There was never any shortage of teen flicks to choose from while channel surfing on cable TV back in the day. But 1982’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High was one I would nearly stop on each and every time it passed by my radar (I can even clearly recall watching the film as a teenager after working the very first day of my very first job at my father’s roofing company).
When originally released on August 13 of 1982, something about its honest portrayal of American youth during that time period just struck a nerve like never before with audiences, made all the more authentic thanks to screenwritter Cameron Crowe’s ability to go undercover as a student at a San Diego, CA high school to get his story prior. The result, helmed by future Clueless Director Amy Heckerling, was nothing short of a fun, original ride.
Rounded out by a cast of talented young up and comers that centered around all-American brother and sister Brad (Judge Reinhold) and Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) Hamilton, it touches on various comedic and dramatic subplots of relatable teenaged woes that affect the two siblings and their numerous classmates. Other standout performances include Brian Backer as the nerdy Mark Ratner, and of course Sean Penn as the legendary stoner Jeff Spicoli.
And then there was Phoebe Cates as Stacy’s best friend Linda Barrett. No conversation about Fast Times at Ridemont High could ever possibly be complete without discussing that slow mo pool scene of Phoebe Cates in that red bikini with The Cars’ “Moving in Stereo” playing over it, hands down one of the most iconic and duplicated frames in any ’80s film. I had long since fallen in love with Cates when I first saw her in 1984’s Gremlins. But to see, that much of her, was simply overwhelming for me, and confirmed there was no doubt that I was one-hundred percent girl crazy from that moment on.
Many homages in pop culture and even a spinoff television series titled simply Fast Times briefly appeared in 1986 (featuring both Ray Walston and Vincent Schiavelli reprising their roles of teachers Mr. Hand and Mr. Vargas from the film, respectively). All these years later, the legacy of the film itself remains a staple of American cinema that continues to embrace the highs and lows of those awkward teenaged years we must all endure, like it or not. Kudos to the flimmakers for hitting the nail on the head so perfectly. And thank you once again to Phoebe Cates.
Long before Stranger Things, are imaginations were captured by a man named Steven Spielberg, and a loveable little guy known simply as “E.T.” The film became an immediate hit, and a staple for every ’80s kid such as myself (what kid back then didn’t want to be able to fly on their bikes with their friends, and after dark at that?!).
Originally released on June 11, 1982 (after premiering at Cannes on May 26), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial follows the story of Elliot (Henry Thomas), a suburban ten-year-old who discovers his newfound friend from another world in his backyard. Along with his older brother Michael (Robert MacNaughton) and kid sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore), Elliot keeps E.T. a secret from his single mom (Dee Wallace) and government agents hot on the trail, all while bonding with the little fella and incorporating some of his traits.
The film sways from Sci Fi/adventure to drama (with just a hint of horror in the beginning), and broke the record of highest grossing film of all time, knocking Star Wars out of the coveted spot and remaining there until another Steven Spielberg film, Jurassic Park, took the title of number one eleven years later in 1993.
It also spawned countless toys and merchandise, including the ill-fated Atari game, notoriously remembered as one of the worst video games of all time after being rushed for a Christmas 1982 release (to this day it still remains a topic of lore to many). There’s even been theme park rides, such as the original E.T. Adventure ride still operating at Universal Studios Florida to this day.
In a 2020 interview with the film’s star Dee Wallace, I had to ask her what made the film so endearing after all of these years. Her response was simple enough; “I still cry, I still laugh. As we all know it’s just a magical movie, and has become a part of our consciousness. I never get tired of it, or talking about it – and I can’t say that about all of my movies (laughs). It opens hearts and reminds people of what’s really important, and we just need a lot more of that these days.”
I couldn’t have possibly said it better myself if I tried. All these years later, instead of terrifying, this little green man from another planet still manages to pull at our heart strings. Spielberg has entertained us all and caught lightning in a bottle both before and since its release, yet there’s still just something special about E.T.
Few things can tap into our inner fears like ghost stories. Gothic ambience, supernatural mystery, and fears of the unknown often drive the fascination with the haunted house sub-genre popularized in books and films throughout the ages.
Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel The Haunting of Hill House remains a literary landmark of psychological horror finely adapted into The Haunting in 1963 and later a Netflix series directed by Mike Flanagan. The classic film House on Haunted Hill (1959) starred Vincent Price as an eccentric millionaire, offering unsuspecting guests $10,000 to spend the night in his haunted mansion.
