Drop Dead Fred: Looking Back On A Cult Classic

We revisit Drop Dead Fred, starring the late, great Rik Mayall...

This article originally ran on Den of Geek UK.

Hey, snotfaces, what do you get when you mix Mary Poppins and Beetlejuice? Look no further than 1991’s Drop Dead Fred, a fantasy comedy about an imaginary friend, which turns out to be about a woman’s mental breakdown after years and years of emotional abuse.

If you’re of a certain age and, much like Phoebe Cates’ protagonist Elizabeth at the beginning of the movie, you haven’t seen Fred since you were a child, you may remember it as a childhood staple that you were probably a bit young to be watching. For many, it might have been your introduction to Mayall’s comic stylings. However, also like Lizzie, Fred’s anarchic behavior has different implications when you meet him again in adulthood.

He first re-emerges after Lizzie has lost the three major totems of adulthood — her marriage, her job and her car — within the space of one lunch hour, and she is forced to move back into her childhood home with her domineering mother Polly (Marsha Mason). Opening up a jack-in-a-box wrapped up in tape, she releases her long-forgotten imaginary friend Drop Dead Fred, who immediately starts trying to cheer her up by making a massive mess of her already shattered life.

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Despite the support of her best friend Janie (Carrie Fisher) and the affections of boy-next-door Mickey (Ron Eldard), Lizzie’s adamant that the only thing that can make her happy would be reconciling with her unfaithful husband Charles (Tim Matheson). Fred’s sickened by this new adult relationship but occasionally helps out in this goal, even while chaos reigns on the way to Lizzie finally becoming an adult.

Tim Burton and Robin Williams both declined the project when originally offered, but the distributors at Polygram got more than they bargained for from director Ate de Jong. With its slapstick violence, gross-out comedy and psychological oddities, the higher-ups were so repelled by the final cut that they tried to sell it to another studio at the last minute. During this unsuccessful turnaround period, TriStar head Mike Medavoy decried it as “a children’s movie on drugs.”

The film was critically panned and it wasn’t a huge box office hit either, but after 25 years in release, it’s still worked its way into the hearts and minds of UK viewers of a certain age, despite being a 15 certificate film when it was first released on VHS (12 wasn’t introduced to home media until 1994).

It was never going to get a great score on the IMDb Parents’ Guide, but if we go by the old platitude that every film eventually finds its audience, it seems Drop Dead Fred‘s audience was actually kids all along. Reflecting upon the film in an interview with Time Out, Mayall said: “Mums complained that I had corrupted their sons and taught them to wipe bogeys on the furniture.”

We can see why it’s a bit of a Marmite film, but we’d contend that whether you love it or hate it, it’s never knowingly unremarkable. Looking back at the portrayal of the characters and the way in which the filmmakers play it both dark and silly, you can also see how the film has taken on intertextual significance as something that means much more when you rediscover it as an adult than it did when viewed with younger eyes.

Over the course of the film, the flashbacks to Lizzie’s unhappy childhood flesh out the details that go over your head if you watched it under the age of 12. Lizzie is a child of divorce, but her misdemeanours with Fred predate the breakdown of her parents’ marriage and Polly resents her daughter deeply for it. In response to her behavior, she has controlled Lizzie right up until the point she got married to Charles, and rather than supporting her through the breakdown of her own marriage, she insists on re-taking control and moving her back home.

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The jack-in-a-box is an obvious symbol of Lizzie’s long-repressed behavior coming out first and foremost and her eventual emergence into adulthood doesn’t come before a great deal of pain and embarrassment. The above quote from Fred sums it up, as a recalibrated version of the post-punk ‘rip it up and start again’ credo to which Mayall lends some post-Young Ones heft.

Lizzie’s/Fred’s actions include rubbing dog shit on the carpet and asymmetrically cutting her own hair after a makeover designed to make her look just like Polly, but also sabotaging Lizzie’s healthy relationships by sinking Janie’s houseboat and causing a small riot during dinner with a besotted Mickey. As in childhood, she’s left blaming Fred for each of these seemingly inexplicable aberrations, but before she can get better, she must eventually own up – to herself, if no one else – that she’s scared of winding up alone.

