Drop Dead Fred is a little-known 1991 comedy that stars British comedian Rik Mayall and Phoebe Cates. It didn’t do very well at the box office and most critics found the film noxious and disturbing, but in the two decades since the film’s release, it has amassed a cult following due to the film’s supernatural qualities, as well as the more serious themes that drive the story. Drop Dead Fred is a Beetlejuice-like story of Lizzie Cronin (Cates), a lovely young woman who regresses to her childhood by reunited with her imaginary friend, Drop Dead Fred (Mayall). Fred’s appearance comes just when Lizzie needs him most: her personal life is a mess because her husband wants a divorce and her relationship with her mother is fraught with tension after a childhood of emotional abuse.
Whew - those are some heavy issues, and the screenwriters Carlos Davis and Anthony Fingleton don’t shy away from showing the audience just how awful and messed up Lizzie’s life. Her childhood was spent living in the looming shadow of her verbally and emotionally abusive mother Polly (an excellent Marsha Mason). Fred gave her an opportunity to cut loose and indulge in her playful and childish side – and at times, she felt that Fred was the only person in her life that truly loved her.
As an adult, Lizzie’s personality is dented by her mother’s tyranny, and she’s meek and timid. After her husband leaves, Fred pops up again, and she echoes much of the destructive and mischievous behavior she exhibited when she was a kid. Hoping to get her husband back, Fred’s bad influence only wreaks more havoc.
What’s so great about Drop Dead Fred is exploration of a child’s unhappiness, and how it can grow and fester, leaving a mark in adulthood. Lizzie’s life lacked spontaneity and joy, and Fred was her outlet. It’s also important that the script contextualizes Polly’s monstrous behavior – she’s not a two-dimensional villain, and when the two have their inevitable confrontation, we understand that Polly’s just a lonely woman, and exerting her dominance and control over daughter ensures that Lizzie will always be around. There’s a sincere and genuine fear that if Polly encourages Lizzie’s independence, she’ll lose her forever and end up alone.
The conclusion is great because Polly and Lizzie don’t have a warm heart-to-heart after which they understand each other better – they don’t hold hands and become best friends. Such a pat ending would be too glib; instead Lizzie understands and even sympathizes with her mother’s self-imposed isolation, but understands she cannot hang around her mother’s negative attitude. It’s a beautiful moment and both Cates and Mason play the hell out of it.
Known to American audiences for his work in Black Adder and The Young Ones, Mayall is a manic delight as the title character. It’s obvious he’s influenced by Michael Keaton’s tour-de-force in Beetlejuice, but this isn’t a copycat performance. Fred is snotty (literally at times), obnoxious, and rude, but beneath his snarky behavior, lurks a kindness and an affection for Lizzie – even though he doesn’t indulge in sentiment.
And as Lizzie, Cates is utterly charming and endearing. A lovely, if underrated actress, she’s a wonderful straight man to Mayall – and bounces off his hyperactive energy beautifully. And she’s able to handle the heavier moments of the script, without missing a beat.
After watching this film a few times, it’s easy to see why Drop Dead Fred didn’t catch on with a wide audience. The mixture of poignancy and gross-out humor, as well as the darker elements of psychological trauma doesn’t necessarily make for a fun, light, movie going experience – and the promotional campaign for Drop Dead Fred emphasized the special effects and the low-level humor, leaving some audience members confused by the more serious moments (at some points, Fred starts to “die” by popping pills prescribed by a doctor sicced on Lizzie by her mean old mom). One should approach Drop Dead Fred with managed expectations – understand that the film is funny, but still tackles some very sad issues.