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Film / Ernest Goes to Camp

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Know what I mean?
A family comedy from 1987, Ernest Goes to Camp is the first of the Ernest P. Worrell series of movies. It introduced the Ernest character onto the big screennote  and launched the movie career of the late Jim Varney.

Ernest is a handyman at Camp Kikakee who wants to become a camp counselor, but his clumsiness and absent-mindedness keep getting in the way. Eventually, he is put in charge of a group of juvenile delinquents whom no one else wants to tolerate, and he wins their begrudging respect with the help of the camp's owner, Chief Saint Cloud, and his granddaughter, the camp nurse.

The camp's future is in danger, however, when an unscrupulous mining corporation discovers that the camp sits on top of a rare mineral deposit. Using the unwitting Ernest as a proxy, they trick the Chief into signing over the deed to the land. Can Ernest and his Ragtag Bunch of Misfits successfully save the camp from destruction?

This film provides examples of:

  • A-Team Montage: An excellent example. There's nothing better to kick greedy miners off your land than improvised war machines built to the tune of a pumping 1980's power ballad.
  • Afraid of Needles: Ernest goes through some outrageous antics to avoid getting an immunization shot.
    Ernest: I can take it, Miss St. Cloud. Real men can take it and I'm a real man. A man with a hearty smile, a stout back, grit in his teeth and nails in his knuckles. A man who has never tasted that your smallest needle?
    (Nurse St. Cloud injects him)
    Ernest: I DID IT! I took the Lindbergh baby! I am Josef Mengele! AAAAAAAHHHHH!
  • Amoral Attorney: Subverted—Krader's lawyer persistently tries to talk his client out of his various dirty deeds, even when he is within his legal rights.
    Blatz: Sherman, can't we possibly give these people just a little more time?
    Krader: Do they have any legal right to be there?
    Blatz: Technically, no.
    Krader: Then get rid of them.
  • Asshole Victim: Ross Stennis, the first camp counselor assigned to the boys, is incredibly tough on them (most likely because they came from a detention center and doesn't trust them). During swim time, he finds out that Moose can't swim and rather than teach him or give him a floating device, he picks him up and drops him into the deep end. After Ernest saves Moose from drowning, the other boys push the lifeguard tower into the lake while Stennis is still on it, causing him to break his leg and forcing him to leave his job.
  • Award-Bait Song: "Gee I'm Glad It's Raining"
  • Badass Boast: Ernest attempts one to intimidate the miners.
    Ernest: You see these hands? Huh? Huh? You see them? If I put them in my pockets I will be arrested for concealing lethal weapons.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Ernest himself, once he's pushed far enough. "They ain't gonna get this camp!"
  • Big Bad: Sherman Krader is the Corrupt Corporate Executive who aims to destroy the camp to get his hands on the rare mineral deposit underneath.
  • Big Eater: Chip Osgood, who is big and who, in the mess hall scene, thinks the food smells bad while the other kids find the smell repulsive. Crutchfield then remarks that he once ate two pounds of modeling clay.
  • Bilingual Dialogue: Ernest and Chief St. Cloud, along with sign language.
  • Book Ends: Ernest monologuing about what it means to be a camp counselor, and then falling off a ladder.
  • Borrowed Catch Phrase: After Ernest convinces Mr. Tipton to let the boys have one last chance at the camp, he tells them they'd better get with the program and then says Ernest's catchphrase, "know what I mean?"
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: Ernest's first monologue.
  • The Bully: Pennington and Brooks bully the boys quite a bit. Before they arrive, they bully Ernest. Their establishing character moment has them shutting the bus window on his hands, while they also mention that they've mistreated Ernest on past trips. When the boss tells everyone to welcome the boys, one of them says that he's the biggest geek at the camp. But the bullies eventually join the boys in saving the camp.
  • Character Action Title
  • Chekhov's Gun: The maintenance cart that always gets away from Ernest.
  • Chekhov's Skill: In an early scene, when Ernest laments to the nurse about not being a camp counselor, he mentions that he's the only one at camp who knows the tribes sign language. When Sherman Krader sees Ernest communicating with Chief St. Cloud via this method, he tricks Ernest into convincing him to sign the contracts. After it's announced that the camp has been bought, Nurse St. Cloud instantly figures out that Ernest is responsible because they are the only two who are capable of communicating with her grandfather.
  • Cool Old Guy: Chief St. Cloud.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: Sherman Krader.
