Lizzie Cronin (Phoebe Cates) is having a hell of a day: her husband Charles (Tim Matheson) has told her that he's thinking of splitting up with her, so she goes to visit him in her lunch break from her courthouse stenographer job to ensure that he knows she loves him and doesn't want him to leave. Alas, he is more interested in selling his cars, and hops into one with an attractive lady customer for a test drive, leaving Lizzie pathetically tagging along after him until he asks her to stop. Then, when she's on the phone to her best friend Janie (Carrie Fisher), her purse and car are stolen; to top it all, when she finally gets back to work, she's fired. What could make this worse?
How about Rik Mayall showing up? Now, if that sounds like something which would cheer you up, Mr Mayall was a funny guy after all, be warned that here he was playing a deliberately annoying character, specifically the childhood imaginary friend of Lizzie who when she was a little girl would get her into all sorts of trouble. She would blame it all on this so-called Drop Dead Fred, but nobody would believe her, and so it is when he makes a reappearance in her life as an adult. This sounds like a great premise for a horror movie, after all, is it any coincidence that it was from New Line, the home of Freddy Krueger? Look at the supernatural character's name, for a start.
Yet somewhere along the film's journey to the screen, someone saw this and thought it would make great material for a heartwarming comedy, except that it still plays strangely close to a horror film. It's not scary, but you can see that with a tweak of the music and lighting this could have become truly unsettling - add in some more effects of the Nightmare on Elm Street variety and Rik Mayall could have become a recurring chiller character for the nineties. There's even a path open for a sequel at the end, a sequel which never arrived incidentally because Drop Dead Fred was a bit of a flop, proving every bit as conducive to a Hollywood career for Mayall as True Identity had done for Lenny Henry around the same time.
Nevertheless, the film has been embraced since to its cult status among those who regard it with unironic affection, to the extent that they see Fred as the perfect boyfriend that Lizzie never had, no matter that he wants her to stay as much in a state of arrested development as the other characters do. Her mother (Marsha Mason) admits that she only had her to keep her failing marriage together, and this emotional starvation that Lizzie has suffered her whole life has had detrimental effects with the result that she is now everyone's doormat. If this is sounding like a psychology lesson has been sneaked into a kids film, then bizarrely that is precisely how it plays in the long run.
In fact, there's so much trendy headshrinking going on, all identifying issues and reaching closure and that kind of thing, that it becomes hard to see who Drop Dead Fred was aimed at, with its mixture of off colour gags, grown up problems, and outright zany effects. Maybe it was for young women like Lizzie, who never got over their childhoods and developed a serious case of inferiority? Once he has escaped from his jack-in-the-box, Fred is meant to represent a force for liberation, but all through the story if anything Lizzie is terminally embarrassed by being chained to his antics, which everyone can see the results of without actually being able to see Fred. This leads the plot down some very dark roads when Lizzie's mental health is understandably called into question, again, good stuff for a horror film but uneasily mishandled here as fertile ground for more silly gags. You can sort of see why its fans take Fred to heart without question, but there was more going on here beyond face value, and it speaks of the filmmakers failing to grasp their themes. Music by Randy Edelman.