Junkfood Cinema: Ernest Goes To Camp

By  · Published on September 16th, 2011

Welcome back to Junkfood Cinema; already too old for this shit. If you are reading this, you are probably doing the internet wrong. This is the weekly movie column that has maintained a hearty resilience to quality since 2009. Every Friday I fricassee a truly bad film, skewering it upon its own ineptitude. But then, just before it’s burned past the point of being palatable, I glaze it with a BBQ sauce of unabashed love and shove it directly down your throat.

If you find you aren’t dead from internal bleeding, you are welcome to then enjoy the snack food item I pair with each film. Because honestly, name one person obesity ever killed, right?

This week’s heart-clogger? Ernest Goes to Camp.

What Makes It Bad?

Whether you hated Jim Varney’s dopey, rubber-faced bumpkin Ernest P. Worrell or you simply thought he was without merit, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that this was the first Ernest movie ever made. The great thing about Ernest movies is that they also function as covert I.Q. tests. Show this film to a group of your friends and carefully note their reactions. The buddy who sits grimacing without even a hint of a smile can be trusted to, say, drive a car or dress himself in the morning. The acquaintance who rolls on the floor cackling, the one who only got invited because you forgot to mark your Facebook event as private, is probably the one laboring under the misconception that the iPad is a feminine hygiene product.

There is something downright uncomfortable about laughing at Ernest’s antics; primarily because his mental condition is a bit nebulous. He’s obviously an adult, he drives a car/has a job, and yet he reacts to stimuli as would an incredibly simple child. He also has a great deal of affection for small pet animals and holds lengthy conversations with a turtle. He’s essentially a country-fried version of Lenny from Of Mice and Men. I’m fairly certain this means that laughing at Ernest’s pratfalls qualifies as a hate crime.

Speaking of hate crimes, the movie sure does beat the hell out of this lovable r-word. They knock him off ladders, attack him with badgers, and drop a coke machine on him. This movie hates Ernest even more than I do. Ernest’s slapstick is so desperately wacky that it actually defies physics. While driving a bus, he gets into a very minor fender bender at extremely low speed that sends him whirling from the driver’s seat, tumbling backwards through the bus’ doors, and landing on the ground. Scientists now speculate that if he were to slip on a banana peel, he would be ascend 200 feet in the air, grow a tail, and be hurled 26 years into the future, by which time he would have already been dead 13 years.

All that to say, you forfeit certain braincells and systems of logic if you completely buy into the world of Ernest P. Worrell. Case in point, this is a world wherein the dregs of a juvenile detention center be granted an entire summer of basically unsupervised fun at a camp? That would be like the most hardened criminals of Rikers Island being rewarded with a trip to King’s Island. Or how about the plot point wherein the old American Indian chief who runs the camp is tricked into signing over the lease to a disreputable mining company. Any logical person would, I don’t know, dispute this in court. And indeed, the chief’s daughter mentions that they could fight it in court. Ernest, however, opts for the slightly less ideal solution of attacking the encroaching miners with homemade grenades, crossbows, and parachuting snapping turtles. The daughter ends up showing up at the end with an injunction against the company that she, get this, WON IN COURT! I’m pretty sure even if they get to keep the camp, Ernest is still going to have to stand trial for several, several counts of attempted murder. Luckily, he’ll probably get off due to being mentally incompetent to stand trial.

Actor Gailard Sartain, in addition to having the most Canadian name anyone from Oklahoma could ever dream of, is an actor who shows up in some form in all of Ernest’s adventures. While I feel like he works in some of the entries, he is easily the most obnoxious part of this film. He plays the camp chef who creates “outrageously” bad cuisine. That’s pretty much the only joke on the menu here. Eventually he also invents a machine that turns random ingredients into…unbearably bad puns. It seems pretty obvious by the film’s end that Sartain was cast solely on his ability to whip his eyeballs back and forth in a silly, rapid fashion; much like Sir Laurence Olivier.

Editor’s Note: The author has informed us that the above image chosen to accompany this piece belongs to Ernest Goes to Jail and not, in fact, Ernest Goes to Camp. We don’t regret the error.

Why I Love It!

Ernest Goes to Camp is one of the best examples of a very specific subgenre of film I like to call “Let’s Save the Rec Center.” It always centers on a group of underdogs, in this case a group of serial killer babies, who must band together to save the one place that has proven to their only real home, in this case Camp Kikakee, from some evil land developer or whatnot. Also, it usually follows that the underdogs are minorities to emphasize the underdoggedness. In the case of Ernest Goes to Camp, the juvenile delinquent “heroes” are the only minorities in the entire camp. Apparently “Kickakee” is an old American Indian word that means gerrymandering. Throw in a couple of “let’s come together and build shit” montages and the “everybody learns a lesson” moment and you’ve got yourself Breakin’ 2: Ernestic Boogaloo.

If there are two things for which I am a consummate sucker, it’s montages and inexplicably absurd plots. Ernest Goes to Camp has one of the greatest montages in the history of cinema; that’s right Rocky IV, you heard me. True to form, it features a terrible, easy-listening rock song from a band no one’s heard of. And the images of the boys coming together to stop the miners is so heart-warming that it almost makes you completely forget that they are building a two-story mobile weapon of, if not mass destruction, then at least grievous bodily harm. The result of that montage is an assault on a group of burly grown men by a group of pre-teen offenders that is far more explosive and action-packed than it has any right to be.

As to absurd plot points, it would be impossible to discuss this film without examining the complex redonkulousness of the Ceremony of the Blade, the Stone, and the Arrow. The film opens with a scene of an ancient tribal ritual in which a young brave is strapped to a plank of wood while a shaman hurls various weapons at him. The concept here, as per the narration, is that if the brave is…brave enough, the giant knife, the tomahawk, and the arrow launched at him will not touch him. Really? Because unless bravery can alter the path of an object in motion and debunk all of Newton’s Laws, that mutha-feather still gonna die. Forget the fact that this exact sequence of exposition shows up twice within the film just to make sure we understand its complexity. And nevermind the fact that Ernest is later able to avoid getting hit by the bullets that an angry John Vernon fires at him from close range despite the fact that Ernest is cowering in fear. My biggest problem with this is that the very white, middle class camp administrator talks to his campers about the ceremony as something in which they will all take part at the end of the summer. They really didn’t need the plot point about the mining company wanting to buy the land from under them, Camp Kikakee was just one more tri-pierced dead camper away from being closed all on its own.

Jim Varney’s heartfelt musical number is so hokey and out of place, it really has to be seen to be believed. He sure is glad it’s raining, because no one sees your teardrops when it pours. Unfortunately no amount of rain can obscure this movie from our view. It’s so bad, but Varney pulls it off somehow by playing it so – God I hate myself for this one – earnestly.

Junkfood Pairing: S’mores

The ultimate camp food for the…most averagest camp movie ever made. All of Ernest Goes to Camp’s schlocky components melt together to form one deliciously awful treat.

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Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.