26 Years On, ‘Drop Dead Fred’ Is Way Darker Than You Remember
I assumed my fave childhood movie was 90 minutes of Rik Mayall being playfully obnoxious. It was. And it wasn’t.
Most Friday nights in 1992, if you were looking to high-five a slightly rotund kid with a blonde bowl-cut, all you had to do was head on down to the children’s section of Civic Video. There you would have found me nursing a copy of Drop Dead Fred on VHS while my teenage sister whipped around the aisles seeing which M-rated movie she could convince mum was actually quite PG.
This family tradition dictated that each sibling could choose one weekly video — no New Releases, nothing MA, nothing starring Animal from The Muppets. So while my teenage sister widened her world with the likes of Point Break and My Girl, I cherished regular screenings of Drop Dead Fred — the not so critically acclaimed tale of a girl and her flame-haired imaginary friend.
Despite my sibling’s gruff (and in hindsight reasonable) protests that watching it again and again was a “waste of money” and that she didn’t want to sit through it one more friggin’ time, I stood firm in the knowledge that farts were funny and she was wrong. Drop Dead Fred was a genius children’s movie.
At least that was my memory of it.
Divorce, Emotionally Abusive Mothers And Up-Skirts, Oh My
When I recently re-watched this childhood fave, I assumed I’d bear witness to 90 minutes of Rik Mayall embodying anarchy in a bottle; a sanitised reworking of his obnoxious character in The Young Ones. I remembered Drop Dead Fred calling his young charge Lizzie “snot-face”, mud pies being made on the dining room table and Lizzie’s beautiful yellow jumper being unravelled by one stray thread (and being really, really upset about that).
What I did not remember was the protagonist being a distraught 26-year-old woman who loses her husband, job and car in one lunch hour… I thought the cheeky five-year-old was the hero. I also failed to remember that Lizzie’s mother is a cold control freak that Fred refers to as “The Bitch” and “Mega-beast”. Oh yeah, and that the re-emergence of her imaginary friend in her adult life might very well be a Fight Club scenario.
On top of this, there’s the opening credits sequence with cartoon toys being mutilated, Fred looking up Lizzie’s mother’s dress and shouting “COBWEBS!”, and him generally being a serious creeper.
This was kind of alarming. Not only for these curious inclusions, but for how much my younger self had in common with the young Elizabeth. (Let’s just say my parents separated when I was five and my glamorous single mum liked things done a certain way.) I intensely related to this film… so how did I not remember any of this??
With all this adult subject matter Trojan-horsed into a movie for children, you kind of get why Polygram distributors wanted to sell it to another studio when they saw the manic final product. However when you re-frame it as a black comedy about becoming your own best friend, it’s actually quite lovely.
Plus, Carrie Fisher amirite?
Gross-Out Gags (With Heart)
Lizzie’s arc from pining to reconcile with her cheating husband to destructive party guest to self-assured young woman is made all the more charming by the on-screen chemistry between Phoebe Cates and Rik Mayall.
Cates is so natural at playing the straight man to Mayall’s unhinged Drop Dead Fred that it’s easy to forget how great she is at it. She may not have the dramatic chops to land all of the script’s references to childhood loneliness, but when it comes to physical comedy, the lady has skillz.
Exhibit A: the lunch date where she resists an invisible Fred, who’s intent on pouring her glass of water on her and launching her meal across a crowded restaurant. This scene is so steeped in mortified resignation that I had to re-watch it twice to ensure I didn’t miss any of her hilariously anguished expressions. Why Cates never went on to pursue more comic roles is a mystery that haunts my dreams.
While I can’t say that Fred is attractive in his cringe-worthy up-skirt gags or certain casually misogynistic sentiments, it’s quite a surprise to discover how tender he is during the film’s quieter final third. Like the time he comforts five-year-old Lizzie as she berates herself for never doing anything right…
Or this tiny, fluff-picking gesture as the adult Lizzie describes how his abandonment sucked the life and spirit out of her…
Also, I have no idea why he required a kiss from Dream Lizzie in order to say goodbye, but damn, I am glad that was the final piece of the puzzle.
I love that this material gave me such joy when I was a kid; that the dark humour shone brighter than the low-budget special effects. I’m thankful that I got to watch Cates play a fiercely flawed, but hilarious protagonist again and again (and again and again). Maybe it’s partly responsible for why I never questioned that women could be equally funny, vulnerable and clever as men; that all of those qualities could somehow fit into one neat package.
Or maybe I was just a filth monster who loved gross-out humour.
I can’t think of any other kids’ films that tackle divorce, damaged relationships and struggles with mental health at all, let alone in such a feverish (and admittedly sometimes problematic) way. While some could argue that I was way too young to watch it, I think it came at just the right time.
I’m glad that it offered up serious subjects in a silly way. I’m glad that it has inspired late-night conversations in my sister’s kitchen about our strange childhood obsessions. I’m glad that my five-year-old self got to hang out with her friends Lizzie and Drop Dead Fred every Friday night.
Grace De Morgan is a freelance writer, playwright and performer. She has written for ATYP, Good News Week, The Roast, Seizure and the Sydney Morning Herald. You can find her on Instagram @wineinaonesie or read more of her work at gracedemorgan.com.