There is no better occasion than now to revisit director Stephen Herek’s 1991 sleeper Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. It’s summer-ish, contemporary retroism has the movie’s keen sense of style looking relevant, and our species has not yet been wiped from the face of our planet. If you haven’t seen it, you should know that the dead babysitter is really just a jumping-off point—as a result, 17-year-old Sue Ellen Crandell (a naturalistically subdued Christina Applegate) seeks employment in fashion so that she can support herself and four siblings for the summer, while her mother is away cavorting in Australia with some guy. (Sue Ellen really will stop at nothing to keep their mother out of the country, even if it means an almost complete sacrifice of summer leisure for an office job that requires commutes in gridlock traffic.)
Scammy hijinks ensue, as does boxy ’90s fashion that is, to borrow a mangled phrase from Sue Ellen’s boss Rose, to die from, as does a romance between Sue Ellen and a fast-food delivery man, Bryan (played by Josh Charles, whom I can never decide whether I think is cute in this movie, or merely youthful). Domestically, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead did about $25 million at the box office (that’s a little over $50 million in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars), but it had a particularly hearty afterlife via video and cable, as these types of movies often do.
Is this movie good? Fuck yeah, it’s amazing! Well, if you ask one of us, it is. I have seen it, and somehow Megan hadn’t until she was made to watch it for this post. Join us as we revisit a teen flick that’s brimming with personality to the point of eccentricity.
RICH: If the task of divining between excellence and mere nostalgia is generally difficult when reexamining the relics from the past to which one still has an emotional attachment, in this case for me it is absolutely impossible. How am I supposed to objectively evaluate a movie I love that asks me to root for a young high-school grad who, to keep her negligent mother from returning from her summer trip to Australia, fudges a résumé (complete with a claim that she designed for Comme Des Garçons in Japan), drops it off, has a 15-second conversation with an executive in which they both mock the office receptionist, lands the job, realizes that she has no idea what she’s doing, steals a shitload of petty cash that’s at her disposal, and ends up saving the company (and paying back the petty cash) with her pure child’s eye for fashion? She gets hired from outside the company despite the office crawling with more qualified people??? (Kathy was all over that Q.E.D. report.)
No, we’re asked to back Sue Ellen “Swell” Crandell because she is Christina Applegate, and because Christina Applegate was a big deal when this movie was released in 1991, thanks to the success of Married… With Children. And though I know better, though I know that mother should never have left for Australia in the first place (not with her house in such disrepair at least!), I know the Crandell children should have reported the death of their wicked babysitter Mrs. Sturak, who barks at the kids so as to approximate a PG-13 version of Full Metal Jacket’s Gunnery Sergeant Hartman, I know Swell does not deserve her job whatsoever (and that HR, magically absent from this movie, exists to tell her so), and yet I root for her. I just cannot help it.
This movie is probably in my all-time Top 10? Can you please help me determine whether it’s actually good or just feelings that make me think this?
MEGAN: After watching most of this film slumped on my couch and then finishing up the “climax” the next morning, I can’t really say if this is good or not, but my gut is telling me that it… isn’t? It’s a confusing movie to me, specifically because I had absolutely no idea what to expect. The babysitter is dead, she’s dead within minutes, and that action is what propels Christina Applegate into a rather enchanting workplace comedy with whiffs of empowerment? The mother should’ve been arrested! Nothing about this movie makes any sense! I was expecting either a caper, a weird crime movie, or uh, perhaps a horror film, but instead, I watched Christina Applegate delegate like a fucking professional while swanning around in some truly incredible clothing from the early ’90s. I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy myself, but what I am saying is that I’m… confused?
If I had first watched this movie as a kid instead of as an adult, something about Swell’s career woman fantasy might have had more of an impact; alas, at the ripe old age of NONE OF YOUR FREAKIN BUSINESS (36), I am a career woman. I am, in fact, one year younger than the delinquent mother of the Caldwell brood—a woman whose desire to fuck off to Australia for an entire summer makes perfect sense to me now. If you lived in that house, would you want to stay? Why was the house so messy? Why was it literally falling apart? Questions about logic abound. What is it about this movie, aside from feelings, that you like so much?
RICH: Well, besides, oh, everything, it’s the little details. A poster of topless ’80s pop star Samantha Fox, the woman I credit for almost single-handedly informing me of the joy of slutaciousness, on the wall of Swell’s brother Kenny’s room, elicits such a strong gasping reaction from Mrs. Sturack as to imply it contributed to her heart attack. That is some powerful sexuality. I like when for no reason at all drag queens steal Mrs. Sturack’s Buick that the Crandells were driving around?
