Jim Varney had been in the public spotlight for many years before his breakthrough role in the 1987 comedy Ernest Goes to Camp, featuring his signature character Ernest P. Worrell in the first of many movies. It was the first of four movies he would make for Disney before the movies became independently produced and went straight to video for the remainder of his career.
Some people are calling Varney one of the first viral stars as he appeared in the Ernest role for a string of commercials throughout America. His popularity surprised a Disney executive, in a case of two people being in the right place at the right time, when Varney appeared in a NASCAR race as Ernest riding in a convertible before the main event. The Disney exec had no idea who Varney was but the crowd loved him.
Varney had originally signed a three-picture deal but after the success of Ernest Saves Christmas in 1988, it was extended to six-pictures. Then, in 1991, Varney with his partner John R. Cherry III made Ernest Scared Stupid and the bottom fell out.
We had a joke at my middle school that the next movie will be called Ernest Still Stupid. I had gone to see the first two Ernest movies but my feelings toward the character changed as I became more interested in more mature movies. I was in the second grade when the first Ernest movie was in theaters and the seventh grade when the fourth hit theaters. A lot of things change.
I remember sitting in the theater at Ernest Saves Christmas and realized most of the older middle schoolers weren’t there for the clean silly humor. They were there to make out with their boyfriends or girlfriends.
It also did helped that Ernest Scared Stupid was a little darker tone movie about Trantor the Troll stealing the souls of young children that they turn into small wooden dolls. Imagine a 7-8-year-old seeing that and freaking out. What sucks is the effects by the Chiodo Brothers are pretty darn good. The Chiodos (Charles, Edward and Stephen) had done work on Critters and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure before making their won feature, the cult-comedy-horror Killer Klowns From Outer Space. If you look closely, you can see some of the trolls resemble the alien clowns from that movie.
Unfortunately, there’s not much of a good plot here. Set in a small town Briarville, MIssouri, Trantor is captured in the 19th Century and seal him under an oak tree. One of the village elders, Phineas Worrell (Varney in another role) is cursed by Trantor that his descendants will get dumber over the years, hence this explain Ernest. And the only way Trantor can be released is by a Worrell the night before Halloween.
So, you don’t have to be intelligent to know that Ernest, who works as a sanitiation worker in the town releases Trantor when he and the town kids who are his friends, Kenny (Austin Nagler), Elizabeth (Shay Aster), and Joey (Alex Klapper) try to construct a tree house. And Trantor goes on around town stealing the kids’ souls. This was probably terrifying to younger audiences and it sounds like a similar plot line of Christmas Slay that was in Ernest Saves Christmas.
It’s up to Ernest, his Jack Russell terrier, Rimshot (who had appeared in Ernest Goes to Jail), and “Old Lady” Hackmore (Eartha Kitt who is surprisingly funny to watch) as the town’s stereotypical crazy old woman.
If I remember correctly, very little mention was made in the commercials about Trantor stealing souls, for obvious reasons. But I feel some parents weren’t too happy with the darker tone of the movie and prevented their kids from watching it. Like I said, the work by the Chiodo Brothers is impressive. And not all parents are fuddy-duddies. One of the earliest movies I remember seeing is the 1982 horror classic Poltergeist.
Also, I think parents were upset that Ernest turned up the “yuck” value as the movie has everyone spitting milk on the trolls to kill them. And to defeat Trantor, Ernest kisses Trantor as he realizes “the love of a child” will defeat the troll who is slobbery snot out of his nostrils. Previous Ernest movies had kept the humor clean but silly.
However, you can see this movie as stepping stones for Disney to make Hocus Pocus and Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas. Now, those both are considered family Halloween classics. And I’ve heard there is a fanbase around Ernest Scared Stupid with some touting it as the best Ernest movie ever.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case in 1991. It was the most expensive Ernest movie made with a budget of about $9.6 million and only grossed $14.1 million. This led to Disney canceling the deal. Varney and Cherry continued the franchise with Ernest Rides Again but it only made $1.4 million despite being released in up to 1,190 theaters.
By 1993, Ernest was already a joke, having been mocked in The Simpsons (Ernest Needs a Kidney) and on Beavis and Butt-head. There were four more Ernest movies, Ernest Goes to School, Slam-Dunk Ernest, Ernest Goes to Africa and Ernest in the Army but they all went straight to video.
Varney, himself, was trying to branch out. Despite his deal falling through with Disney, he later voiced Slink Dog in the first two Toy Story movies and was in Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Varney landed a role as a drunken, incestuous father of one of the main female characters in the indie movie 100 Proof, which got some good reviews. Varney had studied Shakespeare at the Barter Theatre. He had played antagonistic characters in Ernest Goes to Jail and Fast Food. His last on-screen role was as a man accused of murder in Daddy and Them. He wasn’t just some country bumpkin.
At only 50 when he died of lung cancer, Varney was still hoping to put Ernest behind him. Unfortunately, it was one of those cases of being typecast with being not being able to differentiate between the actor and the character he was playing. He reportedly still did promotions while very sick for Toy Story 2. And while I was no fan of Ernest Scared Stupid, Ernest Saves Christmas still makes it way in my play cycle during the Christmas holiday season.
Like the old saying goes, to each his own. KnoWhutImean?
What do you think? Please comment.