English comedy legend Rik Mayall’s Hollywood career, mysteriously, never did materialise. Possibly due to 1991’s poorly received Drop Dead Fred!
But despite what critics said, it remains a very fond memory for those of us who saw it when we were young. It’s kind of a darkly humorous and mildly disturbing thing, like Beetlejuice (1988) and Return to Oz (1985).
Eeeee, they don’t make films like this no more! And some would say that’s for the best… but we’re 1991 kids, man. And we dig this weirdness.
Drop Dead Fred’s Disturbingly Full On Weirdness
Dutch film director Ate de John was behind this one.
The film is about Elizabeth Cronin (Phoebe Cates), a young woman who’s a quiet and unassuming court reporter.
She’s set for a divorce form her husband Charles (Tim Matheson), a series of issues leads to her also being fired from her job.
As she leaves the premises, she bumps into a childhood friend. He reminds her of her imaginary friend from childhood, a chap called Drop Dead Fred. And he reminds her of the havoc this scenario created and how everyone thought she was mad.
Despite the havoc she caused, flashbacks reveal this imaginary friend brough a lot of happiness to Elizabeth. Especially against her overbearing mother.
She also receives some sage advice from her friend Janie (played by Carrie Fisher—yes, that one). Elizabeth moves back in with her mother and finds a taped up jack-in-the-box. Inside, this releases Drop Dead Fred (Mr. Rik Mayall).
He’s a red-haired, ADHD, anarchy loving lunatic with a petulant streak a mile wide. And his job is to wreak havoc for Elizabeth’s personal amusement.
No one else can see him, of course, except Elizabeth.
His arrival allows Mayall to show off his impressive comedic physicality, mixed in with practical effects.
As Drop Dead Fred goes off causing havoc, Elizabeth initially finds it a great deal of fun.
But his behaviour soon leads to her getting into trouble, with many thinking she’s struggling with mental illness.
As the film progresses, there’s quite a sweet development between Drop Dead Fred and Elizabeth’s friendship.
And a clever scene where Drop Dead Fred is waiting in a hospital clinic with a bunch of other kids’ imaginary friends.
Also, the ending of the film is quite poignant—Elizabeth realising Drop Dead Fred has moved on to be an imaginary friend for another young girl to form happy memories.
That’s it! The summary above doesn’t do justice to just how strange the film is. We remember watching it in the early ’90s and being intrigued by its weirdness.
But it was panned by contemporary critics, many of whom took serious issue with its tone and disturbing black humour.
Drop Dead Fred is rather obscene and uses “bitch” constantly in reference to Elizabeth’s mother. Plus, the scene where Drop Dead Fred is wiping bogeys all over people’s faces really freaked journalists out. There was much complaining about that.
More troublesome are the numerous (for some reason) scenes of Drop Dead Fred staring up women’s skirts. That’s really not aged very well.
The dark tone only upset adults, worried about impressionable kids and what they’d make of it. Whereas Mayall’s fanbase, and many other kids of the day just tuning in to see the film, were intrigued by the ludicrousness of the production.
Although we’re sure plenty also found it mightily disturbing.
There’s no denying it’s a weird film. And its flaws are very obvious—there was a time and a place for it. And a great film it isn’t.
Yet Phoebe Cates and Rik Mayall worked very well together to provide a crassly amusing, and at times surprisingly sweet, cult favourite from a different era.
We think its triumph, if you want to call it that, is it reminds that generation of what it was like being a mischievous kid.
Mayall’s enthusiasm and energy as Drop Dead Fred were typical of the man, actively encouraging Elizabeth to create mischief. That youthful part of us all still lingers.
Even if you have to dig deep to reconnect with it.
Drop Dead Fred’s Production & Legacy
Mayall was incredibly busy around this period. Above he’s in his getup for the September 1991 West End production of Waiting for Godot.
Meanwhile, he’d been off filming Drop Dead Fred and found time to record the first series of Bottom.
The third series of The New Statesman also ran from January 1991, where Mayall played corrupt Tory MP Alan B’stard. A fourth series followed swiftly in 1992.
And series two of Bottom ran in 1992! It’s like there were two Rik Mayalls hurtling about the place, such was his legendary energy.
Drop Dead Fred was Mayall’s first leading role in Hollywood, but things didn’t really go any further after that. Not that he was in short demand on TV.
It wasn’t a low budget film, either, this thing had quite a lavish $6.788 million backing.
And it didn’t flop. It earned back $14.8 million in the US, and £1.7 million in UK, which was an impressive return considering the battering it got from critics.
Mayall picked up the role as Robin Williams, who was the first choice, turned down the project in favour of Steven Spielberg’s Hook.
Carlos Davis and Anthony Fingleton wrote the script, but director Ate de Jong reworked much of it during filming. He based changes on his traumatic childhood experiences facing sexual abuse. So, yeah, that’s where the film’s dark themes came from.
The film was shot in August and September 1990 in Minneapolis.
Studio New Line Cinema soon had execs unhappy about Mayall’s English accent and asked if his dialogue could be re-recorded with the actor doing a transatlantic accent. This also happened for The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night (1964).
In ’64, Sir Paul McCartney effectively told the studio to sod off. And Rik Mayall did exactly the same, so the matter was dropped.
A sequel to Drop Dead Fred was planned, but Mayall turned down the lead role. It was offered to a pre-fame Jim Carrey, who agreed. But the project eventually fell through.
As for Drop Dead Fred’s legacy, retrospective reviews have been kinder to. American composer Carl Schroeder said in 2002:
“The imaginary friend is cavortingly rude for a reason; he served to push the girlchild to do mischief for attention and as a cry for help. Now grown up, the woman has forgotten and is about to lose her soul, so events call for some kind of literal return of her demon to force the exposure of her pain. This psychic crisis is poignantly realistic … the creature who is visible only to the woman is like a poltergeist energy of her repressed self, a problematic ego container into which her powers of assertion and creativity were poured and stored.”
Schroeder also praised the film’s ending as “beautiful”. More recently, historian and journalist Alexander Larman, for The Telegraph (of all places!), said in 2021:
“[It’s] a sophisticated and ahead-of-its-time black comic exploration of anxiety and depression.”
Drop Dead Fred certainly isn’t as bad as has been made out. And check out the Rotten Tomatoes comparison between critics and movie buffs.
100,000+ ratings for a 77% score. We think that’s quite generous for this oddball film, most of it born from a sense of nostalgia.
But hey, why not? That can be a good thing.
And for Rik Mayall’s many fans, the film is also something of an unusual footnote in his incredible career.
The one moment where it seemed Hollywood stardom awaited… but then he stepped back and firmly claimed his place as a British TV sitcom legend.
Whether we missed out on some classic comedy films with how it all played out, sadly we’ll never know.