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Werner Herzog's "On Death Row" Premieres Tonight

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Werner Herzog premieres a four-part miniseries tonight (Friday, March 9) on Investigation Discovery at 10pm ET/PT. It's dark, and smart, and well worth your time -- as long as there are no kids in the room.

A Question of Retribution

On Death Row is the story of five death row inmates, as told through in-person interviews by Werner Herzog. Herzog seems fascinated by these people, who are almost by definition unreliable witnesses to their own lives. He treats them with respect, gently questioning them about their (often horrific) crimes. In the first episode, we are witness to a very strange story arc concerning James Barnes, an inmate in Florida: we start out thinking, "This guy may have repented," but after Herzog lets the man talk (and also talks to some family members), Barnes digs his own grave. It's a curious thing to see a person whose own death is certain -- even scheduled -- talk about death. These men and women are in a unique position to share their emotions regarding death, and Herzog is in an extraordinary position to sit there and speak with them.

A theme Herzog returns to repeatedly is the question of retribution, which is the central notion of capital punishment. While the series doesn't spend a lot of time directly dealing with politics, Herzog does make a point of asking various stakeholders (like Barnes's defense attorney, whose last name, bizarrely, is Burden) what the intent of the punishment is; Herzog clearly doesn't buy any arguments that the death penalty is a deterrent. But rather than argue with people or pursue his agenda, he lays out his position briefly (Herzog is against capital punishment), then lets the subjects talk. Watching the discomfort on the faces of everyone involved is wrenching, and is the heart of this series of hour-long films.

Progressive Disclosure

Any good drama withholds some information at the beginning, progressively disclosing it along the way. Herzog doles out details over the course of each hour, allowing the viewer to piece together the story of each inmate. I found myself repeatedly surprised by these stories, as they change the viewer's perception of the inmates as you go along -- things that seemed normal before become sinister, once you know more details of the person's story. In other words, if you watch the episode twice, the second time will be much creepier. Further, Herzog treats the inmates as human beings and relates to them, even sharing jokes on a few occasions. This is an emotionally interesting interaction, mainly because these exchanges are quickly followed by grisly details of murders.

In addition to the examination of death offered as the text of this documentary, there's a rich subtext here: this is in large part a study of psychopaths. We can see how the inmates think about their own crimes, and how they interact with Herzog, and we can glimpse their emotional lives (such as they are) through their attempts to interact with this gentle German man with a camera. Look carefully, but be aware that what you see will be disturbing. Also, note the care with which Herzog corrects his interview subjects when they prevaricate, and that he repeatedly points out that the people who are on death row have arrived there for a reason -- even if he disagrees with the fundamental premise of capital punishment.

Several of the inmates have been executed since they were interviewed for the series (and for Herzog's feature film Into the Abyss). These are not people who are caught up in endless death row legal limbo: they are facing imminent death by lethal injection.

Herzog Shooting in Texas

Florida and Texas as Creepy Deathscapes

I grew up in Florida, and the first episode is about a Florida man and his various murders. I remember them. I recognize the area of I-95 they show onscreen and mention as a dumping ground for a body, and I remember when much of this stuff happened. For those of you who haven't been to Florida, let me tell you: it's full of crazy stuff that's not about fun in the sun. Herzog does a great job of using Florida as a landscape, even though it's not available to the subject of the film (he's locked up behind a series of bars, such that he can barely even see a window). We see glimpses of Florida, but they are brief and suitably creepy.

One of Herzog's early questions for Barnes is about what Barnes can see of the outside world, and whether he misses it. Barnes talks about how he loves hearing the rain (a daily occurrence in the Florida summer), how he misses feeling the rain, and gives a date (now a decade past) when he last felt the rain. This is the kind of visceral detail anyone can relate to -- I miss the Florida rain too -- and it allows the viewer to engage at a physical level with what's going on onscreen.

Herzog returns to this question when interviewing a pair of Texas inmates -- he asks them, in classic Herzog fashion, about their dreams. Of course, they dream (or at least speak of dreams) that are set outside of prison. In that sense, this documentary speaks to the issue of geography and location: here we have people who are forced by circumstance to inhabit the four walls of a prison. Many of them yearn to escape (indeed, the Texas inmates have death sentences because they did escape, and killed a police officer while on the outside), but others are just marking time until death...which is another form of "escape" these inmates think about quite a lot.

The topic of Texas as another sun-drenched setting for murders comes up in later episodes. It's extremely reminiscent of Errol Morris's The Thin Blue Line -- more on that in a bit.