I love Rose and her lizard pins and her Q.E.D. report fetish.
I love that Swell’s eventual aptitude at faxing is held up as proof that, hey, maybe she does deserve this job. I love the grunion run. I love that Spinal Tap’s “Give Me Some Money” is played straightforwardly during Swell’s first petty-cash raid (I had no idea that the song was satire until I saw This Is Spinal Tap years later). I love that the youngest kid is obsessed with game shows like The $25,000 Pyramid and Win, Lose, or Draw, and that his idea of paradise is a ’90s entertainment center stocked with blank VHS tapes.
I love that when she’s trying to be a sophisticated adult, Swell orders a Martini & Rossi on the rocks—she asks to drink straight vermouth and the waiter’s like, “Mmm, yes. Sweet or dry?” I of course LOVE LOVE LOVE “I’m right on top of that, Rose,” which hasn’t left my lexicon since I watched this in the theater.
It’s introduced with such gravitas, it reminds me of Gremlins. You can get Rose (an effervescent Joanna Cassidy) wet. You can expose her to bright light. You can even feed her after midnight. But you must never, never not say, “I’m right on top of that, Rose,” when she prompts you. Or she turns into a little green monster and starts wreaking sartorial havoc—more, even, than that final fashion show in which we’re supposed to be impressed with the concept of turning a nurse’s uniform fuschia????
Everybody looks great in this movie! Even the checkout girl!
Hmmm, you know what? I think I’m right. I just handed you a storage unit full of receipts that prove this movie is fantastic.
MEGAN: Okay, sure, yes. I am sorting through this storage unit and feeling stressed about your findings. “I’m right on top of that, Rose” is maybe my favorite part of the movie because it is a direct reference to my actual favorite part of the movie, Rose!! I love Rose Lindsey! I love her outfits and yes, the Q.E.D. reports, which were so big and beautiful and well organized. I love her disgusting relationship with Gus, a disgusting pig of a man who tries to sex Christina Applegate because he thinks she’s an adult woman.
I love her harried energy in the scene when she’s crawling on the floor of her enormous office, eating M&Ms off the ground, freaking out because the company she has dedicated her life (?) to is probably going to fold! I mean, if we look at the details, this movie is actually pretty good, so I accept your receipts.
Let’s take a minute to discuss the… lesson? I do like how Christina Applegate shouldered the challenge of feeding her delinquent siblings by scamming her way into a job and then learned via that scam that she was actually very good at the one thing anyone really needs for success: delegation. This is a movie about delegation and the power of proper delegation in the workplace, at home, and, maybe, in love? Perhaps this should be shown to entrepreneurial teenagers eager to strap on a power suit and climb the ranks wherever. Am I dumb for looking for a lesson in a movie that is actually just a vessel for nostalgia at this point?
RICH: Not dumb at all! I think there are many morals at hand. In the case of Swell, I think it’s something like... scam, and when a scam falls into your lap, scam harder. But then if you are honest when your scam is discovered, if you are honest, people will love you anyway. And college is so important that the mere possibility of signing up for it is worth turning down a real job for???? Rose learned a valuable lesson about labor, and why hiring people who are barely out of childhood is a good thing. Kenny (Keith Coogan) learned that Julia Child recipes (particularly those for waffles) are crucial in making the transition from burned-out metalhead to clean-cut young man. The mother learned nothing! Her kids were fine! The house looked much better when not under her control! She should just go back to Australia and never return! Everyone was better off!
Since you mentioned Rose Lindsey’s supremacy, I would like to underline that by stating that Joanna Cassidy’s eye-acting alone should have qualified her for an Oscar nod that year.
Actually, Applegate’s is great, too.
Also, whether because it’s trading in tropes or legitimately prescient, I’ve seen things in this movie pop up in other recent movies. Jennifer Lopez’s character was able to advance in her career through the 2018 equivalent of copying your résumé out of a book, in Second Act. The genius of having a “normal” person weigh in on a brand provided similar color in I Feel Pretty. And Swell’s navigation of Gus’s advances exposed the injustice of workplace sexual harassment to an audience of children in 1991. Perhaps this post should have been a thinkpiece: “How Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead Predicted MeToo Over 25 Years Ago.” She, again in a PG-13 way, gets to shoot Gus in the dick.
MEGAN: For the record, I am very grateful that we did not run a thinkpiece, but I am happy that I have been exposed to this masterpiece. Per my hastily scrawled notes, which are mostly about the state of the house pre-renovation, I have learned some valuable lessons about delegation, navigating the demands of a modern career, and also how to project just the right amount of manic energy without crossing the line. Thank you, Rose! Thank you, Swell! Than you, America!