George C. Scott left his mark on the genre, starring in the 1980 thriller The Changeling. Stanley Kubrick adapted Stephen King’s The Shining into one of the most influential horror films of all time with his epic take on the modern ghost story. We’ve witnessed the mediocre fare of The Amityville Horror series, the found footage phenomenon of Paranormal Activity, Japanese imports like The Grudge, and a slew of others from the likes of Blumhouse and A24.
There are too many to mention, but one thing is clear, horror sometimes works best when it’s consigned to the familiar surroundings of home. No other film in recent memory captures this localized premise quite like the 1982 horror hit Poltergeist, where one family faces malevolent spirits from beyond.
The film’s opening credits impose over a closeup of an American flag on television with The Star-Spangled Banner playing, followed by white noise. The Freeling family sleeps soundly as their youngest daughter Carol Anne awakens and approaches a flashing television. She then engages in conversation with an unknown entity. After placing her hands on the screen, an apparition bursts from the TV and flows into the wall above her parents’ bed. The room rumbles, shaking the parents awake. They find their daughter unfazed and welcoming their new visitors with the now iconic line, “They’re herrre.”
Five-year-old Heather O’Rourke made movie history with that line. She was perfect for the role as was the entire cast. Since its release, Poltergeist has become a mainstay of our culture. It remains a timeless work, boasting impressive special effects courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and Robert Edlund of Star Wars and Ghostbusters fame.
The movie embodies a uniquely idyllic time and place, centering on an average American family facing an unreal situation. Their plight intensifies after Carol Anne is sucked into parallel dimension, with little hope of getting her back. This frightful spectacle of suspense, drama, and horror was achieved through the combined forces of movie master Steven Spielberg and horror legend Tobe Hooper. Rarely would we ever experience such a film from two artistically opposite spectrums. Their differing sensibilities created a perfect balance of heart and horror amid a movie embroiled in controversy over creative control and the tragic fates that would later follow some key actors involved.
Poltergeist concerns the Freeling family who reside in a quaint California subdivision complex. The father, Steve (Craig T. Nelson), is a realtor who sells homes among the very complex he lives in. His wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) spends her time raising Carol Anne, eight-year-old Robbie (Oliver Robins), and teenage Dana (Dominique Dunne). Their seemingly normal existence is upended upon the presence of an unexplained paranormal phenomenon. TV channels change on their own, glasses spontaneously break, chairs move, and the family dog seems fixated on the wall above the parents’ bed. These strange and subtle occurrences are only the beginning of an increasingly sinister threat determined to wreak havoc on all who occupy the home.
After Carole Anne’s inexplicable disappearance, her parents enlist the aid of an investigative parapsychologist team to provide answers and help recover their daughter. The sympathetic team soon determine that the house is besieged by the presence of a “poltergeist” that must be studied and recorded with video cameras and audio equipment. The stakes are raised, and the true nature of what they’re up against becomes more apparent (and frightening) as the story proceeds. Rescuing Carol Anne is the catalyst for a desperate family pushed to the brink. After bouts of sleepless nights, the father discovers matter-of-factly from his boss (James Karen) that their entire housing development was built on a former cemetery, where they moved the headstones but not the bodies underground.
Poltergeist is the kind of movie dominated by everlasting set pieces. I don’t find the movie “scary” in a traditional sense today, but there were moments as a child, where I was too frightened to watch. The giant oak tree crashing its branches through the children’s second-story bedroom window, the clown doll coming alive, skeletons spilling out of coffins, and the house imploding into another dimension are just a few memorable moments of macabre. And who can forget the hapless researcher tearing his face off in a bout of hallucinatory fervor?
It’s a gripping story, where everything on screen works, including Zelda Rubinstein’s turn as the predominant medium who attempts to “clean” the house once all hell breaks loose. All is not what it seems, and just when we think it’s over, the movie pulls us back in, accompanied by Jerry Goldsmith’s heart-pounding score.
As viewers, we’re invested in the family’s plight because they’re down to earth and relatable. Such traits have always been Spielberg’s strong suit with characters. The movie feels very much like a Spielberg film, which fueled endless debate over who actually directed it. As writer and producer, Spielberg was contractually obligated to E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)at the time and unable to direct. He hired Tobe Hooper based on the strength of Hooper’s landmark horror classic The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and his first studio film, The Fun House (1981). Hooper, in turn, wanted to emphasize the horror aspects over what was originally a science fiction story, with wondrous results.
