Friday, January 30, 2009

Terrifying Family Films. Part 2.

Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam

When I was a kid, I used to love Ernest Goes to Camp. I rented it all the time. Most agree that it’s a real classic. I liked his other movies too – Ernest Scared Stupid, Ernest Saves Christmas, and the list goes on. For my 10th birthday party, my friends and I saw Ernest Goes to Jail at the theater. And then, when no one showed up to my 11th birthday party, I rented Sixteen Candles and ate a carton of Chunky Monkey. But before all those classics, Jim Varney (Ernest) starred in... something else.

In the early 80’s Jim Varney used the Ernest character in commercials for things like natural gas and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders. He also made regular appearances on Fernwood Tonight and Pink Lady and Jeff. He was steadily becoming an A-List celebrity. Then, in 1985, Varney made his first movie: Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam. The Ernest character appeared for only two minutes, but he’s all over the VHS box. You can imagine my excitement years after it's release, when I found this rare tape at our local video store. An Ernest movie I hadn’t seen! Was it new? How delightful! You can imagine my terror when I discovered that this movie wasn’t about Ernest at all. This was all about Dr. Otto, a demented freak bent on destroying the world's economy - with one disturbing birth defect. Dr. Otto, for some reason, has a hand growing out of his head.

KnowhutImean, Vern? Vern? Is that a tazer Vern?

I’m not even going to attempt to rehash the plot here. I haven’t seen Dr. Otto in 20 years, and all I remember are the torture scenes. That’s right. Apparently torture is a family value! Dr. Otto has a friend robot. The robot has a yellow smiley face painted on his metal head. And when Dr. Otto tortures him, the smiley face changes to a frowning face. That wasn’t funny to me - I remember feeling really sad for him.

Dr. Otto is cruel to everyone, including his friends. As a kid, I never understood why a supervillain would punish his minions. Wouldn't that just make them join the good guys? I don't remember Skeletor ever being mean to Beastman. And Shredder was certainly never mean to Bebop or Rocksteady. I guess Dr. Otto is just one bad mother.

Googling for pictures and clips, I'm seeing some pretty weird stuff. Scenes are littered with random bones, blood and snakes. It's as if someone told the prop guy to bring anything remotely scary from his garage and throw it around the set. The picture quality looks to be that of a snuff film. Dr. Otto even dresses like a pirate in one scene and acts inappropriately with a damsel in distress. All of this is just a bit too adult for a PG family movie. Seriously, where was the MPAA during the 80's?

And not that this adds to the frightening factor - but even the jokes were too adult for me to understand. Here's a gem: Dr. Otto is dressed as Auntie Nelda. This is another classic Jim Varney character - you know, the old lady that wears a neck brace. I always thought she was supposed to be Vern. She's not. The Vern factor still confuses me. The heroes of the story - middle aged Sesame Street rejects - stop by Nelda's house. Nelda gives them poisoned wine. The ditsy middle aged Sesame Street reject says, "I hope it's cold duck." Nelda, under her breathe, quips, "You would!" Hilarious. Especially for a kid. I drank a lot of wine as a child and to serve anything other than cold duck to your guests would be quiet an embarrassing faux pas.

If you'd like to watch this classic piece of cinema - you can have it when you purchase The Klutz starring Claude something. Bonus!

Your grandmother is buying you this for Christmas.

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