As an admittedly sensitive child, there was nothing more disturbing than watching lovable nimrod Ernest P. Worrell getting the snot knocked out of him by the late NFL defensive linesman Lyle Alzado in the seminal '80s classic Ernest Goes to Camp. I still bear the deep emotional scars this experience left behind, though I do try my best to cover them with makeup and smiles. It's the darkest scene in the movie, for sure, shadowed only by the oh-so depressing song spit forth by the toothy goofball himself five minutes after being pummeled into submission in front of a group of impressionable children. To this very day, watching Ernest eat dirt and pour blood is very difficult to endure.
So why would a grown man not unlike myself want to re-watch something as obvious and moronic as Ernest Goes to Camp, you ask? That's a difficult question to answer, dear readers. Very difficult, indeed. My first instinct is to rush to the film's defense, to declare it a misunderstood masterpiece that has never received the proper recognition it rightfully deserves. But when I really stop for a second and ponder the question, I'm left with the sneaking suspicion that I simply have very poor taste in movies. I knew it was bad, mind you, but I honestly didn't think it was quite as horrible as this.
Don't tell anyone that I like it, okay? Thanks.
For those of you who had better things to do in the late '80s, let me give the skinny on what's up with this forgotten cinematic doodad. Kentucky's own Jim Varney stars as the titular character, an empty-headed country boy who spends his days attempting to keep everything in tip-top shape down at Camp Kikakee. Though his actions are slightly misled by his wonky good intentions, Ernest tries his hardest to maintain a high level of happiness around the camp within the limits of his capabilities. This, of course, leads to a number of mildly hilarious sight gags involving angry badgers, razor-sharp knives, and lots of low-rent pratfalls. Typical slapstick nonsense. You know the drill.
Things get even more difficult for Ernest when he agrees to oversee a group of troubled urban youths who are scheduled to attend the camp over the summer. Like most people, these cocky kids have a little too much fun at our hero's expense, forcing him to overcompensate for the lack of respect he receives from his misguided charges. The strength of their budding friendship will be put the ultimate test, however, when a strip mining mogul seizes control of the land and orders everyone to pack their bags and hit the road. Can Ernest and his young braves topple corporate America using nothing but turtle paratroopers, rancid cafeteria food, and one volatile exploding toilet?
Not having watched Ernest Goes to Camp for nearly twenty years, I was surprised by how much I still enjoyed its simplistic charm despite some dodgy leaps in logic. The film's message, presumably, is this: if you get your ass handed to you by a muscle-bound foreman with a full beard, immediately rally your friends, stockpile a collection of makeshift weapons, and assault your arch-enemy and his innocent companions when they least expect it. Solving problems peacefully isn't something Ernest is too worried about, especially when he's got a highly-trained squadron of sky-diving reptiles hidden somewhere in his cabin. That's pretty freaky if you ask me.
In fact, the entire picture is rather mean-spirited and more than a little cruel to its cast of characters. For example, one scene finds our buddy Ernest attempting to break up a fight in the camp's mess hall, only to have one of the kids crack him in the face with a plastic tray for his trouble. With the item in question planted firmly upon his face, another lovely little child smacks him in the grill with a skillet, causing Ernest to stumble backwards, crash into a Coke machine, and fall face first upon the floor. Insult to injury: the soda machine then topples over onto his back. This kind of hateful stuff is peppered throughout the film, as if watching poor Ernest getting degraded by everyone else wasn't bad enough.
But who am I kidding? I thrive on this kind of brain dead nonsense, which may help to explain why I'm still able to watch Ernest Goes to Camp without clawing mindlessly at my gut like a sick animal on the verge of mental and physical collapse. Jim Varney is endlessly charming, even when his antics negatively affect the welfare of his close personal friends. As long as parents approach this material as a harmless throwaway comedy void of any important messages regarding life, love, and happiness, I think everyone would probably get a chuckle or two out of this dated little picture. Good times? You bet.
While other childhood favorites have appeared somewhat tarnished upon recent viewings, it's good to know that Ernest Goes to Camp is still something I can toss into my unfaithful DVD player whenever I'm in the mood for a cheap laugh. I don't expect everyone to appreciate this silly nugget of '80s comedy as much as I do, of course, but I do hope it finds its way into the hands of those who would most appreciate its goofy charm. It's a wonderful introduction to the Ernest P. Worrell universe, though I do highly recommend approaching the sequels with extreme caution.
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