During production, A Los Angeles Times article insinuated that Spielberg was the real director of the film based off comments Spielberg made about “taking charge.” This, coupled with marketing Poltergeist as a Spielberg film, further casted doubt on Hooper’s role, but the record has since been made repeatedly clear…mostly. Anyone who knows and admires Hooper’s work (as I do) can clearly see his directorial touches. It is undoubtedly a Tobe Hooper film. Despite it being his most commercially successful work, he never quite recovered from the implications following the film’s release, which has since become Hollywood lore.
Further infamy arose around the murder of actress Dominique Dunne by her ex-boyfriend shortly after the film’s release. Heather O’Rourke then succumbed to a rare form of intestinal septic shock after filming Poltergeist III in 1988. There has been countless speculation of a Poltergeist “curse” due to the use of real skeletons in the film’s climax and its overall exploration of the supernatural. Such notions are common but no less disrespectful to the talents lost and their families.
An entire piece could be written about the television symbolism portrayed throughout Poltergeist, for starters. The film’s endearing relevancy comes down to its realism, intelligence, and innovative take on the supernatural. Such rarity is further distinguished by its status as one of the most notable PG-rated horror films out there. Spielberg and Hooper successfully appealed the MPAA’s initial R rating. It’s a movie that left a huge impact on my childhood that can still be enjoyed and embraced by fans and newcomers alike. Just leave the light on after watching. You can never be too sure.
Long before the countless spin-offs, Sci Fi conventions, and overly complex storylines, Star Wars was simply just another rite of passage for an average kid growing up in the ’80s such as myself. Back then, we didn’t see it as the crowning achievement of filmmaking that it has since come to be known as today; we just thought it was really…cool.
I was not around yet when George Lucas’ landmark film was originally released to theaters on May 25, 1977, but I was caught up with a quickness, having an older brother and cousins who were already savvy to the series before I was. Original action figures from the toyline were already firmly in place in my household, and each and every time any of the films were shown on TV, it became an event for everyone.
The original film/space opera, which has retroactively come to be known as Episode IV: A NewHope in many circles, introduced the world to some of pop cultures most iconic figures; Mark Hamill as the everyday hero Luke Skywalker, Carrie Fisher as the lovely Princess Leia, and Harrison Ford as badass smuggler Han Solo. Then of course there were the unforgettable, non-human characters like droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), wookie Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and the evil Darth Vadar (voiced by James Earl Jones).
Star Wars became the highest grossest film ever at the time, earning over $775 million at the box office, and clinging to that title until E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial eventually surpassed it a few years later in 1982. The film’s success spawned two initial sequels, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back (largely viewed by many as superior to the original) and 1983’s Return of the Jedi, each equally essential viewing for kids from my era.
Even without anymore films being released throughout the rest of the decade, various action figures and other media sources kept the franchise alive throughout the ’80s; two made-for-TV spin-off films based off the Ewoks were released in 1984 and 1985, respectively, and an animated series based off them, as well as StarWars: Droids, also kept the material alive from 1985-86.
Then of course the late ’90s brought on the remastered versions of the first three films, which found them with newly added footage thanks to George Lucas (I still despise these versions to this day), and the even lesser-received prequel trilogy, beginning with Episode I – The Phantom Menace in 1999 (my least favorite entry of all the Star Wars films, yet ironically the first one of the series I ever saw on the “big screen”), which in turn spawned several animated shows, as well as the theatrically-released The Clone Wars in 2008.
In 2012, Lucas relinquished his ownership and sold the rights to Disney, who revived the franchise with yet another sequel trilogy, starting with 2015’s The Force Awakens. Since then there’s been numerous spin-off films in the form of 2016’s Rogue One and 2018’s Solo, as well as a host of new shows like The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, and the upcoming Obi-WanKenobi.
It’s been forty five years now since one man’s imagination took us to a galaxy far, far away, and while the material that has come since may not be quite on par with the original film and trilogy, I still watch with anticipation each and every time something new comes along in the name of Star Wars. I can’t imagine having had to endure a childhood without something as whimsical, and feel genuine pity for those who have missed out. May the force be with you, always.
Before Saturday Night Live became the embarrassing mess of mean-spirited, nasty nonsense that it unfortunately has, it actually gave us some great moments and memorable characters in TV history. In the ’70s the likes of the Coneheads stood out, while Eddie Murphy dominated the early part of the ’80s with multiple personas, including Gumby, Buckwheat, and Mr. Robinson.
