Younger viewers might raise an eyebrow at the sight of Ernest P. Worrell, but he was practically the weird uncle of my generation. Imagine if they made an entire film franchise out of Flo from progressive insurance, except the ads weren’t national and she was more geared towards kids… and more deliberately annoying… and yet less unintentionally annoying… The character of Ernest was created by an advertising agency in 1980 for a multitude of local televised ads, ranging from cars to soda to everything else. This was all before my time and I wasn’t even aware of Ernest’s origins until I began doing research for this review series. Yet audiences found Jim Varney’s aggressive mugging and catchphrases to be charming enough that Disney and Touchstone pictures decided to make him into a film star. Before I start talking about the movies themselves though, it should be noted that I only really adored a few of them growing up. I watched the majority of them and only remember disliking one, which might have to do with my age at the time, but even as a kid… they were mostly one-and-done experiences. So how well does the Ernest saga hold up from the perspective of a casual fan? Will nostalgia be able to make this marathon bearable? Or should Ernest just remain a childhood memory? LET’S FIND OUT!
DR. OTTO AND THE RIDDLE OF THE GLOOM BEAM (1986)
(Written and Directed by John R. Cherry III)
(Starring Jim Varney, Myke R. Mueller and Jackie Welch)
Now you might be thinking — “What the f@ck is this?” — and I most definitely am thinking — “What the f@ck was that!?” — but I’m not entirely sure I can provide an answer. This is a real movie and Ernest does appear in it… for a brief cameo near the end… But up until this review series, I had never even heard of “Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam“, even though it has a title that’s hard to overlook. I can’t even really find a lot of information about it and the movie is often left unmentioned in Ernest’s film catalogue. Was it released in theaters? Did it make any money? I hear conflicting things, including that it was only released (on video) after Ernest became a household name, so I don’t know! Dr. Otto (Jim Varney) is a mad scientist who creates the ‘gloom beam’ to disrupt the worlds economy, prompting the U.S Government to send in its greatest hero… the incredibly bumbling, boorish Lance (Myke R. Mueller) and his more competent side-kick Doris (Jackie Welch). Lance has a tumultuous history with Dr. Otto — and oh f@ck it, “Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam” doesn’t have a story. The narrative is just a strange concoctions of scenes, designed to showcase Jim Varney’s wide variety of impersonations, as Dr. Otto’s gimmick is that his machine can drastically change his appearance and personality. Every time the script attempts to… exist… it just sort of dies. Dr. Otto provides a riddle that can lead back to his hideout and characters are constantly referring to it, but where was the pay-off? The heroes stumble into his secret layer, without any real eureka moment. Lance has a character arc, but then it’s forgotten about too. At one point, Doris randomly shows up dressed as some sort of Amazon warrior, because… I assume filmmakers just had a costume laying around. The production values are LOL, I just realized I was insinuating that “Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam” had production values. It’s cheap looking, but I’ll give credit where credit is due, the set and costume designs were pretty imaginative. The film bathes in 80’s atmosphere, complete with fluorescent lighting, pop music and scantily clad women, which made the low budget palatable.
Now I probably sound like I’m sticking my nose up at “Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam“, but do you know what? I laughed just enough to make this a tolerable experience. Not every joke lands, but there are some really good lines, reactions and tangents that tend to come out of nowhere. Yet strangely, my favorite moments came from everyone EXCEPT Jim Varney, even though he’s technically the only reason to bother with the movie. I tend to favor dry humor and the supporting cast will often say absurd things with the straightest of faces, which is just my kind of comedy. Jim Varney’s performance(s) here rely on intense, aggressive mugging, which is not my kind of comedy. He yells his lines, his facial expressions are unrestrained and … he’s still always fascinating to watch, even when you just wish the camera would back off ASTHEREAREONLYSOMANYCLOSEUPSOFHISFACEYOUCANTAKEBEFORETHEYDRIVEYOUMAD — but I digress. Varney was a comedic genius, with boundless energy and a wide variety of impersonations… yet I have to admit, he sometimes exhausted me here. Dr. Otto in particular got on my nerves, although I did enjoy his crusty, deadpan Auntie Nelda persona. Like his performance or not though, the movie would’ve completely floundered without him. He’s clearly committed to the material and plays off of everyone effectively — who in turn, play off of him effectively. I think the dry humor stands out more because of his shenanigans, so I guess everyone had the right kind of synergy. This is actually a very difficult review for me to write, as if you can’t tell, I’m having difficulty deciding whether or not I like “Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam“. I feel like I do, but I also… don’t? WHY MUST THIS BE SO HARD!?
Eventually, the movie does run out of gas, as it’s still just a collection of vignettes that all seem to have the same set-ups and same pay-offs. “Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam” feels like it was made to be a demo reel for Jim Varney, in hopes for snagging a more formal production by an official studio. Yet it does have a darker tone than the Ernest series and is jam packed with so much surreal material that it definitely has some cult appeal to it, which is why I’m so shocked how obscure this is. Sure, the Ernest series would recycle some of its ideas and I suspect a few mainstream works may have drawn inspiration from the exploits of Dr. Otto, but seemingly no one knows about it. I also have to wonder who the target audience was, as kids aren’t going to understand Doctor Otto’s convoluted plan to destroy the economy at all, yet they’re the ones who will presumably enjoy Varney’s silly antics. I feel like the only people who will get anything out of this are weirdos such as myself, who appreciate the strange and bizarre dumpsterfires that fly beneath everyone’s radar. “Doctor Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam” might be a bad movie, but it can be funny and more importantly — did successfully showcase the talents of its star. I would like to even think it played a part in Jim Varney and John Cherry getting their contracts with Disney/Touchstone Pictures, although I have no idea if this was actually the case. Just as I couldn’t decide whether or not I enjoyed this, I also couldn’t quite settle on a rating. I kept flip flopping between a 4/10 and a 5/10, depending on my mood… So I guess I’ll just settle somewhere in the middle, as it was at least as amusing as it was… annoying? This f@cking review makes no sense! Is the rest of this marathon going to be so hard?! I DON’T KNOW IF MY BRAIN CAN HANDLE SO MANY CONFLICTING FEELINGS!!!
