For anyone not familiar with the Ernest films, they were a comedy series aimed at children that presented a lovable idiot hick getting himself into increasingly baffling situation that simultaneously represented both the best and worst of what ‘90s comedy had to offer. Many of them were not necessarily well-made, but still got by on the charm and actor Jim Varney’s devotion to that just-short-of-iconic titular character.
In the height of Ernest’s film career, we were gifted with a Halloween entry in the series. And, lucky for us horror fans, Ernest Scared Stupid turned out to be far and away the best of the lot.
This is, for sure, an Ernest movie. All of the same silly jokes and slapstick, really old-school humor are in play. But it is just as much a Halloween flick as it is a part of that franchise.
The harmless, physically impossible comedy definitely appeals to young viewers. This is not a film that’s trying to walk the lines between being aimed at kids and being aimed at adults, like The Monster Squad. This one is clearly focused on entertaining the children.
Given that, it’s jarring for two reasons: the first is that sadly it’s prone to the lapses in quality that most films aimed directly toward young viewers suffer. The much bigger issue, however, is that it’s also terrifying. It scares the hell out of kids. At least, it scared the hell out of me.
As a child, I started watching horror films early. I was at least watching the Universal Monster movies in kindergarten and was introduced to Jason and Freddy in first and second grade. I was watching very adult-oriented, scary, recent horror titles early in life. Sometimes they gave me the creeps, sure. I would definitely encounter some that I thought were pretty scary, others that I just thought were really cool.
Yet, nothing scared me more than Ernest Scared Stupid. I was watching A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th at the same time I was watching that as a kid, and it was still the movie that scared me the most. Sometimes I’d be brave and sit all the way through it, sometimes I’d actually have to cover my eyes.
I can’t say as an adult what was so scary about it. I was a short kid and maybe I was afraid of things that were closer to my size—the opening scene of Leprechaun also terrified me when I was younger, before I actually saw the rest of the movie. Same with Child’s Play.
Ernest Scared Stupid was and always will be a perennial Halloween must-see in my book. It’s one of the movies I most associate with the holiday. I can’t put my finger on what it was about it that scared me so much, but it chilled me so deeply that I still sometimes get uncomfortable looking at the design of that troll.
At the same time, it’s kind of easy to see why Ernest Scared Stupid is so traumatic to young children—just maybe not at the same level that I was. You see, the story itself is haunting. You have an ancient troll, expertly designed by the Chiodo Brothers—the expert team behind Critters and Killer Klowns from Outer Space. His whole mission is to prey on children like Freddy goddamned Krueger.
He’s taking these kids, our main characters, and turning them into wooden toys. They’re not animated like the Puppet Master puppets. Their souls are just trapped in these unmoving wooden figures, where they will remain for all time if the troll is not stopped. The Old Lady Hackmore, played by Eartha Kitt, lost her siblings to the troll about a hundred years ago and that’s what caused her to become a crazy old hermit.
This gimmick for the troll was designed because obviously it couldn’t be running around killing children in a PG movie—but this is arguably scarier. Instead of killing you, the troll makes sure that you suffer for all time.
There are scenes in this flick that are shot like a genuine horror movie. Maybe that’s what scared me so much as a kid, because it’s so unexpected. There’s a scene in which one kid has fallen and needs help getting up and you hear the voice of one of the other kids say “Take my hand” only for the boy to look up and stare into the extreme close-up of Trantor the troll’s grinning ugly mug.
Then there’s another scene, which almost gives me goosebumps over twenty years later because of how intensely it frightened me as a child, in which a girl who is aware of the troll is trying to convince her mother that it’s out there. Obviously her mom doesn’t believe her and leaves her alone to go to sleep. The girl is curled up in bed, already terrified. She slowly looks down to check under her bed: no sign of the troll. Satisfied, she rolls back over to come face-to-face with the troll, lying in bed with her.
Both of these are legitimate horror movie scares. One of them is even a jump scare. Moments like this peppered into a stupid, low-brow slapstick comedy are completely unexpected and that’s kind of what I love about them. I love this one for how much it scared the crap out of me more than so many other films that were expected to terrify their audiences, but often didn’t.
There’s genuine care for the balance of humor and horror taken by Ernest Scared Stupid. And even if it can be very scary for children, it’s all done in a way that is safe and harmless. I can’t deny how well those moments work. Yes, it’s also the zany and often grating comedy that it’s meant to be, but believe it or not, there’s also some genuine craft at work. There’s no question that it takes talent to scare an audience, even a young one.
On that note alone, Ernest Scared Stupid works in spades.
*Updated May 1, 2020