Drop Dead Fred [Guilty Pleasure Film]: Hey Snot Face!
Sometimes I really miss the absolute insanity of late 80’s and early 90’s fantasy comedy films that were aimed at children yet were absolutely insane and often contained ‘adult’ themes or jokes. Some of the films in this special list include Beetlejuice, Little Monsters, Death Becomes Her and two previous entries on my Guilty Pleasures series, Monkey Bone and Hocus Pocus. It was in the wild fantasy, insane plots and absolute inappropriateness of these films that their magic shone. One of the ultimate entries on this list, a film that has been reassessed a lot recently, is the 1991 British production Drop Dead Fred about an anarchic imaginary friend and the mental breakdown of a young woman. Sounds super child friendly, right?
Poor Lizzie (Phoebe Cates) is having one hell of an afternoon, her husband, who she is separated from, has confessed his love for another woman. Her controlling mother, Polly (Marsha Mason), has pinned all the blame for the failed marriage on Lizzie whilst preparing to get them back together no matter what. Her car is broken into and then stolen and she is fired from work for being late. All stability is lost and she must move back in with her tyrannical mother and rebuild her life from the ground up. That’s enough to make anyone snap, but Elizabeth is already vulnerable due to her emotionally deprived childhood and lack of control in her own life. Luckily, or not as the case is for most of the film, she has someone who is there only for her, an anarchic and mischievous imaginary friend, Drop Dead Fred (Rik Mayall) who, once released from his toy box prison, begins his mission to make her happy, no matter the costs.
Lizzie manifested, created or was assigned (however you want to read it) Drop Dead Fred as a child, someone to look after her, help her and make sure she had at least one tiny ounce of fun during her strained childhood. After one too many incidents involving dog-poo, mud pies and a real life game of burglars her overbearing and joyless mother has had enough and locks Fred away with layers and layers of tape. Now she needs him back, to stop her falling into the same traps her mother did and becoming a judgemental and unhappy adult. There’s definitely an overcoming narrative here with Lizzie having to face the emotional trauma of her past and break free of the control others have over her as an adult. Her innocence and naivety are stunningly portrayed but she ultimately needs to learn to be assertive and choose her own life.
“So it may be a lot of infantile poop jokes and childish gags, but it’s also the story of a woman embracing her childhood rebellion and not falling into the ‘adult’ trope of losing your soul and becoming your mother.”
The duo of Fred and the now grown up Lizzie get into some hijinks as the film progresses, from accidentally sinking her good friend Janie’s (Carrie Fisher) houseboat whilst playing pirates to almost being charged with assault on a violinist, the gags and jokes come thick and fast. But, all of these goofball moments are simply stepping stones to get to the cathartic and surprisingly heartfelt ending of the film. Lizzie must overcome her demons in an expressionist dreamscape and free her inner child. She has to rid herself of the toxic presences in her life and take charge for herself. Fred is there for her every step of the way and by their final goodbye it’s hard not to feel a little lump in the throat as this once loud and brazen ball of energy takes a step back to be reflective and reassuring. It’s a sweet ending to a surreal film.
Director Ate de Jong and Rik Mayall were both making their Hollywood debut with this film and it seems they were a perfect match for each other, just not for the studios controlling the purse strings. They both were outsiders to these types of productions and seemed to come with their own spirit and chaotic charms. If there was a rule book to follow these two took Fred’s advice and “Tore it apart to make it better”. Filled with gross-out humour, slapstick comedy and some disturbing characters it’s no wonder the studio didn’t know what to do with it. It just didn’t quite have a home, it wasn’t for adults but it was a little too intense for kids too, but the one thing nobody can accuse it of being is boring. That’s what saved this film and brought it into the cult status it has now. It’s a mile a minute, madcap comedy that is just so strange, silly and mildly sinister, that it’s impossible to turn away from the screen.
I recently watched the BBC documentary Rik Mayall: Lord of Misrule and it was a beautiful reminder of the influence he had on British comedy and such a fitting tribute to the surreal and subversive slapstick comedian. It reminded me of my love for him and took me on a wild ride of nostalgia with clips and jokes triggering memories of watching reruns and old VHS tapes of The Young Ones and Bottom. His energy was chaotic and so addictive to watch, and he truly remains a legend on our small island. Even though this film didn’t end up being the big break into Hollywood it was hoped to be, it is still one of my favourites and one of the best of his characters. I for one am glad that Fred was released from the jack in the box.
Like many guilty pleasures it was critically panned on release but has taken on a cult status and an underground love. Gene Siskel wrote in his review that Drop Dead Fred is “recommended only for people who think nose-picking is funny” in a lot of ways he’s right but he’s also greatly underestimated the appeal of the film. So it may be a lot of infantile poop jokes and childish gags, but it’s also the story of a woman embracing her childhood rebellion and not falling into the ‘adult’ trope of losing your soul and becoming your mother. These messages stand out even clearer on reviewing the film as an adult and warrant it’s revitalised love and appreciation. Plus, who doesn’t find bogies funny?
So Snot Faces, let’s embrace our inner child and cause a little mayhem every now and then, it’s what Fred would want us to do.