Also, does the ending seriously suggest that Ernest is merely a persona of Dr. Otto? Is this an origins story? Am I going to spend the rest of this review series pretending that Ernest is just Dr. Otto in disguise? Oh boy, this is going to be fun!
ERNEST GOES TO CAMP (1987)
(Directed by John R. Cherry III)
(Written by John R. Cherry III and Coke Sams)
(Starring Jim Varney, Victoria Racimo and Iron Eyes Cody)
“Ernest Goes to Camp” was the first ‘OFFICIAL’ entry of the Ernest film franchise, being distributed by Touchstone pictures as part of a four picture deal. While critics would eventually begrudgingly re-evaluate the movie as… better than what was to follow… it was the recipient of a critical mauling upon release and Jim Varney was even nominated for a Golden Raspberry award. Luckily, this didn’t stop audiences from taking their kids to see Ernest be silly on the big screen, so plenty of money was made and Ernest slowly became a staple of my generation’s collective childhood. “Ernest Goes to Camp” isn’t particularly a good movie, but it’s pretty inoffensive as a bad movie — other than the racial insensitivity, the animal cruelty against turtles, the attempted murder masquerading as comedy, the reckless endangerment of children and everything else that might offend you… like the dated fashions of the late 1980’s. Now that is something to get upset about! Ernest (Jim Varney) is the camp maintenance worker, although his dream is to become a janitor, but he’s too f@cking stupid to be trusted around kids. He gets his shot when a group of delinquents are sent to the camp as part of a ‘second chance’ program, but they aren’t interested in being reformed by him… and he has to contend with a greedy businessman (John Vernon) trying to take over the land.
“Ernest Goes to Camp” is designed to make kids laugh, complete with prat falls, silly voices, goofy facial expressions and making messes. The narrative even includes random tangents that have nothing to do with the story, just to force violent physical comedy or characters being splattered by gross stuff. I could only remember bits and pieces as an adult, such as Gailard Sartain’s chef character playing with the lobsters or the ‘first aid’ gag, but I have to assume I enjoyed the movie back then. Besides liking Ernest, I was always in love with these kinds of campground movies, although admittedly this was tame compared to its contemporaries because of the low budget. As an adult… eh, I struggled with finding a lot of this funny because I felt so bad for Ernest. He’s clumsy, gullible and full of shit, but he’s still such a sweetheart! When he breaks down after reaching a low point, I almost wanted to cry for him. So I just couldn’t find any amusement in his misfortunes, even though I’m obviously supposed to be chuckling. Yet when something works out in his favor, it’s easy to feel a sense of triumph. Ernest has a lot of heart, so I find him to be likeable, despite the fact that he’s a very loud character, demanding a very broad performance from his actor. Jim Varney gets to be at his most over-the-top in this role, without necessarily being overbearing and I thank God and John Cherry that they toned down the close-ups. I love how even though Ernest is dumb, he’s still strangely articulate and somehow Varney can deliver lengthy diatribes and tangents without ever stopping to catch his breath… or even letting the dialogue slow down his mugging or physical comedy. Even if you find Ernest to be obnoxious, you just can’t deny Varney’s screen presence. “Doctor Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam” showcases more of his talent, but I think “Ernest Goes to Camp” makes better use of it. I never grew exhausted by his performance and the only times I grew annoyed was when the “comedic” duo of Gailard Sartain and Daniel Butler took the stage… I REALLY found those guys to be annoying, which wasn’t helped by how superfluous they felt to the story… Nevertheless, “Ernest Goes to Camp” is satisfactory for children’s entertainment. There’s not much else to talk about, as the cinematography, editing, direction and writing are very basic, existing to showcase Ernest… and Coca-Cola… But for me personally? The funniest part is how the lawyer is the token good teammate of the villains. Now that’s hilarious!
Of course — the movie doesn’t include the epilogue where Ernest reveals himself to be Dr. Otto, who only saved the camp so he could destroy it himself. The children were enslaved and the counselors were fed to the dump, but otherwise, it was still a happy ending… for me.
ERNEST SAVES CHRISTMAS (1988)
(Directed by John R. Cherry III)
(Written by Ed Turner and B. Kline)
(Starring Jim Varney, Douglas Seale and Noelle Parker )
“Ernest Saves Christmas” arguably had the most enduring legacy of Ernest’s cinematic exploits, as it was both the franchise’s biggest financial success and one-of-three entries that people tend to consistently remember. Unfortunately, the critics still weren’t impressed, although their children most certainly were and I guess that’s what is important. Our favorite bumbling fool of a hero Ernest (Jim Varney) is now a cab driver and in the middle of his vehicular rampage, he picks up… the real Santa Claus (Douglas Seale) himself! It turns out that Santa uses magic to perform all of his Christmas miracles, but it withers away as he gets older, so he needs a successor for Christmas to continue. Obviously this is a job for Erne — some guy named Joe (Oliver Clark). But Ernest is there to help Santa find Joe to save Christmas!