  • Death from Above: Snapping turtles with parachutes. Set to Ride of the Valkyries!
  • Didn't Think This Through: Ernest's blunt approach of threatening the construction workers backfires horribly when the massive foreman takes him up on the invitation to a fistfight.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: A bunch of greedy white men out to steal the land of Native Americans.
  • Downer Ending: Watch this alternative ending of the film.
  • The Dragon: Brock Stinson, the foreman of Krader's demolition crew. He brutally beats up Ernest when the latter tries to take on Krader alone, and is one of the few villains to serve as a competent threat in the final battle.
  • Edible Ammunition: Edible explosives, too.
  • Everyone Has Standards: When Ernest tries to stop a fight between the various campers, they all just start hitting Ernest, but when they get a tray stuck to his face (and realize he can't breathe), they stop hurting him and help get it off his face.
  • A Father to His Men: Although Ernest clearly isn't the father to any of the boys in camp, in his own simple-mindedness and naive innocence, he certainly feels like a father figure to them, even though they spent much of their time earlier in the movie pulling all kinds of devious stunts to make a fool of himself.
  • Fisheye Lens: This movie loves them.
  • Heroic BSoD: Ernest has been tricked into persuading the Chief into signing away the deed to the camp. When he goes to confront Krader on his trickery, Stinson beats the crap out of him, causing the "last chance kids" to lose faith in him. He even gets a song out of it ("Gee, I'm Glad It's Raining").
  • Homemade Inventions: Ernest builds a barbecue which he operates using a length of fire hose cord attached to his foot, which ends up wrapping around the roasting spit and nearly dragging Ernest into the fire. Then there's the whole armory that Ernest and his troop build at the climax of the film. Then there's the two cooks and their Wonka-esque lunch machine.
  • Improvised Weapon: Tons in the Grand Finale.
  • Informed Ability: When Ernest is introduced to each of the kids, Chip Osgood is referred to as "the Albert Einstein of the institute", implying he is The Smart Guy, but he doesn't seem to be more or less intelligent than the other boys (though the others certainly aren't stupid). Unless she meant it as sarcasm.
  • Ironic Echo: When Stennis learns Moose can't swim, he picks him up and throws him into the deep water, telling him he'll learn "the Stennis way". When the boys push Stennis into the water and injure him, they say that he's learning "the Stennis way".
  • It's All My Fault: After the boys get into a fight and are almost kicked out of camp, Mr. Tipton tells Ernest it's not his fault because he thought Ernest could do a good job, but Ernest says that maybe he wasn't a good enough counselor in regards to why the kids should be given another chance.
  • It's Personal: Krader deciding to take matters into his own hands.
  • Karma Houdini: The two campers who bully the last chance kids never seem to get punished by the camping staff for their actions, which include tripping Moose and setting their tepee on fire. The last chance kids fight back in both instances and seem to be the only ones to get punished, nearly getting sent back to the detention center after the last incident. However, the bullies do join them in saving the camp at the end.
    • This is lampshaded when the kids are punished with digging while the bullies taunt them. ("This isn't fair! They tripped Moose!")
    • Played with regarding Krader. While his plans were foiled, there is no mention of him even being arrested for defrauding the chief into signing paperwork or shooting at Ernest in broad daylight.note 
  • Kid-Appeal Character: Mustafa "Moose" Jones, the youngest of the "last chance kids", appears to be this. While the rest of them tend to be generic troublemakers, he's the only one with a real personality, being a generally nice kid (and there's no clue as to why he was in the detention center in the first place) and the first of them to like Ernest (after Ernest saves him from drowning).
  • Laser-Guided Karma: Ernest punching out Stinson in the climax, after Stinson laid him out earlier in the film.
  • Last of His Kind: Nurse St. Cloud tells Krader that she and her grandfather are the only remaining members of their Native American tribe.
  • Lethal Chef: Jake and Eddie. Their 'abilities' and their Liver-Loaf Lunch Arranger are actually weaponized in the finale, bombarding the miners with concoctions like "graham cracker bouillabaisse" fired at high velocity. Not to mention the fact that Jake's Eggs Erroneous contains enough explosive power to take out a bulldozer.
    • As it turns out during the credits scenes, getting one of their infamous recipes right has some... interesting effects.
  • Manly Tears: Ernest sheds some during a Heroic BSoD.
  • Meaningful Name/Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Krader (read: crater) Mining Associates, Inc.
