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DIRECTED BY: John R. Cherry III
FEATURING: Jim Varney, Myke Mueller, Jackie Welch, Daniel Butler, Esther Huston
PLOT: The nefarious Dr. Otto Von Schnick-ick-ick develops an energy beam to achieve world domination, but more importantly to get revenge upon his archenemy Lance Sterling; after a demonstration of his weapon, he releases an riddle-encoded poem, which Sterling must solve to avert catastrophe.
COMMENTS: TV commercials are an unlikely source for successful entertainment on a broader scale, but it does happen every now and then. C. W. McCall went from being a fictional character hawking bread to a chart-topping recording artist. Several notable advertising jingles have made the jump into pop success. Ted Lasso was fronting for NBC long before he was the darling of Apple TV+. Even the GEICO cavemen got their own sitcom for a hot minute. Our capitalist society is always on the lookout for a chance to turn a little thing into a very big thing, but you can’t necessarily plan for it. After all, Tony the Tiger never got his own movie. Yet.
So imagine the dumb luck of the advertising agency of Carden & Cherry to stumble upon smashing success in the mid-80s in the person of an annoyingly ingratiating yokel by the name of Ernest P. Worrell. As personified by rubber-faced comedian Jim Varney, Ernest shilled for a multitude of products across the country, from to car dealers to drugstores to electronics retailers, all while casting aside boundaries and turning every product spiel into an in-your-face assault on his hapless neighbor Vern. (Where I grew up, he was the pitchman for a burgers-and-ice cream chain called Braum’s. It was pretty tasty, back in the day.) The regional strategy was a brilliant piece of marketing savvy because it allowed the agency to farm out the same intellectual property to multiple clients. But that same strategy made it impossible to transform Ernest into a national commercial icon. He just had too many corporate ties in different parts of the country. But Varney’s appeal was not to be contained.
That last thing I said is the key to understanding the bizarre focus of Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam: Varney’s appeal. The Carden & Cherry braintrust looked at the Shakespearean-trained actor’s ability to develop a passel of characters and his knack for rapid memorization and impromptu invention and evidently concluded that Varney was the golden goose. Ernest can keep selling products, but point the camera at Varney and let him do his thing, they thought, and you’ve got a cinematic comic persona to put Robin Williams to shame.
The result is a truly curious product. You can be sure that Dr. Otto is our star; his name’s right there in the title. That being the case, he’s a genuinely grotesque figure, with his greasy complexion, Teutonic accent, and an active hand grafted atop his skull. He wears a costume that suggests neo-Borg and employs a coterie of dim-bulb henchbeauties whom he’s always too distracted to sexually harass. His sinister plot focuses quite heavily on bringing the financial system to its knees by way of erasing computer records. It’s not cartoonish enough to be a comic book-style enterprise, but it’s far too outlandish to have any stakes at all. It’s not for kids, that’s for sure. (Does Dr. Otto kill his parents with a bomb? Sure looks like it.) But it hardly seems designed for anyone else.
His nemesis is hardly worthy of Dr. Otto. He correctly labels Lance Sterling, who has all the personality of melba toast, as “an idiot of global proportions.” Far from being a satirically privileged goody-two-shoes, Lance goes around complaining about everything, categorically ignoring facts directly in front of him, and just generally being completely unworthy of the accolades heaped upon him. Imagine the Austin Powers/Dr. Evil vibe, except if Powers was played by a different actor with no discernible qualities. Plus, if you’re looking for further evidence that it’s always been black women who will save the world, Sterling’s inexplicably loyal assistant Doris carbon-dates the premise.
The film itself has a local commercial vibe to it. Dr. Otto’s gloom beam is depicted via animated lightning bolts fired at stock photos of the world’s great hubs of commerce (starting with Cincinnati, “the financial capital of southern Ohio”). We get lengthy diversions with entirely meaningless characters, such as the bankers who idiotically stare at line graphs depicting their plummeting fortunes. An especially long interlude with a woman (“Tina Nelson from White Plains”) set as bait to trap Sterling is almost-esque in the way it insists on steering away from the peril at hand, as the helpless victim keeps disregarding the plot to monologue her bad choices.
So it probably makes the most sense to view Dr. Otto as a showcase for Varney’s comedic range. Betraying this true purpose is a gimmick called “the changing coffin” which allows the doctor to swap into a new character for the ostensible purpose of confronting Sterling directly. Among Dr. Otto’s alternate identities: an Australian mercenary who runs a war-themed daycare, a one-eyed bloodthirsty pirate, an aggrieved Jewish mother, and a smug socialite with a touch of 1930s gangster, none of whom are especially outrageous themselves, but who stand out most notably as being different from Ernest, who doesn’t even appear in the film until its final minutes. (They clearly knew enough to use the Great Bumpkin to get people through the door; he shows up in the trailer, as well as in the home video release to serve as a framing device, but the released cut keeps him on ice until the end.) All this brings to mind an extremely unflattering comparison to Dana Carvey’s Master of Disguise, which similarly highlighted its star’s chameleon-like knack for characters without the benefit of the greatest hits. Varney can clearly do other shtick. But it’s just not Ernest.
Cherry and Varney course-corrected, leading with their ace the next time out with Ernest Goes to Camp and never looking back, leaving Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam to stand as a true curiosity. It’s not as funny as it thinks it is, and without the backstory of the filmmakers trying to find their voice, it’s pretty aimless. But it’s fascinating to watch them dig in with a no-bad-ideas spirit and indulge notions that are quite strange indeed. In other words, for Ernest, this side trip into weirdness was a stepping stone to the mass appeal he eventually found. KnowwhutImean, Vern?
Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam is currently out-of-print, but at the time of this writing it could be streamed on Freevee and other free-streaming services.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s demented and shapeless in a very satisfying way, and I love its anarchistic attitude, Varney giving a jubilant six-character psychotic breakdown of a performance that is everything I could’ve possibly hoped for in a movie like this. He’s spectacular and unsettlingly weird.” – Cory Woodroof, 615 Film
(This movie was nominated for review by John P., who marveled ” I’m not even sure how to describe this one!” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)