Not Quite Horror is back from the dead. After resting for a bit in its kind-of creepy but still-normal-enough-to-pass-as-regular crypt, our biweekly series returns. In each installment, Joey Keogh will argue why a chosen film not generally classified as horror actually exhibits many of the qualities of a great flight flick, and therefore deserves the attention of fans as an example of Not Quite Horror. This week, it’s the 20th anniversary of the brilliant Drop Dead Gorgeous.
Drop Dead Gorgeous turns 20 this week, which is completely insane because it means I was 11 when it came out. Naturally, watching such a dark movie so young, lots of it went over my head. It’s only now, as an adult, that I can truly appreciate how razor-sharp its wit is, how brutal its take-downs of small-town life and, perhaps most importantly, just how dark its black little heart actually is.
The cast is unbelievable, from icons like Allison Janney and Ellen Barkin playing trailer-trash besties and Kirstie Alley as a ruthless pageant mom with Mindy Sterling as her doting second in command, to then up-and-comers Kirsten Dunst, Brittany Murphy (RIP), Denise Richards, and, in her debut feature, one Amy Adams. Everybody is game for a laugh, committing totally to the good ol’ Minesoooootaaaah accents to hilarious effect.
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Styling Drop Dead Gorgeous as a mockumentary is a stroke of genius, because it allows the characters breathing room for some hilariously candid moments, each of which is played as off the cuff (“What’s sick is women dressing like men” / “Oh you betcha, Iris”). It never feels mean-spirited or judgemental, with the exception of Will Sasso’s handicapped character, Hank, the treatment of whom really hasn’t aged well.
As Adam West intones, only one lucky lady will make it all the way to…Lincoln, Alabama, and although it’s clear it should be Dunst’s saintly (but always likeable) Amber Atkins, with her Diane Sawyer hero worship and PG tap dancing routine, the fun comes from watching her competitors get picked off one by one while Amber stays annoyingly out of the fray. In keeping with its biting satirical edge, Drop Dead Gorgeous nails the horror elements, too.
The contestants start being killed off pretty much immediately, with star athlete Tammy (Brooke Elise Bushman) taken out of the running because, as one of the grungy bathroom dwellers (essentially the Greek chorus) intones, this time “someone didn’t want her to win.” The shock of that first murder quickly dissipates because the movie moves along at such a quick clip. The most important thing, after all, is getting to the finish line.
The football captain showing up with a bullet wound in his head, which poor Amber has to tend to at her after school job gussying up corpses, is immediately followed up with a shot of Richards’ Becky proudly showing off her favourite firearm — a hilariously brilliant bit of editing. Still, in spite of the loose, jovial tone, the threat is real; Amber even receives a photo of Tammy with “You’re Next” scrawled across it in her locker.
Likewise, her trailer is blown up with Amber’s mom still inside, leading a beer can to be fused to her hand (a terrifically gross bit of makeup work, seen in all its glory thanks to a totally game Barkin). Later, the infamous barfing sequence will see more disgusting practical FX utilized, again, out of nowhere. It’s rare to see a teen movie with a lineup of gorgeous young actresses allowed to be this gross, and Drop Dead Gorgeous does it beautifully.
The shock of Becky’s fiery death, which leads her mother, played by Alley, to finally let loose on the loser citizens of Mount Rose (she defo voted Trump), is the movie’s darkest moment not least because it’s the last thing we expect to happen. In this disappointingly realistic universe, when even the pageant’s eventual winners don’t get their promised rewards, it seems highly implausible Amber is going to emerge unscathed or make her dreams come true, as she does in the movie’s triumphant, yet still tongue in cheek ending.
As she explains to the documentary crew, guys get out of Mount Rose all the time, for “hockey scholarships or jail,” but women tend to burn out there (literally in poor Becky’s case). Even Amber’s own father didn’t stick around because he was more dedicated to his career than family (“Once a carnie, always a carnie” is one of the most hilarious lines in a consistently hilarious movie). But her mother has hope for her daughter more than herself.
Related: Not Quite Horror: Destroyer (2018)
Drop Dead Gorgeous is still, all things considered, a story of female friendship above all else. Amber gets her shot at the crown in spite of the odds being stacked against her because the other contestants are so fond of her, and help her out. The themes of each year’s event may be all about America, but the pageant at which the story takes place could more reasonably be themed “Proud to be a friend.”
Drop Dead Gorgeous has aged of course. There’s a hell of a lot of smoking (suck it, Stranger Things) and the aforementioned jokes at the expense of a mentally handicapped man are uncomfortable at best. But this is an incredibly sharp, funny movie that’s impressively committed to its darker elements without losing any of its heart. The horror comes from the lengths one spurned beauty queen will go to in order to get her offspring a shot at the crown. In keeping with the film’s tone, she loses everything in the process.