“I call you ‘Snotface’ because I love you, and I love you because guys always love the crazy chicks.” – Drop Dead Fred
Phoebe Cates (Gremlins) is Lizzie Cronin and she’s just lost her husband, her money, her car and her job. Her cruel and overbearing mother brings her back to her childhood home and all seems lost, which is when her imaginary friend Drop Dead Fred (Rik Mayall – The Young Ones, Blackadder) turns up again to wreak a little havoc and help Lizzie “GET HAPPY!”. She’s given a second chance at her life. The film is in equal turns a sensitive and moving indie film about a woman going through a breakdown, returning to her abusive past to face some repressed demons, and a gross-out slapstick manic children’s comedy with prosthetic heads and a host of ‘invisibility’ gags. Though it made a respectable (for an indie flick) $13.8 million, it was almost universally panned by critics. Critics who, arguably, just didn’t get it. Stupid snotface poohead critics.
Though it was panned in 1991, largely due to its poor production value, Drop Dead Fred has quietly endured, cropping up in conversations about people’s favourites but never on ‘Best Of’ lists. There were always people who adored it, but sadly it wasn’t really until Rik Mayall passed away in June of this year that the outpouring of love was notable and quantifiable. Along with “Rik Mayall”, “The Young Ones” and “Flashheart”, “Drop Dead Fred” was at the top of terms trending on Twitter. It’s not by any means universally loved but those who love it, love it fiercely. There’s a charm to the bad cuts and the terrible prosthetics, to the DP who clearly thought that lens flare was acceptable before J.J. Abrams decided it was cool. The seemingly B-list cast involves some great actors that were largely finding themselves overlooked at the time: Marsha Mason (Heartbreak Ridge, Once Upon A Time) strikes the balance perfectly between cruel foil and pathetic manipulator as Lizzie’s mother; Carrie Fisher (Star Wars, obviously) takes a surprising turn as ‘The Best Friend’ though she has quite a life of her own; and Bridget Fonda (Jackie Brown, The Godfather: Part III) is uncredited in this early role as ‘The Other Woman’. Cates herself is funny, believable and adorable all at once, and Mayall is Mayall. Always on top form.
The problem with Drop Dead Fred is that it was basically unmarketable. The audience was sold a simple US slapstick kids’ flick but it’s not a “kids’ film”. Fred swears and hits the innuendo harder than you’d expect; he spends a disturbing amount of time sliding around on the floor trying to look up women’s skirts, marvelling at Marsha Mason’s ‘cobwebs’; and it deals with themes of emotional abuse and mental illness. This isn’t a message that will resonate with children, who haven’t experienced the crushing weight of unreasonable parental expectations on adult sons and daughters, who don’t know what it is to reinvent themselves and what bravery is required because they haven’t got round to inventing themselves yet. It isn’t wholly a film for adults and the gross-out humour requires a certain level of immaturity to appreciate. This is also, clearly, what makes Drop Dead Fred a fantastic film.
A cold home is a terrible thing, to be unloved is a damaging thing, and Drop Dead Fred is a surprisingly sensitive look at the form of PTSD that emotional manipulation and deprivation can cause. It’s also a surprisingly hilarious buddy comedy about a woman being forced to let go of the false security she’s cultivated by trying to grow up without having ever really been a child, and an interesting feminist commentary on women who are taught to remain childlike and dependent, passed from parents to husband with no thought of claiming their own lives – who were never taught that their job was learning to have fun and enjoy themselves. Lizzie loses everything on the checklist of adult life – job, car, money, husband – and part of what makes this film fantastic isn’t how she regains these things but the process of realising these elements are nothing compared to the value of being happy within herself.
Drop Dead Fred won’t work for everyone, but that’s pretty much an unwritten rule of cult classics. This film was made to remind its audience about the child they used to be – who really does find Fred hilarious – and how far they’ve come. Sometimes it’s good to look back and embrace the kid you were. Fred trying to murder pigeons because they told Snotface about ‘the birds and the bees’ is delivered with a gusto worthy of Flashheart himself. Ultimately, the strange Kafkaesque final scenes, which feel more appropriate to a David Lynch film, are worth giving a chance. You’ll be rewarded with arguably the most pure expression of love ever caught on film. Though it might be mean to drop a spoiler, it’s impossible to mention Drop Dead Fred without talking about a perfect, true, fantastic kiss that might have been creepy: the audience is asked to be comfortable with Fred as a grown man (at least in appearance) having been the constant companion of Lizzie’s childhood – but it’s a cinematic moment of perfection. Surrounded by all the madness, they love each other so deeply, without a trace of lust. To say ‘I love you, thank you and goodbye’ to a friend who has changed your life is a horrible, beautiful, lovely thing and it’s the moment of maturity that elevates Drop Dead Fred into a wonderful film that should be given all the chances in the world – though a second one should do.