“Ernest Saves Christmas” definitely benefits from a more polished production. You can tell that this had more money and talent from both behind and in front of the camera, with improved cinematography, editing, acting, writing and more inspired direction. This isn’t to say that “Ernest Saves Christmas” is any kind of technical marvel or that the special effects aren’t bad, but it is still a step up from its predecessors. I also found this to be the funnier, with plenty of good lines, interactions and reactions, although it certainly has its annoying moments too. Gailard Sartain returns with a new sidekick (now played by Bill Byrge, who would become a regular), but every scene with them stops the movie dead in its tracks. I don’t remember disliking the duo as a kid though, so maybe younger audiences enjoyed their antics? Jim Varney continues to command the screen by aggressively chewing the scenery with his hammy mannerisms, but he amused the adult me more often than not… so naturally, the child in me absolutely loved him. He gets to reprise some of his impersonations from “Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam” and their inclusions actually make a little bit of sense this time around! I was also happy to “see” Vern for the first — and last — time in any of these films. Yet even Varney’s Ernest is upstaged by Douglas Seale’s sincere, warm portrayal as the man with the bag. He embodies the spirit of Christmas so convincingly that my cold, dead, zombified heart grew three times its size! Even as a ‘grown ass man’, I have to admit I sometimes had the sniffles thanks to his wonderful performance. I wouldn’t go so far as to call “Ernest Saves Christmas” a good movie, but it is worthy of the holiday it celebrates. I wouldn’t mind making this a Christmas tradition, along with other touching holiday-themed stories such as “Silent Night, Deadly Night” and “Krampus“.
It’s too bad that the story really ends with Ernest laughing like a maniac as he throws Santa off his sleigh, ruining Christmas for all the little boys and girls.
It was during this time that a TV series titled “Hey Vern, it’s Ernest” aired for a single season on CBS, apparently modeled after the success of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse“. Despite being short lived and subsequently fading out of our collective consciousness, it received a few awards. Was “Hey Vern, it’s Ernest” cancelled because of low ratings? Or did Ernest’s “handlers” simply decide to focus on his film career? I’m not entirely sure, as my extensive research — *ahem* wikipediaandimdbtriviabutdon’ttellanybodyknowwutImean? — couldn’t pin down a specific reason, but apparently CBS made the decision to end the program against Jim Varney’s wishes, so I assume it because of a lack of viewership. Nevertheless, the existence of a TV series shows how popular the character was at this time.
ERNEST GOES TO JAIL (1990)
(Directed by John R. Cherry III)
(Written by Charlie Cohen)
(Starring Jim Varney, Jim Varney, Barbara Tyson and Gailard Sartain)
Um… guys? Is Ernest being sentenced to prison, where he encounters murderers, brutal guards and an ELECTRIC CHAIR, while a doppelganger legitimately threatens his loved ones, an appropriate story-line for children? “Ernest Goes to Jail” is easily the darkest entry within the franchise, with Ernest making shanks and having to dodge prison rape in the showers… okay, that part was off-screen, but the concept is a little at odds with the silly slapstick humor. Nash (Jim Varney) is a ruthless, cold blooded criminal who just happens to share an identical face with our beloved Ernest P. Worrell (Jim Varney), so conspires to ‘switch places’ with him. Now Ernest must survive the big house, while Nash plans on robbing a bank. Varney’s portrayal of Nash is strangely chilling and understated at times, but it is pretty funny when he’s forced to confront the wacky lifestyle of his doppelganger. “Ernest Goes to Jail” has some of the funniest moments up until this point, but I feel like the formula was already growing stale. The second half is better than the first, because Ernest gets to interact with an entirely new environment, allowing for more distinct jokes. Up until then, it’s the usual mayhem and the gags just felt like reheated versions of their equivalents from previous movies. But once Ernest and Nash find themselves engrossed in each-others lives, the material improves significantly and we get some hilarious moments, such as Ernest carving a bar of soap… into a lifelike assault rifle… The supporting cast is also pretty stellar, with Chuck (Gailard Sartain) and Bobby (Bill Byrge) actually being amusing AND necessary to the story-line. I was also impressed by the colorful — almost psychedelic — cinematography, which really highlighted the increased production value. “Ernest Goes to Jail” isn’t my favorite entry in this franchise, but it’s armed with the flashiest visual style and some of the funniest jokes. So why does my rating seem lackluster? I’ve realized I can only enjoy Ernest when I’m interested in the story or setting he’s being paired with (such as camping or meeting Santa). Prison ended up being a comedic goldmine for the character, but it took too long to get there, leaving me with a routine that I’m getting bored with… I’d still give “Ernest Goes to Jail” a pass, but this would become a problem for the franchise later on.