But by the late ’80s, we were introduced to two guys who “rocked” out in a basement while filming a public access show, Wayne and Garth, potrayed wonderfully by castmates Mike Myers and Dana Carvey. The original Wayne’s World skit officially premired on February 18, 1989, ushering in a new era of pop culture phenomion. Shortly after, I began discovering many of the bands (Guns N’ Roses, Aerosmith, etc…) the duo would reference on their “show” on my own personal journey, so it made perfect sense for me to fall for these two lovable dimwits.
It didn’t take long for Producer Lorne Michaels and co. to cash in on their newfound hit skit, and by 1991, a film version for Paramount Pictures was green lit. Veteran rock director Penelope Spheeris, who at the time was best known for her Decline of Western Civilization films, was tapped to direct.
Released on February 14, 1992, Wayne’s World was an instant hit, eventually going on to gross over $180 million at the box office. Aside from Myers and Carvey, it also starred Tia Carre as Wayne’s sexy love interest, Cassandra, and ’80s brat packer Rob Lowe as sleazy television producer Benjamin, hell-bent on exploiting the show and stealing the girl all at once.
Wayne’s World was a one-of-a-kind ride like few others that came before it, with the two heroes stumbling upon a host of colorful characters along the way, with bit parts played by everyone from Meat Loaf, Ed O’Neill, Chris Farley, to even Alice Cooper himself (I couldn’t help but think of the film when I saw Cooper perform “Feed My Frankenstein” for the first time years later in 2005).
Aside from Cooper, it’s soundtrack also boosted many others who weren’t necessarily considered “in” by 1992’s standards, including Black Sabbath and Cinderella, as well as giving Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” it’s highest ever chart position sixteen years after it’s original release (shortly before his death that same year, late Queen frontman Freddie Mercury actually gave his blessing for the song to be used in the film, reportedly loving the head-banging car scene it was used in).
I myself was not able to see the film during its original run in the cinemas; just two months after it hit theaters, I was involved in a car accident that would ultimately change my life forever and leaving me permanently disabled. But during the many months I spent recovering in the hospital, I watched the film for the first time with a fellow long-term patient shortly after it came out on video.
However, I was finally able to catch Wayne and Garth on the big screen the following year when Wayne’s World 2 was released in December of 1993. Although lacking some of the charm of the original (and the direction of Spheeris, who Myers reportedly butted heads with during production of the first film), the sequel did have some of its own memorable moments, including some stand out performances from the likes of Christoper Walken, Kim Basinger, and Oliva d’Abo, among others.
Still, even with all of its flaws, I will gladly take Wayne’s World 2 over ninety-nine percent of what passes as “comedy” these days. When the Wayne’s World films were released, there was still a sort of innocence that’s just been lost today; so much of what comes out now is either hollow, or contains a level of ugliness fueled by some need to push an agenda and/or criticize in the name of “social justice.” Society is indeed headed down an unfortunate path, and should really take a cue from Wayne and Garth, and just be “excellent” to each other again.
The makings of a good horror movie can be subjective. Within multiple horror subgenres exists a consensus of “greats ones” or influential classics that made an undeniable cultural impact. When trying to examine my own love of horror films, I’ve found excitement to be a prime motivating factor.
Danger, mystery, and suspense coupled with a dark, brooding atmosphere are perfect elements of any effective horror film. The creative ingenuity displayed in horror from the past hundred years is a remarkable testament to the human spirit. The sheer talent behind and in front of the camera throughout the twentieth century is overwhelming to consider. Today, we’re fortunate enough to witness horror from its infancy in the silent era to the movies of today.
Different things scare different people. Some people don’t like to be scared at all. I’m naturally drawn to the macabre, most likely due to the wealth of ‘80s horror films from my childhood. The 1980s were, after all, when horror was perfected. It’s a known fact. Of course, this wouldn’t have been possible without the springboard of the preceding decade’s “New Hollywood” movement that saw a new generation of filmmakers shifting control of studio system to a more independent, artistically driven one.
Before such notable times, Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960), George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968) singlehandedly changed the suspense/horror landscape, and studios took notice. The ‘70s gave us The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), Jaws (1975), and Halloween (1978), among others. These were serious films that made serious amounts of money, while leaving their mark as cultural milestones.
