Family films geared toward Halloween are often whimsical and heartfelt, featuring tales of coming to appreciate one's differences and also to accept the wonder and magic of Halloween. However, they can also be a gateway drug. Yes friends! (spoken like a minister) I am speakin' NAWT of cocane, NAWT of mary JAwana, NAWT even of the sweet sweet wine the Lawd asked us to remember him with....I am speakin' of FEAR! Yes, an addiction to suspense and fear ladies and gentlemen! Ok ok, enough of the playacting (though I did enjoy it)...but yes, many of these films geared toward children are simply Horror films diluted down and made more palatable for younger and more impressionable minds. The writers and directors who make these films use the same suspense set ups and chase scenes that are popular in R rated scary movies, but they use no gore or death (usually) and typically surround said scenes with jokes and gags to lighten the mood. It was something I never really thought of before, but G and PG rated films were training me to enjoy Horror movies as I got older. This was certainly the case with today's movie, which no one in their right mind would ever call scary, but which gave me a bit of a suspense thrill a few times when I first saw it...even though it was labeled a comedy for all intents and purposes. It had gags, jokes, puns, and a dimwitted protagonist that we all know and love to help dilute the terror, but at its core it was a ghost story come to life. So let's take a walk into the woods while we visit Ernest Scared Stupid.
The film opens in the town of Briarville, Missouri in the 19th century and a little girl is being chased by an unseen beast through the woods. Before the monster can claim the girl as prey he is trapped by the townsfolk and wrapped in many chains and ropes. It turns out that the monster is a troll named Trantor, who has been turning the children of the town into little wooden dolls in order to use their souls to make more trolls. However, elder Phineas Worrel has the troll sealed into a freshly planted tree so that he cannot wreak any more havoc on the town. Trantor promises, in a curse, that not only will one of Phineas's descendants release him from his prison. He also promises that all of Phineas's descendants will get dumber with every generation. Fast-forwarding to the present day, we see that half of Trantor's prediction has come true in the form of Ernest P. Worrell...America's favorite fool. Ernest is well-meaning and childlike in his innocence, which makes his stupidity bearable for many of the adult members of the town. Ernest works as the local garbageman and has been somewhat negligent in his duties lately in that he has not emptied the trash from Old Lady Hackmore's front lawn...he is frightened of her and thinks she is a wicked witch. Lady Hackmore is also afraid of Ernest because she recognizes him as a descendant of Phineas and knows he will be the one to release the troll upon the town. Ernest scoffs at her warnings and proceeds to take his young into the woods to make a treehouse. As fate would have it, the tree they pick is Trantor's tree and Ernest does in fact unwittingly set free Trantor from his resting place. Trantor then begins to prey upon the children of the town, slowly gathering the five souls he needs to create an entire army of trolls. It is then up to Ernest and the surviving children to find a way to stop Trantor before he can complete his objective and save Halloween in Briarville.
Since this is an Ernest movie and relies of a lot of base-level humor, this was destined to get mixed to negative reviews upon its initial release. That didn't stop me from dragging my mother to see it however, because it combined two of my favorite things...Ernest and monsters. I didn't care that the humor was juvenile or that the film was largely predictable, I just wanted to see the stars of the show. On that level, the film is a success. It features plenty of fine moments with Ernest and even a bit of dramatic acting from the old dog by the time the film reaches its conclusion, and the monster is rather well designed and frightening. In fact, there were a few times in the film when I jumped as a child with the suspense getting paid off in a well-timed scare. By the end of the film, my cravings for the macabre were satisfied and my funnybone had been tickled, and that qualifies it as a success in my eyes (at least as far as young viewers are concerned). I think this is still a fine film for children, but keep an eye out that they don't try to repeat any off the cartoonish violence...getting one's hand shut in a dumpster for real would hurt. This would be a perfect treat for an 'after trick-or-treat' repast, which is how we often used it. Try this one on for size and roll your eyes when all those bad jokes hit you and make your kids giggle...it won't be too painful ;)