For most of us who grew up with him, Jim Varney was Ernest P. Worrell. He embodied the goofy, oblivious, and patently good-natured everyman whose antics were ripe for a barrage of movies throughout the eighties and nineties. Ernest resonated predominantly with children during his heyday but was just as popular with adults taken with his abrasive harassing of unseen counterpart “Vern” in dozens of commercials leading up to his movie success. “KnowWhutImean, Vern?” was a catchphrase for the ages.
It was hard to imagine that Ernest was just one character of many from a versatile impressionist. Varney had a long, established career in stand-up comedy, television, and commercials long before his breakout character. He found fame as Ernest after staring in several commercials for the Nashville-based Carden and Cherry advertising agency. Executive vice president of the company, John R. Cherry III, helped conceive the character and would later direct the surprise hit Ernest Goes to Camp in 1987 and every Ernest film to follow. Disney’s Touchstone Pictures produced and distributed four theatrically released Ernest films, ending with the 1991 Halloween-themed extravaganza Ernest Scared Stupid.
Ernest’s latest adventure begins with a clever montage of black-and-white horror/science-fiction movies, effectively setting the tone. Our hero sneaks around the darkness, reacting to clips from Nosferatu (1922), White Zombie (1932), and several other chiller classics as the opening credits roll. We’re then given some elaborate backstory about a 19th century killer troll vanquished by the townspeople, with Ernest’s own ancestor among them. The captured troll places a curse on the Worrell village elder, promising that his lineage will grow dumber with each new generation. Fast forward to the present, we find Ernest working in sanitation, not far removed from his job as a janitor in earlier films. We also learn that he lives in the same 19th century town that had sealed the captured troll under an oak tree.
Through inadvertent stupidity, Ernest releases the troll, while innocently helping some kids who built a treehouse upon its tomb. Once released, the troll captures children by turning them into wooden dolls and feasting on their energy, which is creepy enough. There’s also a wild performance by Eartha Kitt, singer of the classic song “Santa Baby,” playing Francis “Old Lady” Hackmore, replete with dark, low angled shots throughout her lair. Bill Byrge, one half of the hilarious Chuck and Bobby duo, returns once more as the silent Bobby. His brother Chuck (Gail Sartain), who Bobby had been paired with since the Hey Vern, It’s Ernest! days, is absent this go-round, replaced in this entry by his “cousin,” Tom (John Cadenhead).
Scared Stupid stands out easily as the most bizarre Ernest outing, and as a Halloween movie, it works. The trolls soon multiply and attack the entire town, but not before a scene between Ernest and lead troll, Trantor, where Trantor beats the complete crap out of Ernest during a school Halloween party. Ernest took a lot of abuse in his movies, starting with the beatdown he received in Ernest Goes to Camp by a burly, sociopathic construction worker he had the misfortune of provoking.
After his umpteenth savage beating, Ernest soon discovers that milk destroys the trolls. This scene, of course, follows a humorous segment of Ernest’s misreading of milk as “miak” in ancient scrolls and proudly displaying a jar of seasonal Bulgarian “miak” to a ward off the head troll. A dizzying, climatic spectacle preludes Ernest’s eventual defeat of the troll army as he saves the day and brings peace to the cursed town.
Perhaps the most eerie thing about the film is that all the children turned into wooden dolls by the trolls are presumed dead until the very end. Even Ernest’s beloved Rimshot (the feisty, lovable terrier seen both in this movie and Ernest Goes to Jail) falls prey to the ensuing troll rampage, only to be brought back to life in the end. And by the end, we’ve seen enough trolls and goo for a nice, long shower.
Scared Stupid rivaled the ambition of Ernest Goes to Jail, where Varney played multiple roles, including murderous convict and Ernest look-alike, Felix Nash. This latest Ernest movie would contain the most elaborate special effects and makeup of any of his previous films. It would also be the last of the Disney-back theatrically released films before Ernest went straight-to-video. Varney pumped out five additional Ernest films before tragically dying of lung cancer in 2000.
The Scared Stupid commercials back then ran nonstop, with Ernest taunting an evil troll, moments before backing over him in a pickup truck and saying, “How about a bumper sandwich, booger lips?” Were these movies dumb? Sure. Were they reviled by critics from the start? Absolutely. But something lost on any “serious moviegoer” back then was the sheer amount of fun Ernest films offered impressionable youths. It may have been just another holiday cash-grab, following Ernest Saves Christmas (1988), but it was also the closest we would get to seeing Ernest in a semi-horror film. In a time where culture is so seriously grim, we could all use a little Ernest P. Worrell to lighten the mood.