So, who’s for snot-flicking? This week, I decided to look back on Drop Dead Fred, a surprisingly inspiring dark comedy from 1991. I watched it with my four-year-old niece, which in hindsight was probably not so much of a good idea. (My sister may have to deal with some mud pies in the near future!).
Drop Dead Fred stars Phoebe Cates as Elizabeth, a young woman who is in the middle of a breakup with her cheating husband Charles (Tim Matheson). The movie starts off with her having the worst day imaginable. Not only does Charles tell her he wants to go live with his mistress, her purse is stolen, then her car. To top it all off, she gets fired! As she leaves her office, she bumps into an old childhood friend, Mickey Bunce (Ron Eldard). He reminds her of the imaginary friend she had as a child. He also reminds her of the time she doused his grandmother in paint.
When her domineering mother Polly (Marsha Mason) forces her to move home, Elizabeth discovers an old taped up jack-in-the-box. That night, the jack-in-the-box comes alive and out pops Drop Dead Fred! Fred, played by Rik Mayall, is hyperactive and his wild ginger hair makes him look demented. He is disgusted that she’s now a grown up. But that doesn’t stop him from immediately causing havoc around the house. Her imaginary friend has returned because she’s so unhappy with her life. Elizabeth scoffs at the idea that Fred could ever help her. But throughout the movie, we see in flashbacks, that Fred popped up to help cheer her up whenever she needed him.
So now with the help of her mother and Fred, Elizabeth is on a mission to get Charles back. Even as a kid, I could not understand the appeal of Charles, he’s a complete douche-bag. But Elizabeth is determined to have him back.
Fred ends up making things a lot hard for Elizabeth with his childish antics. When she turns to her friend Janie (Carrie Fisher) for help, he ends up sinking her house boat. Polly is also increasingly concerned about Elizabeth’s behaviour, so she takes her to a children’s psychologist. Fred meets his other imaginary friend buddies there and they warn him, don’t let Elizabeth take the pills or else he will disappear. Polly confines Elizabeth to the house, and hires a scary nurse to force her into taking the pills. With the help of Fred and Mickey Bunce, she escapes. She goes to a party where Charles is, and ends up bumping into Annabella – the other woman. Charles comes back to Elizabeth, apparently enthralled by her new mature look. Polly leaves him in charge of the pills. He makes Elizabeth choose between him or Fred.
Drop Dead Fred was promoted as a lighthearted children’s comedy, mainly due to the slapstick comedy, but it has a PG13 rating. Like every good kid’s movie, there are things that we only understand once we get that bit older. Elizabeth’s best friend sleeping with her boss for example, or Fred’s fascination with looking up skirts.
Underneath all the comedy though, there are some serious themes of emotional abuse and mental illness. Polly is a strict, controlling mother who wants her family to be completely perfect. Her husband Nigel, on the other hand, seems really easy going. But after Polly becomes increasingly cruel, he ends up leaving. Elizabeth has a pretty terrible childhood because of this. Fred appears whenever the threat of divorce between her parents crops up. Her antics with Fred are obvious cries for help. Elizabeth doesn’t want her father to leave, and also craves acceptance from Polly. In a flashback, we see Polly taping up the jack-in-the-box so that Fred ‘can’t get out’ and little Elizabeth cries desperately for her not to take him away. This is only symbolic, but Elizabeth doesn’t see Fred again until she is older. She lets Polly win, gives in and becomes an obedient little girl.
This controlled behaviour spills over into her relationship with Charles, he’s just as oppressive as Polly. Believing she is happy, Elizabeth obediently takes the pills. But as Fred points out, if she’s truly happy, why is he still there for her? Fred discovers that Charles is still cheating on Elizabeth, overhearing a phone conversation with Annabella. Angrily, Elizabeth threatens to take the last pill. He urges her to listen in on Charles’ conversation, then begs her to leave him.
Elizabeth weakly states that she doesn’t want to be alone. She collapses on top of Fred, and he brings her to a nightmarish version of her home. In this dream sequence, she rejects Charles and fights back against her mother. She then frees herself, quite literally untaping her younger self from her bed. She is now the one in control of herself. Fred leaves her, but she is stronger now, and knows that she is not alone. She wakes up, and dumps a bowl of salad on Charles’ head, wipes her snot on his face then leaves him for good.
Drop Dead Fred grossed $3,625,648 on its opening weekend, and $13,878,334 over its entire theatrical run. It only has a rating of 9% on Rotten Tomatoes, as well as some very negative reviews. In an article for the Chicago Tribune, Gene Siskel called it one of the worst movies he’d ever seen. As a huge fan of the movie, I find this a little sad. Anyone I know who grew up with it seems to love it, but people who saw it when they were older seem to think it’s dumb. It will always have a big place in my heart though.