  • Must Make Amends: Ernest’s primary motivation for joining the assault on the miners, as he was tricked into getting Chief St. Cloud to sign over the camp to Krader.
  • Neck Lift: Stinson's beatdown of Ernest begins with one of these.
  • Never My Fault: Subverted. When Ernest drives the kids to camp, one of them covers his eyes and has Ernest guess who it is, with Ernest becoming too caught up in the game to care that he can't see where he's going and the kids not caring that they're endangering their own lives by doing this (though they do tell Ernest to turn when an oncoming vehicle passes by), but after he guesses the right kid and he removes his hands, Ernest turns around to talk about it while still driving and barely hits another vehicle at the camp, causing him to fall out. When Stennis asks the kids what happened they just say that Ernest wasn't watching the road. While it was their fault for most of the time, the fact remains that even after they stopped the game Ernest turned his head back when his eyes weren't blocked. After Mr. Tipton says he's disappointed in Ernest for this, Ernest says it's not his fault and tries to explain things, before he just accepts and says he'll do better in the future.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Ernest suffers one at the hands of Krader's foreman, Stinson.
    • He and the boys later deliver one to Krader's entire force.
  • Parental Bonus: At one point while being tortured with a booster shot, Ernest blurts out, "I DID IT! I TOOK THE LINDBERGH BABY! I AM JOSEPH MENGELE!"
    • During the credits sequence, Jake's new experimental recipe turns Eddie into Roberto Bianco. It's pretty unlikely any of the pre-teens in the target audience would know who he was.
  • Phony Veteran: To bolsters the kids' morale during a hike, Ernest makes some rather dubious claims about his experiences in 'Nam.
  • Pyromaniac: Ernest is implied to be one, judging by scene where he stares at a lit match in ecstasy until somebody interrupts him.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Nurse St. Cloud chews the boys out something fierce for not having faith in Ernest. This leads to a collective Heel–Face Turn.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Mr. Tipton, the man in charge of the camp. While none of the initial counselors trust the second-chance kids and expect the worst, Tipton does give them the benefit of the doubt. While he's disappointed in Ernest following falling out of the bus on the way back and asks how he can ever expect to be a camp counselor, when the boys need a new counselor following Stennis' accident, rather than send them back (since it's obvious, to the other counselors, that they caused it on purpose), rather than send them back, he promotes Ernest to counselor. It's not until the fight after their teepee catches fire that he considers sending them back to the institute, telling Ernest it's not his fault (since he thought Ernest could be a good counselor) and only agrees to give them one last chance after Ernest pleads for them to stay.
  • Rule of Three: The Native American warrior, in the story told in the beginning, survives the knife, rock, and arrow. Also Ernest in the ending, surviving three shots from Krader's rifle.
  • Running Gag: "...Is that a rabbit over there...?" (Said whenever Ernest wants to get away from something.)
    • Jake and Eddie trying to reverse-engineer the recipe for eggs erroneous. At the end of the movie, they don't seem any closer to their goal.
    • The cart Ernest falls off of during the opening credits keeps running around driverless for the rest of the movie, even getting a Riding into the Sunset shot at the end.
  • Sad-Times Montage: "Gee, I'm glad it's raining..."
  • Saving the Orphanage: The camp, in this case.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!:
    • Krader deciding to shoot Ernest. Exactly how did he plan to get away with that?
    • How did Krader expect to get away with forcibly evicting people via bulldozer? Krader seems to be under the impression he's invulnerable. By the end of it, everyone thinks he's insane.
  • Shout-Out: During a Rousing Speech to the second-chancers, Ernest encourages them "to boldly go where no man has gone before."
  • Slobs Versus Snobs
  • Smurfette Principle: Nurse St. Cloud is the only female at Camp Kikakee, likely because it's an all-boys camp.
  • This Means Warpaint: Chief St. Cloud paints the faces of Ernest and the boys before the battle. Complete with tribal singing.
  • Tricked into Signing: Krader tricks the owner of Camp Kikakee, Chief Saint Cloud, into signing ownership of the camp over to him so that he can bulldoze it down.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: In the scene which introduces Krader, a family is trying to keep their home and he physically assaults the father. No mention of what happened to them after that is ever made.
  • Worst Aid: Just another way the boys mess with Ernest.