Drop Dead Fred

(Ate De Jong, USA, 1991)


In one scene of Drop Dead Fred, the young adult heroine Elizabeth (Phoebe Cates) finds herself alone in the waiting room of a psychiatrist who specialises in treating children with 'imaginary friends'. As a sure sign of how repressive and dour his practice must be, every session seems to take place with the child's frightfully stern mother beside him or her. The woman next to Elizabeth in the waiting room strikes up a conversation, but freaks when she realizes that Elizabeth is not one of the mothers in this scenario, but one of the 'disturbed' children.

Elizabeth's strange, unexpected identity, in this moment, is rather like that of the film itself.

Drop Dead Fred behaves, in most respects, like a children's story – except that, at another level, it's clearly for, and about, adults. Even the Australian censor's rating reflects a niggling uncertainty about the film's status and its intentions – PG for a movie in which Rik Mayall (as the imaginary friend of the title) spreads dog shit all over a spotless domestic carpet and later announces he's going to cut off a mother's head, eat it, and then shit it out all over the dining room table?

And it must certainly be a strange kid's film that includes Carrie Fisher as a profane, earthbound best friend (a modern Eve Arden), dropping one-liners about "creative actualisation", achieving an "aerobics rush", and merrily humping her married boss. Not to mention the barrage of special effects and set-pieces that conjure the funny-but-terrifying supernatural psychodramas of the contemporary horror film.

Drop Dead Fred is the kind of film that hardly stays still long enough to be discovered. Sold hard on television spots, unpreviewed to critics, it does a few weeks of brisk business in cinemas and disappears without a notice in the supposedly serious film press. It arrives with no advance hype, and its credited personnel ring no immediate bells. It's easy to stumble into it without becoming very clear as to the nationality of the film (British-American?), or even the gender of its director (Ate De Jong – he's male, by the way). But from a chance viewing I can assure you of this: it's lively, touching, intricate and also – to risk using a shopworn word – exhilaratingly subversive in a specific popular cinema context.

Writing about the The Witches of Eastwick (1987), Raymond Durgnat remarked of Jack Nicholson's character Daryl Van Horne: "what a bundle of contradictions, what a compact of incoherences, is his weirdly changing bodyshape, his crazy-quilt costumes, his corkscrewy spiel!" Although not quite as extreme a hybrid, Rik Mayall's Drop Dead Fred is nonetheless one of the most arresting concoctions of recent popular cinema – and, like any concoction that works, he's a mix of timeless character types from classic stories, and up-to-the-moment mass-cultural ones. He's a familiar Imaginary Friend from children's literature and children's fantasy. He's a mischievous Dennis the Menace (a naughty little boy) and then, more fantastically, an evil Gremlin from Phoebe Cates' Id ("way out of control", as she says), or a macabre genie from Pandora's Box. He's Beetlejuice, vulgarly and obscenely scatological, his body expanding, contracting, squashing and bouncing off walls when sneezed at. In one tantalising shot, he's a (vampire?) bat, hanging upside down from the ceiling asleep.

He's also a lascivious Pee-wee Herman (with a veritable Playhouse of camp companions) looking up women's dresses (and finding either "cobwebs' or "no panties"), but in his strange mix of pubescent excitation and pre-pubescent disinterest about sex, he's also Roger Rabbit (complete with Tex Avery cartoon pop-out eyes). As the film nudges itself from children's horror fantasy to near-moments of outright horror, he resembles that other Fred on Elm St (the Melbourne cinema where I saw it had posters for Drop Dead Fred and Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare [1991] jostling each other in the foyer). He's Cronenberg's Fly or indeed Daryl Van Horne, physically wasting away as he is emotionally rejected. And finally, he's Young Ones star Rik Mayall, with his (somewhat softened) punkish anarchy and Johnny Rotten sneer.

The precise nature of DD Fred's sexuality remains a moot and fascinating point throughout the film. Let out of a box after twenty-one years, he rummages through old toys for a moment before realising, with a raised eyebrow, that there are now "grown-up things" for him to play with. But, although brimming over with a childish, polymorphously perverse libido, he's essentially boyish and pre-sexual, unable to distinguish the sexual technique of pigeons from that of humans (the filmmakers refuse the option of making the character, like Pee-wee Herman, crypto-gay). Still, there's a frisson of everything left unexplored or repressed in the film's premise when Fred must vanish at the moment of his first adult sexual relation to Elizabeth ("just kiss me and say Drop Dead Fred") – for as in Switch (1991), the explosion of certain tantalising life possibilities can only be dramatised if shadowed by immediate death.

Drop Dead Fred is one those films that simply and ingeniously dances through its minefield of implications, possibilities, suggestions. (The reunion of Imaginary Friends, for instance, makes us wonder: what does it mean for little boys do have such friends? And who gets the female Imaginary Friend, Namby Pamby?) It uses its undoubted incoherence – the inevitable effect of pulling in such a large number of premises, genres and semantic fields – to blissful advantage. Everything does (at least) double duty, as both metaphor and metonym.

