Dead Fred is a dark comedy about shady goings-on in a sunny New Forest location to die for, directed in an Ealing comedy vein by Deanna Dewey and starring Sandra Dickinson.
If You Go Down in the Woods Today...by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Adapted by American novelist Sherrie Kelley from her own screenplay, Dead Fred turns out to be a very British black comedy, harking back in spirit to the 1944 Ealing comedy Arsenic and Old Lace.
Dead Fred’s incongruously sunny summer setting for its suspicious shenanigans is a large house and its grounds adjoining farmland in the New Forest, one of Britain’s largest and most beautiful ancient woods near the South Coast. Three female friends have gathered in the house to care for their fourth friend Julie (Judy Norman), who has Alzheimer’s – presumably early onset – and to act as guardians to prevent her unsympathetic yuppie daughter Meredith (Melissa de Moi) kidnapping her and putting her in a home.
The female-led film provides a plethora of the kind of juicy roles for mature actresses that are usually hard to come by, and the cast take full advantage of the opportunity, though, at first, it’s hard to sort out who’s who and their characters tend to have rather stereotypical reactions to events.
Red-haired Susan Kyd (Up the Garden Path, Chain and Genie in the House) is glamorous Sissy, who finds herself nominated to charm lumpen neighbouring farmer Jake (Tim Faraday) to help their scheming.
Jane How (Miss Potter, A Good Woman) is refined Rebecca, in a relationship that’s hinted at rather than shown, with the best-known of the ensemble, Georganne (Sandra Dickinson), playing a stocky, blunt American. You may remember Dickinson as Trillian in the classic The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy television series and, more recently, Teletubbies, Balto and Supergirl.
Though Georganne has retained her American accent and outspoken American character, Sissy and Rebecca speak with middle-class received pronunciation and, puzzlingly, Julie has a Hampshire burr. There’s no back story, so you wonder how these four met and became friends in the first place and how Julie has been coping alone with her Alzheimer’s so far.
The underlying mystery of Julie and her lovely rambling, farce-friendly house that her grasping daughter has set her sights on, is what happened to Julie’s husband Fred, who is said to have disappeared without explanation several years ago. And there’s something nasty in the basement, which is duly concealed, revealed and concealed again. Maybe – jokingly, now – it’s a metaphor for the unmerited social shame of Alzheimer’s – which, by the way, is portrayed through Julie’s condition in a rather sanitised way. There’s some gentle satire with the visit of a social worker (Caroline Otto). But Dead Fred is not just centred on the concerns of the middle-aged: the subplot that’s woven through it concerns the next generation, Julie’s and Rebecca’s children.
The glorious summer and unspoilt leafy countryside of the New Forest illuminates the screen, thanks to director of photography John E Fry and a locally based crew. The desirable house is to die for, maybe literally. All told, Dead Fred is a bright, professional film production, well acted, with clear, straightforward direction by Deanna Dewey (Skullz). And it couldn’t be set anywhere but a location that’s forever England.
Dead Fred premieres at the New Forest Film Festival with a Q&A on 13 June 2019. It was filmed in Fordingbridge, Hampshire.