After the credits, Doctor Otto shanked some bitches…
ERNEST SCARED STUPID (1991)
(Directed by John R. Cherry III)
(Written by Coke Sams and Charles Gale)
(Starring Jim Varney, Eartha Kitt and Austin Nagler)
“Ernest Scared Stupid” is armored in nostalgia, which is strong enough to repel even my sharpest critcism. I F@CKING LOVE THIS MOVIE — er, or I did when I was a kid. I have vivid memories of watching this… so many times… throughout my childhood, much to the despair of my parents. Everything about it seemed designed to satisfy my cinematic cravings at that age. It was scary, but only in a fun, thrilling and harmless kind of way; in contrast to the more traumatizing experiences of my youth which certainly distorted me into the monster I am today. Ernest (Jim Varney) is the local loon, but it turns out that his ancestor imprisoned a powerful troll who preyed upon children. Unfortunately for the world, Ernest is the one man who could accidentally free said troll through sheer clumsiness and stupidity, so… we’re f@cked.
The troll is surprisingly creepy thanks to a combination of its hideous design, shockingly lifelike animatronics and a mean spirited treatment of children. I remember getting the crap scared out of me… also much to the despair of my parents… whenever the troll would turn one of these kids into wooden figurines. I’ve never felt like John R. Cherry was an exceptional filmmaker, but he does a surprisingly good job at balancing horror and comedy; often within the same scene. While the writing and cast provide most of the laughs, the cinematographer will put you on edge with eerie lighting and the editor will patiently build up the tension until — BAM! There’s a f@cking troll in your bed! Yet they make sure to appeal to us children, focusing on the gallons of snot running down the trolls’ noses, because kids like that kind of gross stuff. The troll might look menacing, but it’s constantly participating in these silly gags, so “Ernest Scared Stupid” was never too scary; just the right amount of scary. There are other reasons I remember liking this as a kid. This is the first time where the children functioned as the protagonists, making the narrative a little more relatable for the target audience. It’s fun seeing them do things we wish we could do, from building elaborate, absurd tree houses to getting revenge on bullies. Ernest is still his usual bumbling self, being the butt of every joke designed to make children giggle… and Rimshot… WHY DIDN’T MORE FILMS HAVE RIMSHOT! He is like the coolest dog ever and everyone loved him! All of this builds up to “Ernest Scared Stupid” being a childhood favorite and it arguably has the most enduring cult following out of the entire series… which is all it will ever get, as the movie underperformed at the box office and Disney/Touchstone pictures opted not to renew their contracts with Cherry and Varney. Subsequent Ernest sequels would be independently produced, much to the despair of my parents… and everyone else… We just didn’t know it yet.
But I’ve only been discussing “Ernest Scared Stupid” through the eyes of a child… How do I feel about it as an adult? Well, I STILL F@CKING LOVE THIS MOVIE! As I said, nostalgia is playing a huge role here, but I enjoyed myself all the same. But what observations can I make now that I probably would not have been when I was little? The music is perfect, as it’s catchy and works this ‘creepy crawly’ vibe that fits snugly within the ‘family friendly horror’ atmosphere. I laughed a lot more than I thought I would, with Ernest being the primary source of entertainment. I just found his reactions, soliloquies, quips and mugging to be much funnier this time around, possibly because he’s balanced out with a stellar supporting cast. I won’t say the child actors turn in ‘good’ performances, but they often made me smile anyway. I loved how everyone reacts to Ernest’s lunacy, as they treat him like the nuisance he really is. I think my favorite moment is when the troll declares “you will pay for the sins of your forefathers” and Ernest responds with “But I don’t have four fathers! I only have one father!“… Cue the troll giving him the best “… Are you for real?” facial expression. I also loved Eartha Kit, who matches Varney in hamminess, yet adds a touch of class to the feature. There’s a sequence in “Doctor Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam” where Dr. Otto summons all of his personalities into a single location, which didn’t make sense, but they resurrect that gag here. I remember being so confused as a kid, as I wasn’t sure if Ernest was just playing dress-up or if his multiple personalities were different characters. As an adult, I can now safely say that Ernest has dissociative identity disorder and I love how even the kid comments on it. You can criticize the film for being too sentimental, but it got me feeling very sentimental. I wasn’t afraid to sniffle or smile, with Ernest’s low point being… so… *sniffles*… SAAAAAAAAAD (I’m bawling right now). Is this the best Ernest movie? I think so, even if I’m not entirely sure I was reacting to the movie or my memories of watching the movie so many years ago. “Ernest Scared Stupid” will always have a place in my heart though, regardless how strict or cynical my cinematic tastes have become.
By the way, Bill Byrge reprises his role as Bobby, but Gailard Sartain stepped away from the franchise and his character was replaced with Tom (John Cadenhead), who more-or-less has the same personality. Their screen-time is limited and while they never annoyed me, they didn’t really amuse me either. I wasn’t sure where to include this additional piece of trivia in the review, so it’s here.
After the credits, Doctor Otto showed up and… slaughtered the Disney executives who chose not to renew the contract, which could’ve spared us all… In honor of the Touchstone phase of the Ernest Cinematic Universe coming to an end, I’m going to end this running-gag, as… it’s dumb.
