Drop Dead Fred effectively shows us what imaginary friends represent to children. Importantly, screenwriters Carlos Davis and Anthony Fingleton tell such a story within the context of the “child” in question, named Lizzie, being an adult. As a child (played by Ashley Peldon in flashbacks), Lizzie’s spirit was smothered by her overbearing, overly protective mother, Polly (Marsha Mason), who took every opportunity to limit Lizzie’s imagination, playtime with friends and relationship with her more caring father, Nigel (Daniel Gerroll, in a brief but potent appearance). As an adult (Phoebe Cates), Lizzie has had a rough go of it in both her personal and professional lives. Her husband, Charles (Tim Matheson), is an unfaithful lout who leaves her for a younger woman. Almost immediately after this, Lizzie loses her purse and car in separate incidents and, as a result, her job as a court reporter due to tardiness.

One can almost immediately understand, then, why Drop Dead Fred (Rik Mayall), her imaginary friend from childhood, returns to the adult Lizzie. In childhood, the poltergeist represents the id of Lizzie’s problematic tendency to act out, causing messes or otherwise generally rebelling against her mother. In adulthood, Drop Dead Fred represents much of what Lizzie has forgotten about what she needs in her life—excitement and mischief, self-critique about her worst impulses and self-awareness about her own worth, and, above all, to shed the toxic relationships that define so much about her life. It isn’t too far-fetched to suggest that one of those toxic relationships may very well be with Drop Dead Fred and, by extension, herself.

Part of this is communicated by the screenwriters, who afford Lizzie far more character development than merely being the host of Fred’s antics, and part of it by Cates, whose performance is the perfect balance between entryway into our story and amusing reactionary to the manic energy of her primary co-star. The film, though, belongs to Mayall, whose boundless energy will either turn off viewers entirely or amuse them to no end. Fans of the Harry Potter franchise will not be surprised to hear that J.K. Rowling based madcap background character Peeves the Poltergeist upon Drop Dead Fred, nor that Mayall was cast in the role of Peeves and shot scenes for the first installment that were later cut from the finished film.

That’s because the Drop Dead Fred character is practically a poltergeist, with director Ate De Jong staging sequences that establish him as being not quite human but still able to interact with the world around him. His reintroduction to Lizzie involves a scrunched-up version of himself bouncing like a ball around her room, and later, body parts squish or stretch weirdly. Mayall wholly commits to the part with body and spirit. De Jong also twists his directorial style, which adopts the vibe of a traditional sitcom in the sequences with human characters and literally shifts the position of the camera to adopt the vivid and canted-angle heaviness of a Tim Burton production when focused on Fred.

De Jong also gets a lot of mileage out of his supporting cast. Mason and Matheson both ham it up rather nicely as the two casually abusive sides of the same coin, representing how Lizzie’s home life suffocates her whether under the thumb of a mother or in a rickety union with a husband. Carrie Fisher walks away with honors as the best of the supporting actors, though, as Lizzie’s best friend Janie, who barely understands the concerns surrounding Drop Dead Fred. In one fall-down-funny sequence, Janie is summoned out of a business meeting to deal with the accidental sinking of her houseboat (following an unfaithful liaison with her married boss) by Lizzie/Fred and proceeds to attempt to beat up the poltergeist—whom, of course, she cannot see, hear or touch. Like Mayall, Fisher commits.

Sadly, the film was never a hit critically (with Gene Siskel even naming it the worst film of 1991) or financially (even considering its modest $6.8 million budget) or even really as a cult item (perhaps due to the lack of a proper home-video release until 2003, which then went extremely out of print upon the dissolution of PolyGram’s branch devoted to video distribution). Furthermore, in this age of cast-and-crew reunions, the idea of one for Drop Dead Fred is an impossibility, what with the deaths of Mayall and Fisher and the disappearances from public life of Cates and De Jong. Nevertheless, the film (now streaming on HBO Max) deserves new life in the form of a near-total critical reassessment. It is far from a lame Beetlejuice rip-off, which was its reputation upon release. Instead, this is a superbly funny, skewed adult fairy-tale for those who appreciate such things.

  • The Outpost

    It isn’t exactly complex, but as a study of war waged with curt brutality, The Outpost res…
  • aTypical Wednesday

    This perfectly dreadful comedy-drama hybrid tries too hard to be too many different movies…
  • Holy Hell! Wonder Boys Turns 20

    A special movie in which a wandering soul tests our ability to sympathize with a protagoni…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

The Outpost

It isn’t exactly complex, but as a study of war waged with curt brutality, The Outpost res…