During our discussion of July’s Movie of the Month, the straight-to-cable oddity Highway to Hell, Britnee pointed me to the director Ate de Jong’s IMDb page to take note of his long list of wartime melodramas, which all seemed really out of place considering the movie we were discussing at the time. While I was browsing his catalog, I discovered something even stranger. The very same year de Jong directed Highway to Hell, he also released his only other American title, the rambunctious Rik Mayall imaginary friend comedy Drop Dead Fred. Although I had yet to see Drop Dead Fred at the time, I knew it had a fairly positive reputation among people in my age range, so it was strange to discover that the closest that film’s director ever got to striking gold twice was with Highway to Hell. 1991 must’ve been a very strange year for de Jong, emotionally & professionally.
Having now actually watched Drop Dead Fred, it’s fairly easy to see traces of Highway to Hell‘s aesthetic lurking in the film. The protagonist, played by the always-lovely Phoebe Cates, is an overgrown child who, after losing her job, her car, and her marriage in a single afternoon, reunites with her childhood imaginary friend, the titular Fred. Fred is pure id. He subscribes to a Looney Tunes sense of physics, calls his non-imaginary friend “Snot Face” & her overbearing mother “Mega Bitch”, and generally has a five year old’s sense of impulse control & desire to destroy everything in his path. A lot of the visual goofery that makes Highway to Hell a fascinating fiasco is present here in Fred’s antics & in the morally criminal hellscape that surrounds Phoebe Cate’s childlike protagonist. Just like with the pure-of-heart pizza delivery boy who saves the day in Highway to Hell, Fred’s friend-in-need is too good for this wicked world of evil ex-husbands & Mega Bitch mothers. The difference is that she has a little bit of destructive mischief on her side, trying to get her to stand up for herself, while Highway to Hell‘s protagonist just had that little kid who refused to turn heel (to borrow a pro wrestling term) & misbehave.
In addition to a general sense of melancholy & helplessness, that’s something about childhood that Drop Dead Fred gets right that Highway to Hell misses out on completely. Children are destructive little shits, at least occasionally, so it was frustrating to watch the little moppet in Highway to Hell to keep his cool & show no signs of evil, despite his pedigree as a literal Hell Child. Drop Dead Fred is smart to acknowledge the mischievous (as well as the gloomy) side of children as soon as the first seen. When the protagonist is introduced as a small child she responds to a bedtime story meant to teach her the value of being “a good little girl” with the retort “What a pile of shit!” She’s not wrong.
Both Highway to Hell & Drop Dead Fred have a childlike way of looking at the world & both have an endearing way of mixing slapstick silliness with pitch-black humor. The differences in their achievements (besides the sublimely silly performance by much-missed Rik Mayall as Fred) can be attributed almost entirely to the writing. If Highway to Hell were a little more thoughtful, a little more nuanced in its dialogue the way it was in its set design, Ate de Jong could’ve had two resounding successes on his hands in 1991. Hell, he could’ve probably kept making silly black comedies forever, instead of fading into wartime melodrama obscurity. I know I’d still be watching, at least.