ERNEST RIDES AGAIN (1993)
(Directed by John R. Cherry III)
(Written by William M. Akers and John R. Cherry III)
(Starring Jim Varney, Ron James and Tom Butler)
“Ernest Rides Again” was released theatrically… technically… but it was independently produced and sank like a stone in the box office, so what happened? Were people just that sick of the character? Did the negative reviews finally catch up to Ernest? Was the marketing campaign that disastrous? I’m leaning towards the latter, as the distribution company was no Touchstone Pictures and the previous Ernest flicks sold themselves off a ‘theme’ (Christmas special, Camping adventure), which this noticeably lacked. “Ernest Rides Again” is sporting such a vague title that accurately represents the…vagueness… of everything surrounding “Ernest Rides Again“. What is the genre? It’s set up to be a treasure hunting story, but they probably couldn’t afford to have fun with the locations, so the gimmick more-or-less sizzles out around the half way point. There are also a few attempts to lampoon Indiana Jones and James Bond, but the narrative never commits to either of them, presumably because those types of films require more elaborate set pieces. What’s the location? Anywhere they could film cheaply… and on a cannon… There is like a 30 minute chase scene where Ernest rides a cannon and it was pretty tedious, albeit befitting of a film that’s already too long and too padded out. This was also the first time where I felt Ernest himself was kind of a dick. The emphasis seemed to be on him ruining the days of people who did not deserve it, so when he has his inevitable tear jerking moment, it was hard to feel bad for him. Ernest is accompanied by Abner (Ron James) and the movie can’t decide if he’s just as silly as Ernest or if he’s the ‘straight man’. He was fine as Ernest’s foil, but whenever he attempted to partake in some silliness himself, it… was… awful… Impressively awful! Books should be written on how lame and awkward those jokes actually were. Frank (Duke Ernsberger) and Joe (Jeffrey Pillars) are the new ‘comedic duo’ and they actually made me laugh more than the majority of the previous incarnations of the ‘comedic duo’… while also being so thoroughly forgettable that I had to revisit my notes multiple times just to recall how I felt about them…
There are a few amusing moments and I liked how self aware some of the jokes were, but by this point, the formula had grown stale. Ernest goes through his usual routine of shenanigans, but that’s the problem… It has become a routine and the narrative gives him very little material to work with. Even Jim Varney’s performance seems a little uninspired this time around. John Cherry’s direction is flat and he makes some questionable decisions attention that draw attention to the budget cuts, such as Ernest going through his collection of personalities without him actually changing outfits. I’m sure the movie would’ve made money if Touchstone was still distributing the series, even if a hair wasn’t changed on the films head, but “Ernest Rides Again” is the kind of bad that damages brands… the kind of bad that makes you cry when you realize you’re only half way through the franchise… the kind of bad that imprisoned subsequent sequels in the realm of direct-to-video… the kind of bad you’re almost grateful for because you know it’s about to get worse…
ERNEST GOES TO SCHOOL (1994)
(Directed by Coke Sams)
(Written by Bruce Arntson and Coke Sams)
(Starring Jim Varney, Linda Kash and Bill Byrge)
So how was “Ernest Goes to School“‘s first day of… direct to video? The good news is that it nearly put me sleep within the first 20 minutes. The bad news is I said “nearly”. I feel like this was a flawed concept to begin with, as the previous films served as wish fulfillment fantasies for kids. We all love going to camp, building tree houses, fighting monsters, meeting Santa Claus and… kids do want to go to Prison, right? But school is their reality, which they’d usually watch Ernest to escape from. The story surrounds Ernest (Jim Varney) being forced to go back to school because his job demands that he graduates high school and… that’s it? Those stakes are way too small compared to its predecessors, although I can’t completely blame the filmmakers as “Ernest Goes to School” doesn’t even pretend to have any production value. The movie looks cheap, even for an Ernest outing… although not quite “Doctor Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam” cheap. Coke Sams replaces John Cherry as the director, but other than his admittedly cool name, he brings no style or energy to the film that I’m sure Cherry wouldn’t have already… not brought… himself. For what it’s worth, Sams does an adequate job with what little budget he has to work with. There is one admittedly trippy scene with a hall-pass wielding cowboy and — actually, wait… What was that all even about? It’s just a bizarre one-off joke that I kind of loved, but it’s never referenced again and is both tonally and stylistically at odds with the rest of the movie… and yet it’s arguably the only genuinely good scene to be found here… Weird… So “Ernest Goes to School” was already facing an uphill battle for me and predictably, the jokes felt like repackaged leftovers from the previous films… again… The comedy is so telegraphed that the only fun I had was when I started keeping track of how many times I would correctly predict what the “gag” will be next. Of course — I scored 100% and soon even that grew stale. Jim Varney has mastered the role, but that means it’s become routine for him and even his energy couldn’t keep my interest. But then something miraculous happened.
“Ernest Goes to School” became… good — er, better… Let’s not delude ourselves here.
I wasn’t keeping track of the time when I became marginally not bored out of my mind, but it’s shortly before Ernest becomes the guinea pig for two eccentric scientists (Linda Kash and Bill Byrge; the new and improved comedic duo). Ernest adopts a brilliant — yet snobbish — personality and “Ernest Goes to School” was suddenly finding its own unique material and some of it was even amusing! Varney finally gets to do something different and he completely sold me on Ernest’s narcissistic turn. I might criticize A LOT about these movies, but when they know how to properly utilize Jim Varney’s talents, the shortcomings don’t stand out as much. I also thought it was hilarious how throughout the finale, the protagonists are brazenly cheating, committing assault and… we’re supposed to celebrate it! I’m not entirely sure that was supposed to be the joke, but color me amused! Now don’t get me wrong, “Ernest Goes to School” is still subpar at best, dull at its worst and I’m not even sure it’s any better than “Ernest Rides Again“, but at least “Ernest Goes to School” found a hook… even if I wasn’t all that interested in biting.
