Drop Dead Fred

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If you grew up watching Drop Dead Fred (1991) you got lost in the fantasy hijinks of the singular Rik Mayall totally unaware of the very real ramifications of Phoebe Cates’ experience. Drop Dead Fred may be a film about an invisible friend but it isn’t exactly a kids’ movie. Like Clifford (1994), Deadly Games (1989), Paperhouse (1988), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T (1953) this is a “family” film that moves in extremes from an adult perspective on childhood trauma to the escapist spectacles of whimsical fantasies. It’s this indefinability that makes Drop Dead Fred and these other films essential texts in terms of how film can simultaneously present the subjective inner life of the child whilst exorcising the demons of the adult.

None of these films exists squarely at the intersection of childhood experience and adult trauma quite as explicitly as Drop Dead Fred. Mayall’s titular character is the fun part of the film that invites the engagement of the child spectator and the nostalgia of the adult viewer. All of Mayall’s puns and slapstick are secondary to Cates’ Elizabeth whose problems are all too real. Watching Drop Dead Fred after the age of thirty Elizabeth becomes a surrogate character for the viewer. Her emotional trauma of her father abandoning her and the psychological abuse of her mother (Marsha Mason) are compounded in the opening scene by her cheating, manipulative husband leaving her and her losing her job. Elizabeth is at that crossroads we all come to when it is quite literally sink or swim.

Drop Dead Fred is Elizabeth’s life preserver. As she navigates these traumas and hardships Mayall makes it all bearable by putting a clownish spin on adulthood. It is in embracing who she was as a child and what that child’s ambitions were that enables Elizabeth to assert her autonomy and break the binds of the abusive relationships in her life. It’s as moving as it is upsetting. Essentially the film tells the familiar story of two best friends losing each other à la My Girl (1991) but transposed into the inner life of an adult woman. It’s a cathartic experience for Elizabeth and the adult viewer to suddenly cast off all those years of conditioning to be “normal”, to “fit in” and to be “cool” only to revert to the most private, primal version of one’s own personality.

In the final scene between Elizabeth and Drop Dead Fred this internal drama is wholly externalized on a highly expressionistic set reminiscent of Dr. Caligari (1989). Here the adult Elizabeth literally navigates the spaces of her childhood doll house to confront her mother, her husband (Tim Matheson) and her inner child in order to absorb the id represented by her invisible friend. This sequence breaks from the rest of the film cinematographically which has, until this moment, primarily focused on the physical humor inherent to the scenario.

Drop Dead Fred was one of two films made in America by Dutch auteur Ate de Jong in 1991. Both of these films, Drop Dead Fred and Highway To Hell, are fanciful examinations of the anxieties of early adulthood. Highway To Hell deals with the beginning of a marriage while Drop Dead Friend tackles the dissolution of an individual’s personality at the end of one. Although one film is a comedy and the other a horror film they are nonetheless companion pieces that use the style of exaggeration to articulate in bold gestures the pains of growing up.

However, of the two de Jong films released in 1991, Drop Dead Fred is the more complex and ultimately more satisfying film. Drop Dead Fred has the distinction shared by few films of being an utter blast as a kid and an emotional rollercoaster as an adult. Too often Drop Dead Fred is dismissed as a “bad” movie when the truth is that Drop Dead Fred is a unique film that people just weren’t prepared for. Even now Drop Dead Fred struggles to find an audience beyond its loyal cult of fans. Hopefully this will be corrected some day.