Ernest Scared Stupid (1991)
A long time ago, the town of Briarville was terrorised by an evil troll who stole the town's children and turned them into little wooden carvings. But he was stopped by Ernest P. Worrell and enslaved beneath an oak tree, never to be disturbed again. Years later, Worrell's bumbling great-grandson unwittingly helps a group of local children build a tree house on that very tree, inadvertently freeing the troll to continue his reign of terror and get revenge upon the Worrell family.
I may be lowering the tone of the site somewhat by reviewing this goofy 1991 family comedy-horror - after all, the Ernest films have been widely ridiculed and mocked by critics. For those who don't know, Ernest P. Worrell was a bumbling, comedy character played by the late Jim Varney. He started off playing the character on commercials and television but then received his own films series based on his popularity in North America (nine films in total, although the joke character wore off significantly over the years). On a similar vein of comedy to Pee-Wee Herman, Ernest was designed to appeal to children and panders to the lowest common denominator of comedy: falling over a lot, acting silly, talking in daft voices, etc. The character was always seen in low paid jobs like janitors or cab drivers and got into disastrous situations which were way over his head. But he was a sincere oaf - a kid in an adult's body – and the underdog element was a good selling point.
The fourth of the slapstick series, Ernest Scared Stupid sees the lovable dim-wit doing his bit in the comedy-horror genre. Disney, under their Touchstone label, produced the first few Ernest films, until the next one Ernest Rides Again, was such a flop that it cut all ties with the filmmakers and they were forced to limp on independently with the series with ever worsening results. This being Disney and it being early 90s has all of the hallmarks of another family friendly horror film – Hocus Pocus. Whilst Hocus Pocus has gone on to develop something of a cult-like following, Ernest Scared Stupid hasn’t, which is a big shame as I’d say it’s the better film. Well, at least from a horror perspective. This is a great stepping stone for younger fans to venture into the world of horror for the first time, with just the right amount of spookiness and scariness to unsettle, rather than completely terrorise.
Ernest Scared Stupid is Jim Varney’s vehicle and love him or leave him as Ernest, there’s no denying he doesn’t get stuck into the role. This was easily his best performance in the role and this is easily the strongest film in the series as a result. Varney was a classically-trained Shakespearian actor before he donned the trademark cap and became the goofy character so you know that everything he hams up, he knows exactly what and why he’s doing it. The character was always harmless, inoffensive and likeable and he channels that perfectly here as the protagonist completely out of his depth. One of the trademarks of the role is his 'multiple personality' scenes in which he rapidly changes character from Ernest to an assortment of old ladies, Roman generals, lumberjacks, Ottoman warriors and more. It's interesting to watch the character from an adult perspective, understanding just how well Varney manages to bring to life a variety of different accents and characters in costume, albeit for a few fleeting moments.
Adults will find a few humorous references to other films (notably Ernest being trapped inside a garbage compactor which harks back to Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom). Plus the title credits sequence features clips from a whole host of old school shockers like The Brain from Planet Arous and The Killer Shrews. Kids will love the silliness of it all, with Ernest running into doors, being thrown off moving trucks in oil drums and get into old school slapstick moments with cars, dumpsters and such like. It’s a tried-and-tested routine for Varney and he pulls out his usual juvenile repertoire, with the mix of the verbal and physical humour. But its also hard to dislike, purely for Varney’s earnest portrayal of the character.
Taking the slapstick out of the equation, Ernest Scared Stupid is actually a great family-friendly horror film which really manages to strike the right spooky atmospheric vibes. As a horror film, it includes many of the usual clichés including the unbelieving townspeople, the resident nut job who knows more than they should (played here with relish by Eartha Kitt) and the array of stock characters who inhabit the town. The plot itself is rather threadbare and is more or less introduced right from the start so the rest of the film is just set piece after set piece. At least pacing of the film is spot on as Ernest lumbers from one predicament to the next, all leading up to a memorable finale as the townspeople attempt to defeat the troll and his children in the woods. The forest locations are superbly dark, fog-drenched, swampy places to add to the ambiance and there's a terrific score to add to the Halloween spirit. The look and feel of Ernest Scared Stupid perfectly captures the fun and spookiness of that time of year.
Big props need to be given to the Chiodo Brothers, famous for their 80s cult classic Killer Klowns From Outer Space, and make-up department here for their fantastic creations. The main troll looks awesome, all dripping with slime and goo, and is a very nasty piece of work, aggressive and violent enough to pose a threat but not overtly horrifying to frighten the life out of the target audience (though I still wouldn’t recommend really young children watching it). Late in the film, his 'children' come to life and again the make-up job is superb, giving each new troll a bit of individual character in the brief moments that they're on screen.
Ernest Scared Stupid is perfect family Halloween foil: light-hearted, good-natured and with just enough chills and spills to entertain young children without scaring them too much (though one or two scenes are pretty tense). Yeah I admit, it's not going to be everyone's cup of tea but if you've got kids and its Halloween, put this on and watch them love it (and who knows, you may even find yourself smiling along)
Ernest Scared Stupid
Director(s): John R. Cherry III
Writer(s): John R. Cherry III (story by), Coke Sams (story by), Charles Gale (screenplay by)
Actor(s): Jim Varney, Eartha Kitt, Austin Nagler, Shay Astar, Jonas Moscartolo, John Cadenhead, Bill Byrge
Duration: 91 mins