SLAM DUNK ERNEST (1995)
(Directed by John R. Cherry III)
(Written by John R. Cherry III and Daniel Butler)
(Starring Jim Varney, Cylk Cozart and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar)
Holy shit — this was a fascinating trainwreck, where the train somehow collided with an airplane… and had a heated political discussion with it… I’m probably overselling “Slam Drunk Ernest” as an appallingly horrible movie, but I my reaction has less to do with technical incompetence and more to do with very, VERY misguided creative decisions. The filmmakers recycle the formula for “Ernest Goes to School” — seriously, it’s the exact same story, just with basketball replacing education, but to their credit, they do fix some of the flaws with the narrative. Basketball is a little more appealing than school, but I’m not especially partial to the sport, so I could care less about the new “theme”. Nevertheless, the stakes are a little more meaningful, so it is possible to get invested. The score is above average, which is my way of saying that I actually noticed it for the second time within this marathon… There is a catchy tune or two that blends nicely with the action… The supporting cast is shockingly good and you can tell all of the actors and actresses have talent, even if the material they’re given to work with is… *ahem*… questionable. I don’t feel like Jim Varney is necessarily phoning in his performance as Ernest, but the biggest overarching problem with this franchise is how much it rips itself off… and the whole ‘bumbling idiot turns into a narcissistic savant’ scenario was already done A SINGLE MOVIE AGO. I’ve complained about the Ernest film series constantly cannibalizing its own material, but this might be the worst example of it, as now Ernest just seems too easily corruptible — which completely contradicts his pure hearted characterization. I’ll come back to Ernest later, but I’ll end this paragraph with a compliment. John R. Cherry III must’ve gotten used to ultra low budgeted film-making by this point, as “Slam Dunk Ernest” showcases a lot more style than the last two entries, being visually reminiscent of (a cheaper) “Ernest Goes to Jail“. I think it’s cool that he does more than the bare minimum within the confines of his budget, so this isn’t meant to be a backhanded compliment.
So where do the trains, planes and politics come into play? What caused my brain to turn into jelly so that I could use it for a peanut butter sandwich? What makes “Slam Dunk Ernest” such a baffling mess?
“Slam Dunk Ernest” has a story that’s more suitable for adults, dealing with themes that I’m not entirely sure kids will understand. There are scenes that are clearly meant to be sexual, with even a few snickering inducing double entendres. Moloch (Jay Brazeau) is actually one of the better Ernest villains, as he’s deceptively affable and has mysterious motivations that enter some bizarre territory when you discover exactly ‘who’ he is. The actor is hammy in all the right ways for an Ernest flick, but WHY did the character have to be presented as some sort of pseudo- sexual deviant? His interactions with Ernest, Ernest’s love interest Terradiddle (Stevie Vallance) and EVEN THE LITTLE KID Quincy (Aaron Joseph) have very perverted undertones that I’m not entirely sure I’d be comfortable letting my (imaginary) child witness. If the targeted demographic was meant to be older viewers, that’s fine… except the comedy is still catering to the little ones. So… who is this for? The humor is too childish for adults; yet the content is often too adult for children. For what it’s worth, I’ll at least say that the jokes didn’t feel like reheated gags from past Ernest movies (unlike the story), yet I don’t like it when Ernest seems to go out of his way to make life difficult for his friends. This was my issue with “Ernest Rides Again” and here, it’s arguably worse. He’s frustrating, he’s annoying and he makes every scene he’s in just a little more awkward, especially when he gets drunk with power. I understand that the entire Ernest formula is built around his clumsiness and his good intentioned ways of ruining lives, yet I think it’s easier to forgive him when the circumstances are beyond his control. He didn’t want to accidentally sell the camp in “Ernest Goes to Camp“, just as he didn’t want to return to school in “Ernest Goes to School“, but he pushes himself into the basketball team — making his mistakes a lot more selfish (at least to me). Last but not least, “Slam Dunk Ernest” has aged very poorly thanks to its reliance of specific racial stereotypes. These were common throughout the 1990’s, so I don’t want to just dismiss the movie as racist or offensive, even though some sick part of me was hoping we’d get one scene of Ernest attempting ebonics (we don’t… yet). “Slam Dunk Ernest” isn’t anymore politically incorrect than most portrayals of African Americans during this time period, but it stands out a lot more awkwardly because you don’t usually see ALL the stereotypes condensed into a single ‘redneck’ oriented movie. Is “Slam Dunk Ernest” the worst of the franchise (so far)? From a technical perspective, absolutely not! This showcases better cinematography, acting and direction than the last two movies COMBINED. But “Slam Dunk Ernest” falls on its face a lot harder than the rest because of its ‘questionable’ content… and I personally find it fascinating for its f@ck ups! I might’ve been face palming, laughing at the film instead of with it and even yelling at the screen in frustration, but there was never a dull moment.
