Ernest, The Worrell’d Tour Part 1: The First Ernest Movie Is Actually A Dark, Kitsch Gem

[Ernest Goes To Camp was released 28 years ago today, and to celebrate, Matt Louv is kicking off a feature in which he reviews all nine Ernest films. Enjoy.

Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloombeam (1986)

This review is part of a series in which the author watches all of the Ernest movies in order, even though some day he will die.

Back before I knew that boobs could exist without clothes on them, Ernest was the most captivating thing in my life. Ernest P. Worrell was a character invented by a Nashville ad agency to sell household products on regional TV. The POV commercials were shot from the perspective of Vern, Ernest’s beleaguered neighbor. Ernest would poke his fisheye-magnified face into Vern’s daily business, offering unsolicited advice and product recommendations before being shoved, crushed or electrocuted.

Somehow, America fell in love with Ernest. He got his own TV show, Hey Vern, It’s Ernest!, and a popular series of films that have since dropped completely off the cultural radar.

I like Ernest. And I like Jim Varney, the rubberfaced ex-Shakespearean actor who played him. He was a daytime TV Z-lister who attained unjustifiable stardom decades before Drake ever released the mixtape. Except Varney was actually great at what he did. In fact, it’s hard to make a case that he was a less talented slapstick actor than his friend Jim Carrey.

The first Ernest movie actually wasn’t an Ernest movie at all, though it bears all the best hallmarks of the movies that followed it. Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam is the franchise’s equivalent of Oops, All Berries cereal. Ernest only appears in the first and last few minutes, and the rest of the screen time is filled by Varney’s repertoire of B-characters.

I almost skipped Dr. Otto, because I hadn’t seen an Ernest movie since I was twelve and worried that this direct-to-video apocrypha would be too bad to sit through. But by the ten minute mark, the leather thong had fallen out from between my teeth and I was enraptured.

Deep in the bowels of a castle shaped like skulls, Dr. Otto Von Schnick, a man with a hand growing out of the top of his head, prepares a secret weapon with the help of a small army of permed, fishnetted henchbabes. The babes, along with a robot with a smiley face painted on its head, tweak knobs as Otto issues commands in a cartoonish German accent. Synth music pounds. Lights blink. The Gloombeam is ready.

The ‘beam, fired out of the top of the mountain lair, magnetically erases every financial record and credit card in America. “Look at it!” Otto trills. “How it dances oont sparkles! It’s vonderful! And it’s not only beautiful, really. It’s also destructive!”

So begins Jim Varney’s least-bad movie. I resisted liking it at first, but after the first half hour, it had juiced so many “alright, you got me” laughs out of me that I let myself float downriver. It’s so quotable that for once I wouldn’t be annoyed to hear nerds parrot its lines at each other. In one part of the movie, the straitlaced hero Lance Sterling quips, “I don’t have an ounce of fat on my body. I’m on the metric system!”

If Gloom Beam was to be judged based on its schmaltzy acting, pun-driven script and wacky costumes, it would deserve its place in obscurity. But it takes tons of go-for-broke risks that are borderline insane for any movie, much less one made for kids. Without giving too much away, there are parts of the movie that make jokes at the expense of murdered parents, child armies, attempted suicide and an ambiguously Jewish mother’s “dead son Hymie.” Hymie was renamed Izzy in later films, for some reason.

It seems like the writers never decided on any one tone, instead letting the stupid chips mingle with the clever ones wherever they happened to fall. The humor is all over the map, from constant and unexplained use of the word “bouillabaisse” to Trotsky references to close-ups of Otto’s robot scratching its buttcrack. But the movie’s commitment to pure farce, zealously executed, makes it all somehow consistent.

The plot, involving a transmogrification machine that lets Varney jump costumes, is basically just a way to set up episodic, unrelated confrontations between Lance and Otto. Despite the loose structure and bad acting (with the exception of Varney, who cheeses masterfully), it’s still irresistible. The only children’s movie I’ve seen from the last decade is Pacific Rim, so it’s hard for me to judge accurately, but I think Gloombeam represents the best of a superior era of kids’ fare. It was made to delight, not to moralize or frighten or cause weird groin jitters with Abercrombie vampires. And in spite of / because of the macabre interludes, it succeeds.

Even if nobody ever wears Otto’s face on a shirt, Gloom Beam still deserves a place in the stoney midnight canon. Where else do you put a movie in which a woman wearing a crown made of spatulas delivers a lecture about commodity markets? Someone please at least name a roller derby team after it. How about The Zoom Beams?

Thankfully for the world, the whole thing is available on YouTube: