Christina Applegate Don’t Tell Mom The Babysitter’s Dead

Crafting a cult classic deliberately can often feel like an insurmountable challenge. The magic of a cult classic lies in its ability to resonate in unexpected ways. While “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” isn’t a cinematic disaster (in fact, it’s surprisingly enjoyable), it initially stumbled upon release.

Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead

Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead

Revisiting it three decades later, the film seems tailor-made for the era of video store rentals. It defies easy categorization, boasting a cast of kids while also indulging in a morbid sense of humor. Even its PG-13 rating lacks a clear definition, hovering ambiguously between “PG” and more mature content. As a result, this movie, featuring an F-bomb and numerous adult-oriented jokes, found itself sitting oddly in the children’s section at your local Blockbuster.

The film’s success in the home video and cable market can be attributed to its ambiguous target audience. It appeared to be aimed at both no one and everyone simultaneously. At the time of release, it lacked recognizable stars and it marked one of Christina Applegate’s early forays into film. The plot is quirky and arguably unsuitable for a children’s movie. Critics were generally unimpressed, setting the stage for a lackluster box office performance.

Despite these obstacles, the marketing team behind “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” made a game-changing decision, investing a cool $1 million in video store advertising. Their cleverly designed poster, hinting at the children’s involvement in the titular babysitter’s demise, breathed new life into the film, capitalizing on its unique premise and macabre imagery.

Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead
Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead

The film’s narrative revolves around the quintessentially ’90s premise of the rowdy Crandell family, comprising five children and their single mother. Mrs. Crandell (Concetta Tomei) decides to take a much-needed vacation, leaving her children in the care of a strict and joyless babysitter, Mrs. Sturak (Eda Reiss Merin).

Mrs. Sturak imposes a long list of chores, bans the youngest from watching TV, and subjects him to reading books about aardvarks. Early in the film, we witness a moment of crude humor as Mrs. Sturak stumbles upon lewd posters, pizza boxes, and bongs in the room of Kenny (played by Keith Coogan), the second-oldest sibling. However, this early emphasis on gross-out humor gradually gives way to a more coherent tone as the story unfolds.

Contrary to the title’s suggestion, the babysitter’s demise occurs relatively early, thrusting 17-year-old Swell (Applegate) into the role of caretaker for her siblings. Swell’s journey involves deceiving her way into a high-paying job as an assistant fashion executive, sparking a romantic relationship, and maintaining her double life.

Kenny becomes a particular source of frustration for Swell, as he continues to indulge in his carefree lifestyle, oblivious to their family’s dire situation. Swell’s transformation into a surrogate mother figure creates tension among her siblings, who perceive her as nagging and overly strict, despite her efforts to keep their family afloat.

Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead

The titular babysitter serves more as a catalyst for the plot than a central element of the film, injecting an unusual layer of dark humor that occasionally clashes with the overall tone. Nonetheless, the title remains memorable, even though some cast members initially disliked it, as revealed by Christina Applegate in an interview with Buzzfeed News.

Originally titled “The Real World,” the film had to undergo a name change due to a project with the same title. Ironically, the long-winded and cumbersome new title likely contributed to increased curiosity and attention, potentially sparing it from obscurity in the cable and video store market.

“Don’t Tell Mom” failed to make a splash upon its theatrical release, despite high hopes from the producers, who anticipated a success on par with films like “Say Anything” or “Adventures in Babysitting” based on positive test screenings. The screenwriters even began planning a franchise, with one potential sequel title being “Don’t Tell Me We Lost Water.”

Instead, the film opened in sixth place in 1991, alongside other notable releases like “City Slickers,” “Jungle Fever,” and “Thelma & Louise,” and was met with critical disdain. Gene Siskel labeled it one of the year’s worst films, and even today, it holds a mere 35% critic score on Rotten Tomatoes, underscoring its mixed reception. Only the film’s low $10 million budget spared it from financial failure, contributing to its authentic, budget-conscious charm that resonates with viewers even decades later.

Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead
Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead

Much of “Don’t Tell Mom’s” resurgence can be credited to HBO, which financed a portion of the film as part of its foray into theatrically released productions. It served as an early precursor to the original films distributed by streaming services, premiering exclusively on HBO. Given their involvement, HBO maximized the film’s exposure, airing it frequently and giving it the attention it lacked during its theatrical run.

The film also found success on VHS, particularly in rental stores. The marketing team’s investment of over a million dollars in promotional gimmicks, as detailed by Applegate, paid off handsomely, contributing to the film’s resurgence in the home video market and partially offsetting its lackluster theatrical performance.

While “Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead” may not attain classic status, it has garnered a devoted cult following among those who grew up renting videos and watching HBO in the ’90s. Its peculiar blend of dark humor and whimsical escapades eventually found its audience, even if not in the manner the filmmakers initially envisioned. While it may not have matched the success of John Hughes’ films, it stands as a unique and quirky gem among the sea of early ’90s movies, possessing a distinctive personality that endears it to viewers over the years.

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