Drop Dead Fred: A 1991 dark-comedy promoted as a kid’s film starring Phoebe Cates as (yet another) insane woman. Don’t believe me? Remember her character Linda in Fast Times at Ridgemont High? That girl was a sexually aggressive nutcase. Man, the way she pushed her friend Stacy into shoving bananas down her throat. It was radical. And I know just about everyone has seen like classic Gremlins. The way Cates’ character dressed was indication enough that the girl was unbalanced, let alone her strange unraveled rant at the end about her dad murdering someone? Yeah- case and point. Phoebe Cates plays crazy people. But I digress- the film pairs her up with Rik Mayall, a fiery physical comedian who, very unfortunately died back in 2014 by…well…dropping dead. Again, totally not funny.
BUT THIS MOVIE SURE AS HELL IS!
This is one of those movies that everyone saw when I was a kid. And we all loved it. By why? Were we all tricked into loving Fred as a fun, silly clown for the modern day? Truthfully, some of what came out of his mouth wasn’t even all silly. A lot of it was, truth be told, pretty nasty. As for the backbone of the movie, which is (if you ask me) pretty thoroughly ignored is the fact that the protagonist of the film is really, an unwell woman. Mental illness guides the film, as shown through the emotionally abusive/domineering relationship between Elizabeth and her mother, Polly. As a kid, Elizabeth’s parents were always fighting. Her Dad bounced out, and her parents and eventually divorced.
In order to deal with her loneliness, (and find a way to defy her domineering mother) young Elizabeth invented an imaginary friend named Drop Dead Fred, personified by a man with flaming red hair, a killer British accent, and a cosplay-worthy suit combo. The character is portrayed as a psychotic figure of strength for the little girl. But because Elizabeth is the only one who can “see Fred”, she’s constantly the only one to blame for the trouble the two of them execute. Therefore, Elizabeth’s parents not only think she’s an inherent trouble maker, but now they think she’s bat-shit crazy too.
After one particular incident involving cornflakes and mud in the dining room, Polly tapes up the Jack-in-the-Box that Fred jumped into. Without her brain crutch (Fred), Elizabeth grows up a meek and stifled woman, marries a scumbag, befriends the bossy, yet well-meaning Janie (played by Carrie Fisher) and sort of glides through life without any sort of agency over herself.
Now an adult, Elizabeth’s life is falling apart. She is separated from her husband, her mom forces her to move home, and she loses her job. Back at home, Elizabeth opens her closet and finds the Jack-in-the-Box. She tears it open, releasing Drop Dead Fred. He says he’s now “stuck in the human world” because Elizabeth is all alone and unhappy.
He says he’s “stuck here and can’t get home again until Elizabeth is happy again. So, why doesn’t she just get happy?”
This is the turning point where the film hits top-shelf hypocrisy.
The movie is constantly at odds whether or not Drop Dead Fred is some sort of magical goblin-troll embedded in Elizabeth’s mind from an unspoken outside world, or if he’s really just something she’s made up in order to cope with all the rocky-unpredictable uncertainty in her life. Are imaginary friends real or is Elizabeth insane? That question lingers through the whole movie. After Fred smears dog shit all over the living room in the middle of the night to a dropped jaw Elizabeth, the antics continue over breakfast in the kitchen, such as Fred peeking under Polly’s dress (“Woooow…..cobwebs!”), and getting his head caught in refrigerator while Elizabeth looks on and laughs like a loon.
When Elizabeth goes to her friend Janie’s office declaring that Drop Dead Fred is back, Fred follows her there. Granted, he doesn’t really do much except give Elizabeth anxiety. Janie claims she’s going to get rid of him once and for all by stomping on him, effectively making an ass of herself (and admitting that she’s schtupping her boss. Bless you, Carrie Fisher). Later, when Elizabeth needs to get away from Fred because he’s driving her insane (not that it’s a long drive), she escapes to Janie’s house-boat. Fred followers her, and the next morning while Janie is at work, “Fred” sinks the boat. Like the lunatic badass pirate that’s inside of all of us.
In another scene, Elizabeth is having lunch with her childhood friend, Mickey. Fred follows them, grabs Elizabeth’s hands on a plate of pasta, and “forces her” to throw the dish in the restaurant. In the same mall scene, Elizabeth sees a group of violinists playing. She thinks she sees one as Fred and smacks him with her purse. The violin crashes to the ground, and it turns out Elizabeth has been beating a defenseless violin player herself.
Fed up, Polly takes Elizabeth to a child psychologist. There’s a famous scene in the waiting room where Fred is playing with three other imaginary friends, which only the corresponding child can see. This suggests that imaginary friends are real, right? Magic goblin-trolls assigned to a specific child who needs them for however the hell long. But if that’s the case, why does the psychologist prescribe Elizabeth with these enormous green horse pills designed for murdering brain goblin-troll dudes?
Elizabeth takes the pills, and Fred starts dying. Her husband comes back to her, but it’s just to monitor her because everyone around Elizabeth thinks she’s insane. With Fred teetering between Elizabeth’s life and death headspace, the two of them slip into a Tim Burton rejected dreamed sequence. Elizabeth faces her fears, gives Drop Dead Fred a final kiss, and he slips away into her subconscious. This is all well and fine…until we discover after another date with Mickey that Drop Dead Fred has since assigned himself to Mickey’s 8 year old daughter, Natalie, who is laughing with her finger in the special “Fred Handshake Position”.
So, what in the actual fuck is happening here? The movie tells us Fred is Elizabeth’s imaginary friend, something she invented to help her cope. But soon after, he gives that speech on how he can’t go home again until she’s happy. Wait, what? No home planet for imaginary friends has ever been discussed or mentioned. So, was Fred really in a box for 20 years or did Elizabeth forget about him? Plus, regardless of the amount of chaos Fred causes, Elizabeth is always present when it happens, without fail. She’s painted as unreliable, so how do we know she isn’t doing all of this herself? Hell, Fred even disappears and reappears in the same scene sometimes!
Me personally, I’m on team “Elizabeth is insane”. But with all the back and forth conflict through the movie, we don’t really know. The movie doesn’t really know. Because the film-makers clearly wanted Fred to be some sort of physical comedy icon, they focused the narrative on his character. But the darker layer of this poor woman’s psychosis is only vaguely brushed on. The relationship with just about everyone around her is unsupportive and toxic, even the one in her own head because Fred is nothing but chaos. He only rarely says nice things to her, but maybe Snotface is a compliment in imaginary friend goblin-troll land.
But you know what? If being completely insane made Rik Mayall in a green coat show up in my bedroom in the middle of the night, then shit…lock me up, doc.