James Barnes

Who Should and Should Not Watch This

Let me say this emphatically: keep all children away from this show. This is material for adults, and likely only adults who can handle graphic descriptions of murders and footage from real crime scenes. Now, there's not much shown onscreen that's particularly unusual (at least for true crime programming), but descriptions of murders are always terrible, and I found myself double-checking the deadbolt on my door after watching the first hour...and again after each subsequent hour.

Further, I imagine there's a segment of the viewing populace who would not want to see an interview with a murderer, simply because of what that person has done. If you fall into that category, I urge you to watch at least one episode of this series: it may not change your mind (that's not the point), but it will certainly engage you at a deep level.

Is This Film, TV, or What?

On Death Row occupies an odd space, as it's a documentary miniseries that's closely related to Herzog's recent (and acclaimed) cinematic documentary Into the Abyss. The films share footage, a theme, and lots of other material. This cross-pollination is a wonderful thing, frankly: the sheer quality of Werner Herzog's work elevates "true crime TV" to the level of serious documentary. Herzog was reportedly given serious creative control, and it shows.

What makes On Death Row different from Into the Abyss? Two things: first, it's on television, so it does have a few (surprisingly minor) affordances to the medium: pre-commercial bumpers by Paula Zahn that really should have been left out, but hey, it's true crime on TV; and bleeping curse words. Second, because each episode focuses on one or two interview subjects, Herzog can spend extra time on each inmate and his or her crimes -- details you might not spend as much time on in a documentary in the theater.

As a group, the On Death Row films complement Into the Abyss, and if you're up for a deep investigation of the topic (or you're a Herzog completist), you should watch all of them.

Further Viewing

Herzog is working in an area that overlaps the work of Errol Morris, specifically Morris's films The Thin Blue Line (about the nature of the justice system and the reliability of witnesses) and Mr. Death (about capital punishment, a man who makes equipment that kills people, and...some other stuff I won't spoil). You should go watch both of those, but be aware that Mr. Death is very upsetting. The Thin Blue Line is only upsetting in that it didn't win Best Documentary, because the Academy apparently didn't believe dramatic recreations could be used in documentary. (Oh, how things have changed in the past quarter century! And we have Morris to thank.) If you're curious about the interaction between Herzog and Morris, check out Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, about a bet the two made in the late 1970s.

Blogger disclosure: I was not specially compensated for this review. I requested and received a rough cut of the miniseries, after hearing that Herzog was working on a companion series to Into the Abyss. All photos above are courtesy of Investigation Discovery.

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Mill Creek Entertainment
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#TBT
Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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Ape Meets Girl
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Pop Culture
Epic Gremlins Poster Contains More Than 80 References to Classic Movies
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Ape Meets Girl

It’s easy to see why Gremlins (1984) appeals to movie nerds. Executive produced by Steven Spielberg and written by Chris Columbus, the film has horror, humor, and awesome 1980s special effects that strike a balance between campy and creepy. Perhaps it’s the movie’s status as a pop culture treasure that inspired artist Kevin Wilson to make it the center of his epic hidden-image puzzle of movie references.

According to io9, Wilson, who works under the pseudonym Ape Meets Girl, has hidden 84 nods to different movies in this Gremlins poster. The scene is taken from the movie’s opening, when Randall enters a shop in Chinatown looking for a gift for his son and leaves with a mysterious creature. Like in the film, Mr. Wing’s shop in the poster is filled with mysterious artifacts, but look closely and you’ll find some objects that look familiar. Tucked onto the bottom shelf is a Chucky doll from Child’s Play (1988); above Randall’s head is a plank of wood from the Orca ship made famous by Jaws (1975); behind Mr. Wing’s counter, which is draped with a rug from The Shining’s (1980) Overlook Hotel, is the painting of Vigo the Carpathian from Ghostbusters II (1989). The poster was released by the Hero Complex Gallery at New York Comic Con earlier this month.

“Early on, myself and HCG had talked about having a few '80s Easter Eggs, but as we started making a list it got longer and longer,” Wilson told Mental Floss. “It soon expanded from '80s to any prop or McGuffin that would fit the curio shop setting. I had to stop somewhere so I stopped at 84, the year Gremlins was released. Since then I’ve thought of dozens more I wish I’d included.”

The ambitious artwork has already sold out, but fortunately cinema buffs can take as much time as they like scouring the poster from their computers. Once you think you’ve found all the references you can possibly find, you can check out Wilson’s key below to see what you missed (and yes, he already knows No. 1 should be Clash of the Titans [1981], not Jason and the Argonauts [1963]). For more pop culture-inspired art, follow Ape Meets Girl on Facebook and Instagram.

Key for hidden image puzzle.
Ape Meets Girl

[h/t io9]

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