ERNEST GOES TO AFRICA (1997)
(Written and Directed by John R. Cherry III)
(Starring Jim Varney, Linda Kash and Jamie Bartlett)
Taking Ernest to Africa is an idea ripe with potential, as we would be experiencing the character in an entirely new Continent, complete with its own unique aesthetic, perhaps breathing new life into the tired formula. Yet it’s also traversing treacherous waters, as the new environment will amount to little if the filmmakers don’t have enough money to utilize it and — OH MY GOD, I JUST REMEMBERED AFRICA HAS BLACK PEOPLE… *Ahem*… But after the uncomfortable portrayals of African Americans in “Slam Dunk Ernest“, I’m sure the filmmakers learned their lessons and will treat African culture with the utmost — OH MY GOD, WHO AM I KIDDING!? THIS IS GOING TO BE AN OFFENSIVE TRAINWRECK! WHY AM I EXCITED FOR THIS!? As I was watching “Ernest Goes to Africa“, I began to realize I had actually seen this one, as certain memories would resurface along with specific scenes. What stood out to me the most at the ripe old age of 11 years old was how violent it it was. People don’t just die, THEY DIE HORRIBLY! If being trapped in a car with poisonous snakes spilling all over you isn’t bad enough, I recall being startled by a rhino playing soccer with peoples heads. This appears to be another experiment, to see if Ernest can bring in an older crowd, as there is also a fair amount of sexuality on display here. Ernest is trying to woo Rene (Linda Kash) and there is some faux sexual tension between them… and this isn’t even getting into the more disturbing content, where Rene is sometimes sexually threatened and is eventually forced into a harem… and Ernest ends up joining that same harem — OH MY GOD, THIS MOVIE IS F@CKING WEIRD! WHY DID THEY HAVE TO MAKE ERNEST INTO A SEX SLAVE!? WHY!? Once again, the silly humor is for the kids though, so I can’t say adults will like it too much. But call it nostalgia…I kind of loved it.
I liked how the story is more akin to the Disney-Touchstone Ernest flicks, as this has stakes and plays out like a “Romancing the Stone“-esque adventure; just with a low budget and less talent. “Ernest Rides Again” was the first attempt at lampooning the action blockbuster, but it couldn’t afford the set pieces and the intention was lost amidst the rather unfocused narrative. “Ernest Goes to Africa” was likely cheaper to make, but its reach never exceeds its grasp, so its ambitions are clearer. Did you miss Ernest’s bizarre inventions and arsenal of disguises? They make their triumphant return here for a scene or two and the opening credits are very reminiscent of “Ernest Scared Stupid“, albeit… er… sucky. This was the first attempt to do a real Ernest romance, which was… interesting. Rene has the most personality of Ernest’s crushes and I’ll admit that this movie utilized Kash’s comedic talents reasonable well. She does seem like a fully realized character and not just someone for Ernest to pine over, yet their chemistry is toxic. Both Ernest and Rene are at their most annoying when they are together and I found myself not wanting to see them hook up. The movie does have an amusing pay-off to all of this “romance” though, so I can’t complain too much. Jim Varney must’ve not been all that interested in presenting Ernest as a romantic, as he looks bored when he’s not doing one of his impersonations. Maybe he found some of the humor — which includes him accidentally killing his pet goldfish — to be distasteful? As much as I liked the attempt at building up a plot and Mr Thompson (Jamie Bartlett) is a sinister villain, there are times I wondered if “Ernest Goes to Africa” was the casualty of a troubled production. Certain pivotal scenes seem to be missing, making the narrative a little confusing in spots. I was also taken aback that for a film this grisly, the villains don’t really get any comeuppance. I would say that these guys are among Ernest’s most deplorable enemies, yet they get off very lightly… unless they got eaten by cannibals off-screen…
But finally, what about the treatment of African culture? Is it respectful? Tasteful? Really f@cking racist? Well… African tribes are presented as cannibals… because of course they would be… and there was this one scene where Ernest starts using African American lingo to greet a tribe, following his insistence that “He can communicate with these people“. Jim Varney also does his impression of an ‘indian’, but as offensive as it was, it’s one of the only scenes where Varney isn’t phoning it in. I have to admit that I snickered throughout a lot of this, but not because the jokes were funny, but because it’s so awkward watching this in 2019. “Ernest Goes to Africa” probably offered the most entertainment of all the ‘direct-to-video’ sequels, even if I was usually laughing at the movie instead of with it. Yet racist caricatures aside, it is the type of story I would rather see Ernest participate in. Ernest being hunted by jewel thieves is more compelling to me than Ernest going to school. Nostalgia also helped me get through this and even if the violence was probably too extreme for its target audience, I need to take what I can get.
ERNEST IN THE ARMY (1998)
(Directed by John R. Cherry III)
(Written by Jeffrey Pillars and Joseph Dattorre)
(Starring Jim Varney, Hayley Tyson and David Müller)
“Ernest in the Army” completely fell flat for me until its final 25 minutes… where there might’ve been a laugh or two. However, I spent the majority of my viewing experience wearing a stoic facial expression, as there was little to either groan or chuckle about. From a technical perspective, “Ernest in the Army” is neither a failure or an accomplishment, utilizing its minimal resources adequately in such a way that I can’t praise or condemn the movie. The story is neither interesting or embarrassing, even though I feel like I should be pleased that Ernest has been saddled with a new and potentially fun gimmick… yet it wasn’t fun… It was bland… Jim Varney looks tired to me, although considering… *sigh* we’re not quite there yet… real-life circumstances, I might be projecting lethargy into what is really just an uninspired — yet solid — performance from the man. The supporting cast is surprisingly good, with Duke Ernsberger and Jeffrey Pillars (the comedic duo from “Ernest Rides Again“, albeit as different characters) arguably stealing the show with their amusing dynamic. Peter Butler delivers an impressively dignified narration and everyone else plays their roles well enough… so why didn’t any of their material get a rise out of me? I was bored and I just have to assume that everyone was let down by a sluggishly paced narrative. There were a few eye brow raising moments, like an attempted sexual assault and a… well, let’s just say that this type of content wouldn’t be allowed in a post-9/11 world. Yet the former is merely a single scene and the latter can be excused for being produced during more innocent times, so I couldn’t even cringe all that often. I — I just… I WANTED TO FEEL SOMETHING. I wanted to smile, laugh, chuckle, groan, growl or cry, yet “Ernest in the Army” is just tolerable enough to not be terrible… and just weak enough to not be watchable — my least favorite kind of cinematic experience. Bring me joy or rage, not indifference!