The presence of the Imaginary Friend, for example, cues a discourse on the importance of friendship in real life, and the superiority of friendly relations over romantic ones, with Elizabeth finally earnestly advising her mother: "Get yourself a friend". At the same time, Drop Dead Fred is not really Elizabeth's friendly Other; he is her inner self, her life force (she comments of her unhappy childhood, "all the Fred went out of me"). Yet, especially during the wonderful scene where Elizabeth literally fuses with Drop Dead Fred in order to discover herself, we can't but wonder: why is the symbol of a woman's tough, independent true self ... a man? And why this man? The Jungian concept of the animus can't explain everything happening here.

On another level, the film is completely candid about the philosophy of life that Drop Dead Fred represents. As he makes a gross mud pie and searches for the pièce de resistance, he realises he has to destroy an object at hand to resolve his dilemma. Then he reflects along these lines: you've got to take something apart in order to put it together again. So he's an anarchistic bricoleur (a descendant of the little hero in that most remarkable children's fantasy, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr T [1953]) who believes (and this is a fine New Age twist) in decisive moves that are destructive when necessary. The film matter-of-factly condones Elizabeth finally dumping both her husband and her mother. And it's particularly down on the alienated delusions of romantic and familial love – nominating both the fairy tales of Princes and Princesses and the double-binding emotional tactics of Elizabeth's mother as "a load of shit".

This is not to say that Drop Dead Fred resolves everything painlessly. As one of the films exploring both the possibilities and problems arising from heroes zapping between their child and adult selves, it especially recalls Big (1988). The immense poignancy of that story – at least from the viewpoint of its female protagonist – arose from the recognition that the figure of the child-man was a mutual contradiction, an impossible dream, never reconcilable in the one male self or body. It's interesting to survey the various male figures of Drop Dead Fred in this light, since it is much more intently focused on the dilemmas of (as Freud put it) object choice facing modern women.

On one side, Elizabeth's husband stands for the type of man who is sleazy, manipulative, uncaring, but unfortunately devilishly attractive. On another side, there are men (like Elizabeth's father) who are sensitive but wimpy – indeed, Fred is particularly insistent on calling Elizabeth's latest nice-guy suitor a girl (in a neat turn, this man-girl comes to envy the Fred inside Elizabeth). Thus, there is no mid-way object choice available for a straight, single woman between a Bad Man and a non-Man (somewhat like the options posed by Switch of wolfish Perry King and symbolically castrated Jimmy Smits), and this little problem casts its shadow over the entire proceedings.

At first glance, one might think that the climactic scenes of Elizabeth entering the house of her unconscious Self in order to realise that she "needn't be afraid anymore" wouldn't be out of place in a empty, pat, Spielbergian fairy tale like The Never Ending Story II: The Next Chapter (1990), where the lead boy finally overcomes his diving board phobia and swims through fantasyland. But Drop Dead Fred presents a very different case – not only because the hero is an adult dealing with the unfinished business of her childhood, but also because she's a woman. The fact that these two factors seem to necessarily entail each other is in itself evocatively suggestive – how many fantasy-adventures are there in which male heroes become boys again in order to revisit and resolve their first, primal emotional problems with their parents? (Movies like Regarding Henry [1991] have positive-regressive heroes, but their parents are usually either benevolent or absent.)

Although Drop Dead Friend certainly resonates sympathetically with those films (like Problem Child [1990] and Misery [1990]) setting out to demonise mothers and mother-figures (usually in relation to a male child or infantilised man), there's a certain commendable truthfulness to the righteous fury with which this film dramatises its hellish mother-daughter relation. Marsha Mason as Mom orders the adult Elizabeth around as if she were a child (Phoebe Cates is perfectly cast as an Eternal Girl), fashions her daughter in her own buttoned-down image, and expunges the slightest trace of mess, emotion or sexuality from the domestic hearth (shades of Nice Girls Don't Explode [1987], an equally undiscovered gem).

But, whether or not this is truthful to individual viewer experience, it's always a healthy shock encountering an unforgiving mother-daughter story in a culture so massively male-oedipal as our own. Even when, at the last, it is implied that Elizabeth is destined for the mother-in-law slot in her very own family romance, her wide-eyed, unquenchable identification with the positively demonic new little girl in Fred's life evokes a passion that is earth-shaking in its existential asociality.

From the first surprising obscenity from a little girl's mouth in the pre-credits sequence and the magnificently gruesome title graphics, Drop Dead Fred is a unique, unsettling, startling, invigorating film. If anything, the fact that it snuck into cinemas so unceremoniously only increases its subversive aura. In theatres and no doubt on a bewilderingly wide assortment of video/DVD shop shelves (where it is likely to be as classified as anything from a cute kids film to a cult British comedy), Drop Dead Fred begs to be casually discovered and detonated by unsuspecting filmgoers of all ages.

likewise: Monkeybone

MORE De Jong: Highway to Hell

© Adrian Martin November 1991

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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