a simple incantation to gain power: “Evil demons, make me stronger! Come, demons, make me invincible!”
-One of Trantor’s special powers is glass-shattering breath. He also uses a troll-knife to slice Ernest’s hedge clippers in half, the remains of which Ernest uses as nunchucks. But didn’t he buy real “nimchucks” from the Tulip Bros.?