CULT CORNER: Drop Dead Fred (1991)

Luke says goodbye to Rik Mayall with his criminally underrated tribute to imaginary friends. 

Who made it?: Ate de Jong (Director), Elizabeth Livingston, Carlos Davis, Anthony Fingleton (Writers), Paul Webster (Producer), PolyGram Filmed Entertainment/Working Title Films.

Who’s in it?: Phoebe Cates, Rik Mayall, Marsha Mason, Tim Matheson, Carrie Fisher.

Tagline: “Dishes. Relationships. Wind. This guy breaks anything.”

IMDb rating: 5.7/10.

Understandably, Rik Mayall’s sudden death at the age of 56 has led to a very public outpouring of grief by fans of the beloved alternative comedian. Heck, there was even a Facebook campaign saluting the legend by campaigning to get his 2010 World Cup song “Noble England” to Number 1 in the UK Singles Chart. Fat lot of good that did us. Of course, the seismic impact Mayall had on TV comedy is massive (the anarchic surrealism of The Young Ones, his satirical caricature of Nasty Party narcissicism Alan B’stard in The New Statesman, or the foul-mouthed slapstick of Bottom), but his film output tends to be overlooked. With this in mind, I think now’s the time we set the record straight about Drop Dead Fred, one of Rik Mayall’s most successful movie vehicles and arguably his one and only stab at Hollywood fame.

As much as I am a fan of the film, critics don’t tend to think Drop Dead Fred is as good as most people my age think it is. Even today, it holds an IMDB rating of 5.7 and, according to Rotten Tomatoes, just 9% of critics gave it a “Fresh” rating. Upon its 1991 release, most US critics rubbished it – John Hartl of the Seattle Times argued “it tries too hard to mimic Beetlejuice” and Gene Ciskel of Chicago Tribune went further and said: “This is easily one of the worst films I’ve ever seen.” In the UK, however, the nation has warmly embraced Drop Dead Fred to its jiggling bosom, due largely to Mayall’s madcap performance and elevating it from its admittedly lowbrow charm by riding on the coattails of his homegrown notoriety. Even poor box office receipts during the original theatrical run ($13.8m) didn’t seem to matter, since even those paltry takings by today’s standards provided independent film company Working Title Films with its first financial success story and gave the UK film industry a notable boost of confidence.

Needless to say, it took longer for the Americans to fully appreciate Drop Dead Fred. Over the course of the 1990s, stateside VHS sales grew steadily and the film has now acquired cult status on that side of the pond, but it still surprises me how the film was once so critically reviled and yet now most movie-goers tend to enjoy the film in spite of this. Is it really as good as everybody says it is, or have we been indoctrinated by years of Mayall-inspired lunacy?

Drop Dead Fred is a high-concept fantasy comedy focusing on the emotionally fragile Elizabeth (Phoebe Cates) who returns to live with her mother (Marsha Mason) after losing her husband, her car and her job. Upon opening a jack in a box found in her old room, she unleashes her imaginary childhood friend Fred (Mayall) who is amazed to discover she has grown up. Invisible to everyone but herself, Fred offers to help sort her life out but proceeds to wreak havoc and unleash chaos in every avenue of Elizabeth’s life.

Mayall is in his element in this movie and it’s fair to say Fred was a role he was born to play. With his neon orange hair and his green jacket, Mayall’s sheer comic physicality lend Fred a swagger of child-like zest which literally leaves him bouncing off the walls (you’ll have to ignore the terrible CGI when that happens though). And nobody does toilet humour better than Rik, so Fred’s mission to tread “lovely lovely smelly dog poo” onto the carpet remains uproariously funny.

The one thing that unites Elizabeth and Fred is their shared hatred of her mother – “the mega bitch” – a domineering control freak who is perhaps the root cause of why Elizabeth is so emotionally damaged as an adult. For this reason, she seeks solace in Fred’s company because he is the only one who seems to understand her own mind. He is, after all, a figment of it. Elizabeth and Fred both set off, therefore, to win back her husband (Tim Matheson), but not before sinking a boat belonging to her friend Janie (Carrie Fisher) along the way.

Sure, the humour is infantile, often immature and crass, but isn’t that exactly what a child would expect of an imaginary friend? Kids love anarchy, let’s face it, and that’s exactly what they get with our boy Rik. By mixing in a few curse words and puerile fart gags, the ingredients for Drop Dead Fred are about as unsightly as a mud pie, but if you loved making mud pies as a kid, you’ll probably be closer to understanding the appeal of this film.

Mayall’s scene-stealing performances are slightly offset by Cates’ admittedly subpar portrayal of Elizabeth as a woman second-guessing her own sanity. In fact, the one sticking point about Drop Dead Fred that hasn’t gone unnoticed is that, although the jokes are rather corny and dated, and despite its redeeming flashes of timeless crudity, the film remains a black comedy about – let’s stop kidding ourselves – mental illness. At no point do we question the fact that Fred is a figment of Elizabeth’s imagination, nor do we shy away from associating Fred’s reappearance in Elizabeth’s life with her impending psychological meltdown. It’s clear that Fred is quaking in his boots as soon as the doctor prescribes her some pills, so there’s no room for ambiguity here – Elizabeth is quite clearly off her rocker. How the hell did they even find room for comic potential in this concept?

Even the Hollywood “happy ending” they shoehorned into it (spoiler alert) – with Elizabeth smiling at another girl playing with an imaginary friend she calls “Fred” – feels rather hollow given that not only does this imply that Elizabeth is not as free from her mental manifestation as she thought, but also that this little girl is just as bonkers as she is! Still, it does its job by offering the audience a superficial but satisfying conclusion, so I suppose we can’t argue with that.

Drop Dead Fred isn’t perfect but most cult films never are. What proves so enduring about it, however, is that it allowed Rik Mayall to showcase the full range of his comic talents – everything from slapstick to his potty mouth – vomiting it up on the big screen so grotesquely and so beautifully that it vindicates Mayall’s reputation as a comedy genius every time you see it. That alone justifies its existence in my opinion.

Best Scene

The mega bitch squashed my head!

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Tim Burton was the original choice for director.
  • Robin Williams was offered the role of Drop Dead Fred, but instead chose to play Peter Banning in the Steven Spielberg film Hook.
  • Lea Thompson, Kerri Green, Molly Ringwald, Julia Roberts, and Winona Ryder were all considered for the role of Elizabeth.
  • Matthew Modine, Anthony Michael Hall, Charlie Sheen, Michael J. Fox, Josh Brolin, and Keanu Reeves were considered for the role of Mickey Bunce.

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1 Comment

  1. Michael Young says:

    Good article. I guess I enjoy the movie for reasons of nostalgia. As childish as his humour is here, I still enjoy him in it, because like he gave it his all, it’s the same reason I enjoy Robin Williams and Jim Carrey so much, no matter how crazy or even bad the role is, they still put as much energy into it as they would if it was good, I guess there’s no simpler way to put it other than “Even when they’re bad, they’re good”.

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