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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 Continue reading IT CAME FROM THE READER-SUGGESTED QUEUE: DR. OTTO AND THE RIDDLE OF THE GLOOM BEAM (1985)