Hear me out: Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead is a lowkey thriller. Okay, okay, it’s probably more like a black comedy in line with Heathers or its spiritual sequel series, Dead to Me ─ so let me explain. Following its summer ‘91 theatrical run, and once it hit TV syndication and VHS rental, my father randomly grabbed a copy at our local mom and pop video store on a whim. He’d already been a big fan of Christina Applegate for her turn as resident bad girl Kelly Bundy on Married… With Children, and as her first starring role in a mainstream feature, there was plenty of hype behind it. When he brought home the tape, with its charmingly macabre cover art, little did I know what kind of terrifying impact it would have on me.
With a script written by Neil Landau and Tara Ison, the film (directed by Stephen Herek) centers around the Crandell family over summer break. Divorced matriarch (Concetta Tomei) leaves on vacation with her boyfriend to Australia for two months because, as she tells her youngest daughter Melissa (Danielle Harris), “I’ve had a very rough 37 years, and I need a break.” So, she entrusts her five children ─ Sue Ellen, or “Swell” (Christina Applegate), Kenny (Keith Coogan), Zach (Christopher Pettiet), Melissa, and Walter (Robert Hy Gorman) ─ in the hands of Mrs. Sturak (Eda Reiss Merin).
“You’re not capable of running the show while I’m gone. You’re not an adult yet,” Tomei’s mom figure admonishes her oldest. Even though Swell, 17, has graduated from high school, she is yet to be seen as an adult. 30 years on, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead not only still freaks me out (more on that in a minute) but captures the grey area between childhood and adulthood in a way that rings as true today as it did then.
Moments after Mrs. Crandell gleefully dashes away to catch her flight, the film does an about-face with a The Twilight Zone musical cue and tunnel vision camera effect ─ as Mrs. Sturak honks on her whistle and screams, “Alright, you little maggots, line up! Time to go over the rules.” Her hoarse snarl could chill your blood. I had babysitters until I was 12 years old, and it was one of my greatest fears of my adolescence, getting a babysitter just like her.
Within the first 24 hours, Mrs. Sturak forces Melissa, your typical tomboy, into a bright pink dress, breaks up a date between Zach and his girlfriend Cynthia, and assigns Walter a school report on the life of the aardvark. When it becomes clear she plans on making the kids’ lives a living hell all summer, they band together and urge Swell to confront her. “Let’s kick some ass!” hisses Melissa, kicking over the chore chart. Swell barges into the babysitter’s room, and when Mrs. Sturak doesn’t respond to her demands, Mrs. Sturak falls to the floor with a resounding thud! Oh, she’s dead alright.
Leading up to this moment, Mrs. Sturak peeks into Kenny’s room (Kenny is still out wreaking havoc with his hair-metal posse) and witnesses what she surmises to be the devil’s work. His walls are plastered with wonderfully metalhead imagery, from a marijuana plant banner to a half-naked woman with a spider and skull on her chest to even pumpkin decor; it was the editing of this moment in particular, as her face twists in fright, that still sends goosebumps galloping down my spine. Her (satanic) panic literally killed her.
I had seen plenty of dead bodies in horror films before ─ including Karen being scalded to death in Halloween II and the low-level executive smothered with a plastic bag in Child’s Play 2 ─ but seeing it in such a plain, otherwise mundane, setting haunted me. It was right around the time I went to my first funeral, that of my maternal grandfather’s, and that probably cemented this cinematic moment in my brain. Seeing a dead body up close, and in the movies, is something a young kid should never have to witness. My grandfather’s lifeless body was not unlike Mrs. Sturak’s limp, cold, and crusted form. I will never forget it.
25 years later, I would be kneeling by my father’s bedside in hospice care, and it would all come flooding back to me. The gentle warmth of early October. The sun falling through the blinds like a golden waterfall. The room’s disgustingly pink design somehow being of great comfort. And the way I witnessed his life force literally drain out of sunken cheeks. Don’t Tell Mom flashed back in bright bursts, like taking a polaroid in a darkened room. Perhaps it was a subconscious, subtle thing then, but looking back now, nearly five years ago, it feels like a full circle moment that I didn’t fully comprehend, even in my young adulthood. Death’s sour knell starts faintly at first, but once you experience death over and over and over again, it crescendos into a piercing cathedral bell.
Mrs Sturak’s untimely demise is likely the first time the Crandell Children have ever brushed against the Grim Reaper. We’ll never really know, but it very may have scarred them for life. A little freaked out, and rightfully so, they first contemplate reporting the death to the cops ─ but Kenny reminds them that their mom would likely return home and blame them for her death. Instead, they fold Mrs. Sturak’s body into a trunk (“Let’s hack off her head!” smirks Melissa) and drop it off at the local mortuary with a sign, reading, “NICE OLD LADY INSIDE. DIED OF NATURAL CAUSES.” The next morning, Swell and Kenny zip off to the grocery store in Mrs. Sturak’s swanky black Buick (think Cruella de Vil) with a manila folder their mother left stuffed with spending money. But they quickly learn the cash is missing and go back home, ransacking the babysitter’s room.
Now in a clinch, Kenny and Swell flip a Mama Celeste pizza box to see which of them will get a summer job to make ends meet. Heads for Swell; Tails for Kenny. The pizza lands on heads, and it’s up to Swell to lead the family. She first tries her luck at Clown Dog, working the fryer and the cash register, and that’s where she meets her dashing love interest, Bryan (Josh Charles). She doesn’t last long ─ and instead, poses as a fashion graduate with an impressive resume she copied out of a resume book. Unintentionally, she lands a gig as an executive administrative assistant to Rose Lindsey (Joanna Cassidy), the head of a mid-tier fashion company.