Here is a little bit of trivia — I remember renting this upon release… but I don’t actually remember watching it. I THINK it found its way into my VHS player, but unlike “Ernest Goes to Africa“, my memory was never stimulated. “Ernest in the Army” is just that forgettable.
Unfortunately, there are no records as to how well these movies performed on home video, although one has to assume they were all very successful on that format considering the frequency of the sequels. These movies never critical darlings and if you didn’t grow up with the Touchstone-Ernest flicks, you probably would not understand why any of them were successful. The direct-to-video entries are bad to varying degrees, with the final two being among the most reviled. I was actually kind of surprised to hear that “Ernest Goes to Africa” is regarded as ‘the worst’ of the sequels considering how much I… sort of enjoyed it… but go figure that the guy who touts “Carnosaur” as the “Vertigo” of the 1990’s has questionable (but correct) tastes. The poor reception of “Ernest goes to Africa” and “Ernest in the Army” did not kill the franchise though, as there were many Ernest sequels still in various forms of development. I remember a rumor about an “Ernest the Pirate“, which had allegedly been near completion but was left unfinished in a vault, although that was later debunked. According to long time Ernest co-producer/writer, Coke Sams, a script had been written for an “Ernest and the Voodoo Curse“, which would’ve been a parody of “Raiders of the Lost Ark“… even though I thought that’s what “Ernest Rides Again” tried and failed to be with a bigger budget that still wasn’t big enough… Another project would’ve been “Ernest Spaced Out“, where we’d finally get ERNEST IN SPAAAAAACE, although once again, these concepts seem way too ambitious for such a penny pinching franchise. So what happened? Why was the lackluster — yet presumably profitable — “Ernest in the Army” the final entry of the franchise?
In 1998, Jim Varney was filming a family-friendly comedy titled “Treehouse Hostage” when he developed a bad cough and… I think you know where this is going. He discovered he had lung cancer, the result of being a lifelong chain smoker. The ultimate professional, he insisted that he finish the movie before seeking treatment but while he quit smoking, it was already too late. He passed away on February 10, 2000, breaking the hearts of the children who grew up with his wildly eccentric character. Throughout this retrospective, I found myself getting very emotional, perhaps a delayed response from when I learned about his death nearly 20 years ago. At the time, I had already moved on from Ernest and don’t think I quite registered the news, possibly because I heard about it indirectly from someone else; as I never watched the news and lacked access to the internet. But now… I really do miss Jim Varney… and I miss Ernest too. John R. Cherry III attempted to revive the character with a different actor for commercials, utilizing a CGI cartoon format. Everyone hated it though and while there have been talks of a ‘Son of Ernest’ type of reboot (as if that has ever worked before), it appears to be stuck in developmental hell. I think any attempt at resurrecting the Ernest brand would be disastrous, as Jim Varney was the ONLY PERSON IN THE ENTIRE WORLD who could take such an irritating character and make him endearing, sympathetic and even charming — especially towards younger audiences. John C. Hudgens voiced Ernest after Varney’s passing and he even played an eerily similar role in some live-action commercials and… I will give him some credit, he is trying his hardest to fill Varney’s shoes and I don’t think he’s devoid of talent. But had he been the original Ernest? The character would’ve never achieved national fame… and even if he did, I highly doubt the franchise would’ve had legs. Just as Robert Englund will always be the true Freddy Krueger, Shintaro Katsu will always be the true Zatoichi and Bruce Campbell will always be the true Ash Williams, Jim Varney will always be the true Ernest P. Worrell… whether he liked it or not.
With that said, even if Varney survived, I believe the writing would still be on the wall for Ernest. Varney had begun taking on more projects outside of the franchise, including voice work for the much more high profile “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” and a little pair of obscure films known as “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2“. I can’t imagine the franchise was doing his career any favors throughout the majority of the 1990’s, as the character was becoming infamous for the cheap sequels — even getting mocked by “The Simpsons” at the height of its popularity. Furthermore, Varney was getting too old to be playing such a manchild and it was getting a little awkward, so he had to move on eventually. As for the movies themselves, I think Ernest would’ve had a more enduring legacy if they stopped after “Ernest Rides Again”, even if the direct-to-video follow-ups made money and have their supporters. There was a time when even “Jaws” was remembered more for the inferior sequels than its own quality, so how are audiences going to look back on a franchise that was never even half as good, yet spawned twice as many inferior sequels? Much like with “Police Academy“, they will be so used to being fed a subpar product that they won’t even remember when it tasted good. Truthfully, none of these movies are THAT bad and Varney kept them all watchable on some level, but regardless of their critical reception… regardless of Ernest being forgotten about in pop culture… Jim Varney made a lot of children happy in his day and I was one of them. I doubt I’ll watch “Ernest Rides Again” or the subsequent sequels again in my lifetime… but I think I’ll revisit the Disney/Touchstone pictures from time to time — ESPECIALLY “Ernest Scared Stupid“. It’s nice to feel like a kid again every once in awhile and Ernest is a worthy time capsule.