Some viewers now go by the reading that the film has more of Fight Club than Beetlejuice, and Fred is well and truly in her head, discounting the fantasy part. This would make it a much darker film than was clearly intended, especially in the hair-cutting incident, which is already weird enough in the way that it’s presented without tipping it the film into the realm of psychological horror.

It’s definitely a film about overcoming emotional abuse, but neither the film nor its subtext could ever be called subtle. The subtext is dressed in garish green and yellow, demanding that you take it at face value. While Drop Dead Fred is a figurative manifestation of Lizzie’s repressed rebellious side, imaginary friends have to have some literal tangibility within the world of the film in order for it to work. 

The scene that most clearly shows this intention comes towards the end of the second act, when Polly humiliates her daughter by taking her to see a child psychologist, and Fred meets a bunch of his imaginary mates in the waiting room. Lizzie can’t see Go To Hell Herman, Namby Pamby and Velcro Head – like the other kids, she can only see her own friend.

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It’s capped by the introduction of the green pills prescribed by the psychologist, whose purpose we first hear of in the waiting room, in the only scene of the movie in which Fred is alone. You can still argue for the reading that Fred is purely in Lizzie’s mind, which is supported by the immediate negative effect of the medication on him, but this scene first upholds the intention that he is ‘real’ enough in the world of the film, even though only she can see him and he is bound to her emotionally.

We’re not trying to pin Drop Dead Fred‘s meaning down or paint it as a great misunderstood film, because there are definitely a couple of missteps that almost overturn the whole thing. For instance, to end on Fred befriending Mickey’s daughter, also a child of divorce, has much darker implications than we can countenance in an intended happy ending. We’re meant to take away that Lizzie is with Mickey, Fred has a new pal and all is well, but in his own words, if that kid is happy, then why is he there?

Furthermore, the special effects look spectacularly unreal by anyone’s standards, which works in the film’s favor in the more cartoonish bits and with the infamous fridge-head prosthetic, but simultaneously puts the film’s low budget limitations up on screen for all to see in most cases. When The Mask did the Tex Avery-esque eye popping routine a few years later, they had more of a handle on the visual effects than de Jong had here.

But aside from that, it’s Mayall’s performance that does a most of the work. His mania is so sustained across the film’s running time that you can see why some viewers might be put off, but there’s a more considered approach to his performance than its detractors would be willing to acknowledge.

“Fred’s imaginary, so he can be anything,” Mayall told Film 91 during a set visit that was previewed ahead of the film’s UK release date. “He can be over-the-top and loud and stupid and childish… so that means I can be me.”

While he spends most of the movie ricocheting around at full volume, he’s not without nuance, especially in the latter parts of the film. Fred’s goodbye to Lizzie, which takes place in the Tim Burton-esque home ground of her subconscious, is as touching as the film gets and Mayall’s warmth is only more pronounced by virtue of him having been such a shit for the rest of the movie. Just a few years later, in 1994, many of the critics who drubbed Fred embraced Jim Carrey for acting just as silly in a trio of more commercial movies, (including The Mask) that weren’t about as much.

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Cates’ performance is underrated too, because she makes such a good foil to him. He is the manifestation of her wild side and she’s an absolute counterpoint of timidity and wounded feelings who gradually gets to rolling around in the same muck and becoming a complete person. Carrie Fisher deserves a mention too, for playing the rote best friend with more character than you expect from such a slim role – her Janie is last seen praising Fred to the heavens because by sinking her boat, he handed her a huge insurance payout, completing that sub-plot by re-affirming the film’s reconstructive mantra.

The film’s popularity with the audience that found it on VHS was clearly evident enough for short-lived talk of a remake starring Russell Brand, who relished the prospect of playing a nastier “more Victorian” Fred in interviews while doing press rounds for his version of Arthur. The revamp was briefly dredged up again when Drop Dead Fred trended on Twitter on the sad day of Mayall’s passing, right alongside The Young Ones and Blackadder, but it seems safe to declare that remake dead (spelled “duh-eh-duh!”).

It’s a good thing too, because Drop Dead Fred is a real curate’s egg – too weird and complex to simply tear apart and make better. It’s a post punk comedy in every sense and even if it’s not as universally well regarded as some films of its era that have already been remade, it has the same untouchable status for those who love it. As with so many true cult classics, it was utterly unmarketable, but that is not to say that it is unremarkable – not by any stretch of the imagination.

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