“Ernest Scared Stupid” (1991)

by A.J. Hakari

"Ernest Scared Stupid" poster

 

The longevity of Ernest P. Worrell in comparison to other commercial mascots who dared branch out of their thirty-second comfort zones probably has something to do with how people forget that he’s a product of advertising. Jim Varney’s Ernest was employed to pitch everything from cottage cheese to Mello Yello, and he was so full of blind enthusiasm to tell you all about them, the hijinks that quickly blew up in his face were a given. He was a basic, easily-relatable character that could adapt to any premise without feeling like he was selling anything, sparing filmmakers the kind of headache they’d get trying to build a plausible plot around, say, the Keebler Elves. The well-intentioned bumbler enjoyed a few modestly lucrative comedies, the last hurrah of which would have to be 1991’s Ernest Scared Stupid. The final in its franchise to be backed by a major studio, the movie is in a lot of ways the most ambitious of the lot, with a lion’s share of its budget going to special effects that help get it into the spooky swing of things. But what it’s missing is the simple charm of its predecessors, as Ernest’s shenanigans here come across as forced and more detrimental to the overall fun factor than ever before.

He helped troubled youth believe in themselves. He saved a beloved holiday icon from perishing. But now, Ernest P. Worrell — jester of all trades — is up against a monstrous challenge that’s unlike anything he’s run into. Legend tells of a troll named Trantor that was stopped from summoning his demonic buddies to run rampant through the village of Briarville. Generations later, the townsfolk just think of it as a silly old story, but for Ernest, a descendant of the man who finally imprisoned Trantor, it’s about to become real in the worst way. Through his usual dunderheaded actions, Ernest ends up resurrecting the beast just in time for Halloween, allowing him to start rebuilding his army by turning Briarville’s children into wooden dolls to give him his power. A mere five kids is all it takes for havoc to come to town, and with time running short, Ernest and the local Cranky Old Lady (Eartha Kitt) race to find a way to put Trantor out of commission for good.

The less control comedic characters have over the mishaps that befall them, the funnier they more often are for it. Ernest Goes to Camp isn’t a great movie, but Ernest’s innocence works, selling you on all the silly stuff that backfires on him as he tries to do good. He rarely felt like he was grandstanding to get a laugh, a notion that the following sequels ditched as they got increasingly elaborate with the wacky situations Varney’s hapless handyman stumbled into. By the time Ernest Scared Stupid came about, this series thought nothing of stopping the plot dead in its tracks so its hero could perform some tangential skit or impression — which, in this case, is an act of great irony, considering the stakes here are bigger than in any of the movies that came before. It’s not about some teens missing out on summer camp this time around; butt-ugly trolls are rising from the netherworld to feast on the life essence of countless kids, so forgive me for thinking Ernest could take a break from showing us his catalogue of accents to maybe save a few lives. On that note, while it’s a Halloween-themed farce aimed at the younger set, perhaps the picture does too good a job of freaking out its main demographic. It doesn’t shy away from featuring children frozen in fear as wooden figures, an image that inspired yours truly to eject the shit out of that VHS tape and bolt under the covers at age seven.

Ernest Scared Stupid not only casts Monsieur Worrell as more of a mugging machine than ever, it surrounds his antics with goings-on that may be too grim for some of his target audience to handle. I’m actually surprised I never got into the flick as a kid, since as a bona fide “Goosebumps” junkie back in the day, this had my name written all over it. Even now, for as dumb and dense as much of the movie is, I can still pick up on a lot of the elements that might’ve coaxed my inner monster fan out into the open even earlier. The opening credits set the tone with a lovingly-assembled montage of clips from vintage horror flicks, and the make-up effects for Trantor and his deformed brethren (created by the Chiodos, of Killer Klowns from Outer Space fame) are actually really impressive. It is a shame, though, that these are among the scant few bright spots to which Ernest Scared Stupid can lay claim. The script is repetitive and uninspired, and while the late, great Jim Varney will hold a special place in my heart for all time, the character that was his bread and butter unfortunately emphasizes the latter part of the term “lovable loser” here.

As is the fate that’s met many a movie that failed to make a splash upon their debut, Ernest Scared Stupid has been assumed into cult cinema heaven. Stranded between the joyful simplicity of those very first flicks and the pandering doldrums of the straight-to-video follow-ups yet to come, I can certainly understand the nostalgic love for this excursion into lowbrow tomfoolery, even though I don’t share it myself. Ultimately, Ernest Scared Stupid is pretty harmless, save for some tired jokes even scarier than Trantor’s gut-churning kisser.

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