It's time we talk about our old neighbor, Ernest.
Every Halloween we here in central Kentucky are inundated with Disney's "Hocus Pocus." There are weekly screenings at different venues. Local breweries and taprooms hold "Hocus Pocus" trivia nights. Maybe most surprisingly, Kentucky-centric apparel brands roll out "Hocus Pocus" merchandise.
I say most surprisingly because one of those boutiques is located around a mile from where Jim Varney, creator of the Ernest character, is buried.
Neighbor, I'm concerned that we've forgotten our proud redneck heritage. It seems like too often we're going along with the trend and turning our back on one of Kentucky's most iconic entertainment exports: Ernest.
Jim Varney grew up in Lexington, KY. According to an in-depth profile in Nashville Scene from 1999, he realized he wanted to act very young, and his mother helped him get started in local theater productions. He won state titles in drama competitions while a student at Lafayette High School. Varney started as a comedian and was one of The Comedy Store's original alumni, alongside Robin Williams. His comedy led to several TV roles. An actor's strike in 1979 dried up acting jobs, and Varney moved to Nashville to find work. There, he started working with a local ad agency selling (among other things) Purity Dairies products, bringing comedy to local advertising in an attempt to turn some heads. The Ernest character, wholly Varney's invention, was introduced in a commercial for Beech Bend Raceway Park in Bowling Green, KY, but first found fame promoting dairy products.
Varney and Ernest became movie stars in 1987's "Ernest Goes to Camp." Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, then chairs of Disney, were in the audience of the 1985 Indianapolis 500 when Ernest made an appearance for a lap around the track with other celebrities on top of cars. When Ernest made his lap, rumor has it the crowd stood and cheered, yelling his iconic line, "Hey, Vern!" Disney had its next star, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Of course that quick overview of Ernest's creation is pretty common knowledge that I've gleaned from reading about Varney or talking to his old friends over the years. Something I didn't know until recently, though, is that Varney would don the Ernest costume and visit sick children in the local children's hospitals, even while he was suffering from lung and brain cancer himself. He passed away from his illness in 2000 just before another Ernest movie, "Ernest the Pirate," could go into production.
We all know an Ernest: the well-meaning ding-dong that despite always screwing up has an overabundance of unearned confidence. Varney somehow found a way to make that unlikeable character lovable. He's innocent, childlike without being childish, and protective of those he cares about even when all the backs are turned to him. We always root for him. Watching his movies, it's hard to remember that Varney is acting, that there really is no Ernest.
The masterpiece in the Ernest catalog is "Ernest Scared Stupid," which I will now finally get around to reviewing. This is the old story of the troll king buried under an old tree who is accidentally awakened just before Halloween and gets to work kidnapping children, turning them into wooden dolls and absorbing their souls to feed his troll army. Only one person in the town stands in the trolls' way--the Great Redneck Hope: Ernest P. Worrell.
Right away we have one of the all-time great opening credits sequences (an art that unfortunately seems to be lost). Basically it's just Ernest pulling silly reaction faces between clips of vintage monster movies. Simple but effective: ask any fan of "Ernest Scared Stupid" what their favorite part is and they will likely single out this sequence.
Something else they'll probably mention, maybe not as a favorite but as something that warped their psyche, is the ol' troll-under-the-bed-misdirect: a character checks under her bed for a troll, is relieved to not find one, then rolls over in bed to discover Trantor the troll king staring at her. Reminder, this is a kids' movie, but one that isn't afraid to put a scare into its audience between that scene, a kid being ripped off a skateboard by a troll in broad daylight, and yeah, the very concept of kids' souls being stolen as they're turned into wooden dolls.
Speaking of scares, "Ernest Scared Stupid" is a really impressive display of production design. It nails the feeling of a midwest autumn better than most movies I've seen. And the practical creature design from the Chiodo brothers, makers of the equally iconic monsters of "Killer Klowns from Outer Space," is second to none and traumatic to 90's kids.
"Ernest Scared Stupid," like most kids' movies, is ultimately a message movie. But the message here is that kindness to others and acceptance of yourself make you a hero. And that's a message we can get behind in our neighborhood.
In hindsight that message seems to summarize a lot of Varney's legacy when it comes to Ernest. Varney was a Shakespearean actor, but found quick success playing Ernest. That success seemed to be a blessing and a curse for Varney: he was a famous actor, but found himself typecast as Ernest.
But Ernest was the one that was requested in kids' Make-A-Wish wishes. And Ernest was the one who always showed up to honor those requests, even when he was sick. Kindness to others and acceptance of yourself make you a hero.
We're coming down to the Halloween wire, so you may not get time to watch (or, if you're like me, rewatch for the hundredth time) "Ernest Scared Stupid" this year. But I hope at some point you can make time to watch this massively underrated Halloween staple and consider the career of Jim Varney, and how his Ernest creation helped move the needle for Kentucky as a hub of creativity and entertainment. "Hocus Pocus," as far as I know, has zero ties to the state.
Callie and I give "Ernest Scared Stupid" five Kentucky-shaped stars. Happy Halloween, Neighbor. KnowwhutImean?