John Carpenter’s Halloween soon became the most successful independent film of its time. Carpenter followed with a string of hits that included The Fog (1980) and Escape from New York (1981). His next and most ambitious film would later stand as one of the greatest horror films ever made and a movie whose initial failure and unfair critical dismissal soured his career for years to come.
Carpenter was heavily influenced by the films of Howard Hawks, whose prolific, multi-genre career spanned decades. In 1951, Hawks produced a film adaptation of John W. Campbell’s 1938 science-fiction/horror novella Who Goes There? called, The Thing from Another World. This influence can be seen during scenes in Halloween, whereblack & white clips from the movie are shown on TV. Carpenter was initially reluctant to direct a new version of Campbell’s classic novella after being approached by Universal. But he soon realized the potential of updating the story for modern audiences and put his entire directorial forces behind it.
Much like the original story, John Carpenter’s The Thing takes place on an Antarctic outpost besieged by a shapeshifting alien monster unwisely unearthed from its frozen state by curious scientists. The alien has no known identify or feature. It simply consumes, absorbs, and replicates every living thing around it. Carpenter’s version focuses heavily on atmosphere, utilizing the isolated, secluded backdrop to its fullest. The ominous score by Ennio Morricone is also the first time Carpenter didn’t do the music himself, though he did contribute.
Kurt Russell leads a talented cast of twelve men as no-nonsense helicopter pilot R.J. MacReady, based on meteorologist McReady from the original novella. He’s joined by the great Keith David as Childs and Wilford Brimley as Blair, the chief surgeon. Fear and paranoia overtake the men as they soon realize that the alien has infiltrated their ranks. Anyone of them could be the Thing, and there’s no way of telling. The alien is relentless in its objectives. It also has the added advantage of fully existing within in a single drop of blood.
The Thing’s groundbreaking special effects were dismissed by critics at the time as nothing more than a grotesque spectacle. Carpenter had tapped Rob Bottin, a young, ambitious make-up effects artist known for his work in Joe Dante’s The Howling (1981). It’s said that Bottin spent an entire year creating the shape-shifting effects for The Thing. Such dedication shows, as the results remain some of the best and most horrific creations ever captured on film. Bottin would go on to work Robocop (1987) and Total Recall (1990), among other films before strangely disappearing from movies altogether.
After years of struggling with its initial failure, Carpenter has said that he considered The Thing his personal favorite of all his films. I agree, and I’m grateful that it has received the recognition it deserves. It’s a serious horror film. There’s little to no humor, the threat is real, and the nihilistic ending remains legendary. It’s also a work of art, created by a filmmaker in his prime. If you’re looking for a good horror movie, there’s no better place to start than this 1982 masterpiece.
Loud heavy metal guitars shooting lightning. Backwards subliminal messaging. And humpty dumpty exploding from a second story rafter. These are just a few of the things one gets from 1986’s Trick or Treat, the ultimate outcast horror film, and quite possibly, the best of its kind.
Directed by Charles Martin Smith and originally released on October 24 of that same year, it followed teenage rebel Eddie “Ragman” Weinbauer (played by Marc Price of Family Ties fame), a high school metalhead fed up with his jock bullies (lead by Doug Savant). When his rock n’ roll idol Sammi Curr (played by the late Tony Fields) dies unexpectedly, his world is thrown through a loop.
But thanks to a local DJ named Nuke (played brilliantly by KISS bassist Gene Simmons in his best Wolfman Jack impression), he’s given the last known recording by Curr. Upon playing the record backwards, he soon finds he has the power to communicate with – and even bring back from the dead – Curr. At first Curr aids Ragman in standing up to his tormentors, only to regret it when things quickly become deadly.
Ragman is then tasked with stopping Curr’s destructive path, and sets out to do just that with the help of some friends; the nerdy best friend Roger (Glen Morgan), and the lovely young maiden he has a crush on, Leslie (Lisa Orgolini). This eventually leads to a huge showdown at the high school Halloween dance, and the ensuing carnage make for some of the film’s best moments.
Hands down the music is one of standouts of the entire film. Rock supergroup Fastway, which originally featured ex-Motorhead and UFO members ‘Fast’ Eddie Clarke and Pete Way, respectively (as well as future Flogging Molly frontman Dave King) provided the soundtrack that acts as Curr’s music, and composer Christopher Young adds an extra eerie layer with his score (special effects wizard Kevin Yagher also cameos at the high school dance as one of the band members). And aside from Simmons’ previously mentioned cameo, there’s even a brief appearance by the one and only Ozzy Osbourne as a televangelist. I’ve been lucky enough to personally see Simmons, Osbourne, and even King all perform in concert since the film’s release (see photo below).