As a young woman entering the workforce, Swell must contend with much more than catcalls from her brother Kenny’s stoner friends. She’s thrust into the eye of misogyny and sexism at its absolute worst. Her boss Rose’s on-again, off-again boyfriend Gus is gutter trash supreme. Even the way he says hello, a smug grin plastered across his face, as he toodles his fingers in some perverted mating ritual, clues you in to the kind of guy he is. Swell hasn’t even been Rose’s assistant a week when Gus invites her out to lunch ー one of the most uncomfortable scenes in the entire film.
“A woman gets older. She matures. She ripens. Juices start flowing,” he says with a slimy tongue. Swell fidgets in her chair, mustering up a half-smile to shrug off his unwanted advances. Knowing she is actually underage makes it all the more unsettling. But Gus doesn’t stop there. “By the end of lunch, we’ll probably be sharing our intimate stories about our first time. The next thing you know we’ll be sharing a cigarette in post-coital bliss.”
Swell plays the part. While navigating a sexist corporate structure, she’s also met with disdain from co-worker Carolyn, the receptionist, who’d once been considered for the same job. “I can’t stand that conniving little snot!” she chews through her nose. Carolyn makes it her life’s mission to take down Swell, even though she’s literally done nothing except try to prove herself to Rose and a system built against both of them. “Where’s the other broad?” Bruce, head inventory clerk, spits upon meeting Swell, his greasy hair slicked back and glistening underneath harsh fluorescent lighting. Such microaggressions are woven into the backbone of the film, underscoring the horrors women must combat even still today.
While Swell seems to be excelling in the workplace, she’s trying to keep her love life afloat. On one of her ever-so romantic dates with Bryan, walking the beach and splashing in the gurgling tide, a conversation emerges that seems to capture every teenager’s existential dread. “It’s funny. I always thought that my parents had this big college fund for me somewhere,” laments Bryan, who dreams of going to college and breaking free of small-town life. “I don’t know if I want oceanography to be my life. I love it, but once you decide on something, it’s all planned out.”
Swell expresses similar concerns, “I’m not sure what I want my life to be yet.” She’s only 17, but society’s pressures to have your entire life mapped out by the time you’re 18 weighs heavily on her shoulders. She’s already gotten a glimpse of what it means to be a woman in the real world, and she doesn’t like the view. And why should she. Adulthood is the pits.
A few days later, on her way into the office, Swell gets stuck in gridlock and glances over to see her childhood flash before her eyes: a convertible packed with fun-loving teens seemingly headed to the beach. It’s such a horror ─ adulthood splaying out in front of her as countless hours of overtime, little social life, no acknowledgement of hard work, and the slow march to death ─ that jolts her awake. When one of the firm’s biggest clients, the local school district, opts not to move ahead with a line of school uniforms (after the students hold a protest), it seems Rose’s and Swell’s worlds are about to come crashing down.
But Swell quickly rises to the task. Intuitive and creative, she puts together a rough mock-up of what the uniforms could look like ─ expressive, exuberant, colorful, and stylish. Coming out of the 1980s, a decade that saw the birth of MTV and flashy pop stars like Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, there was a great cultural shift rippling outward into every facet of life. The new generation was looking to shake things up in a big way. With Swell’s striking new line, the company could be saved after all.
A fashion show is then set to take place at Swell’s home. All of fashion’s finest will be there, and through everything, Swell never misses her beat ─ juggling both the responsibility of last-minute preparations and more of Gus’ gross come-ons, finally revealing to Rose what a scumbag he truly is. She has fully blossomed into a capable and confident young woman, someone even her siblings respect and admire. She commands the podium, listing off all the potential fashion ensembles with a gleam in her eyes. And nothing could possibly go wrong, right?
Well, it all goes off the rails pretty quickly. Mrs. Crandell returns home a whole week early and crashes the party. “Swell, you’ve got some explaining to do young lady!” she says, jutting out her hip. In that moment, the crowd totally on pins and needles, Swell reveals she is just 17 and definitely not ready to be the firm’s communication hub. It’s a crushing moment to highlight that perhaps growing up too fast does no one any good at all. The lovesick Bryan, who also showed up in his Clown Dog truck, professing his love, admits his frustrations over Swell’s handling of their relationship ─ effectively revealing he did (and does) consider her a girlfriend. The two make-up in classic rom-com fashion. But their very tender moment is shattered by Mrs. Crandell with one simple inquiry. “Swell, one more thing,” she says, leaning over the porch banister. “Yes, mom.” “Where’s the babysitter?!”
Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead is your atypical black comedy. Mrs. Sturak’s death hangs like a dark cloud over the entire story, and even though the middle chunk plays as a sweetly sentimental coming-of-age drama in many ways, it’s the horrors of the real world that take up the slack. The film then bookends with a wink and a smile, seemingly to say, “Remember! The babysitter’s dead!” with a mid-credits scene between the mortuary attendants mourning over her grave. The headstone reads: “Nice Old Lady Inside, Died of Natural Causes.” Fade to black.
The film may not read as a horror film for most people 一 but now in my 30s, and having experienced many horrors in my life, from death and the corporate world, it’s pretty frightening how real it is. Death has long grasped its gnarled fingers around my life, and this film came at a formative time, forever scarring my five-year-old self. There’s a particular sadness stitched into the storyline, and I find myself greatly identifying with Swell, her journey to find herself, and her clutching onto the last remnants of her childhood.
It’s scary to be an adult, and 30 years later, Babysitter’s Dead captures the truth quite perfectly.