I can vividly recall watching Trick or Treat for the first time at one of those middle or high school sleepovers where someone brought a VHS copy they rented at the local video store. Not too far off from the character of Ragman myself at the time, I was easily able to relate to the film’s material, and have been a lifelong fan ever since. So if you’re staying in this Halloween and looking for something festive to watch that perhaps you haven’t seen before, fire up the old VCR, and get ready to Trick or Treat!
Long before mixing horror/Sci Fi with comedy became a trend, we had films like The Return of the Living Dead, House, Killer KlownsFrom Outer Space, and, one the earliest examples of its kind, Night of the Creeps. All of these films were inventive in their own unique ways, and are worth not only remembering, but a fair bit of analyzing as well.
Originally released on August 22, 1986, and directed by Fred Dekker (who also co-wrote the previously mentioned House, and would go on to direct The Monster Squad a year later), Night of the Creeps paired a stellar cast that included newcomers Jason Lively (National Lampoon’s European Vacation) and Jill Whitlow (Weird Science) with veterans like Tom Atkins (Halloween III: Season of the Witch). And to add an extra homage of nostalgia to the proceedings, most of the characters were each given surnames of other classic horror movie staples. For example; there’s a Romero, a Cronenberg, a Carpenter, etc…
The plot is really nothing revolutionary; alien slugs from another planet inhibit the bodies of people and turn them into zombies. Our heroes of course have to fight off these monsters in a college campus setting, navigating everything from sorority parties, to killer poodles. It never takes itself too seriously, yet maintains an unmistakable level of artistic creativity throughout the whole time. And while it failed to find an audience at the box office, it has since become a cult classic (rightfully so).
I first came across the film late one sleepless night in either middle or high school, and instantly loved it. Although it’s been sometime now since I last viewed the film, I still love its campy, midnight movie appeal. And it was all the more thrilling to actually meet Detective Ray Cameron himself, actor Tom Atkins, earlier this month at Fantasm Orlando, who is just as amazing as one would think (see photo below).
There’s many reasons why the films of yesteryear are remembered with such fondness; not only was the quality of the work itself better overall, flimmakers at the time were not hell-bent on getting across some biased agendas/opinions of theirs in the material (kind of like that garbage remake of Candyman). As with Night of the Creeps, what you saw is simply what you got….just a good old-fashioned, fun gorefest. There was nothing wrong with it then, and there’s still nothing wrong with it now in my book.
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.
If ever there were a “little horror film that could,” it’s Sam Raimi’s 1981 gorefest, The Evil Dead. It took years of sweat equity and hustling with investors/distributors, but after non-stop persistence, director/writer Raimi eventually saw his vision realized.
The Evil Dead began as a passion project in the truest sense; Raimi and producer Robert Tapert recruited friends Bruce Campbell and Ellen Sandweiss to star in his 1978 short film Within theWoods, which acted as a promo for potential investors. The gimmick slowly but surely worked, and the film finally saw a worldwide release on October 15, 1981.
The plot was as straight-to-the-point as it gets; five college-aged friends (lead by Campbell in his soon-to-be iconic role as Ash Williams) travel to a remote Tennessee cabin for some down time. There they discover the Necronomicon, or Book of the Dead, and quickly unleash a fury of demonic evil that consumes each and everyone of them one by one.
What ensues is an onslaught of stop-motion animation and practical effects so unseen up until that point that even horror master Stephen King himself became an early supporter of the film. Viewers are transported into a harrowing reality that never lets up until its eventual blood-soaked conclusion.
While only a modest hit at the time of its release, The Evil Dead would eventually spawn a franchise that continues until this day. Two direct sequels, Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987) and Army of Darkness (1992) continued the storyline of Ash with Campbell as the face of the dead before a reboot/sequel simply titled Evil Dead revived the series in 2013. Since then, Campbell has since reclaimed his rightful throne with the more comedy-driven series Ash vs. Evil Dead from 2015-18 .
But no matter where the series goes from here, nothing will ever top the rush brought on from popping a copy of the original film in the VCR in a shroud of darkness and experiencing the sheer thrill of it all for the first time. Thankfully, I’ve managed to hold on to my personal copy on VHS since high school, and can still do just that at any given time.