I’m going to say this without an ounce of shame: Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead is one of my favorite movies of the ’90s. (Notice I didn’t say it’s among the best of that decade, just that it’s one of my favorites.)
I was never much of a Married … With Children fan, and in 1991 that was the only work of Christina Applegate’s I’d ever seen, so I wasn’t terribly interested in her first big-screen comedy when it hit the theaters. But a few of my friends went to see it and told me I’d love it, so I relented. I’m glad I did.
Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, directed by Stephen Herek (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Mr. Holland’s Opus), came out the summer I turned 13. At the time its story about five kids, most of them teenagers, getting to spend an entire summer alone, unsupervised, sounded more like a fantasy film than a comedy. My brother and I hadn’t been left alone for more than a weekend, so we were extremely jealous of the Crandell kids and their good fortune (though we weren’t heartless enough to be glad that an old lady incidentally died for their freedom).
With their divorced mother (Concetta Tomei) in Australia all summer, the Crandell siblings — recent high school grad and aspiring fashionista Sue Ellen (Applegate), who’s the oldest; burnout stoner metalhead Kenny (Keith Coogan); girl-crazy Zach (Christopher Pettiet); tomboy Melissa (Danielle Harris); and TV-addicted Walter (Robert Hy Gorman) — fantasize about a fun-filled summer without mom around to nag them. Their dreams are quickly dashed, however, upon the arrival of the elderly babysitter who’s been hired without their knowledge, the seemingly sweet Mrs. Sturak (Eda Reiss Merin).
The moment Mrs. Crandell leaves and Mrs. Sturak is in charge, she turns into a nightmare — an old biddy with a whistle and a hatred for undisciplined children. While Kenny manages to avoid her, the other kids have to deal with her ridiculous rules. Sick of the way they’re being treated, they decide to rebel, electing Sue Ellen as their spokesperson. But when she decides it’s time to negotiate, she discovers the babysitter is — you guessed it — dead.
Fearing that if they call 911 they’ll be blamed for Mrs. Sturak’s death — and that their mother will return home and be in their faces all summer — the Crandells decide to put her body in a trunk and anonymously drop it off at a funeral home. Now that they no longer have to deal with Mrs. Sturak, the kids are ready to start their summer — that is, until they realize that all the spending money their mother left them for the next three months was in the trunk.
They decide they’d rather starve than call their mother, her friends, or their relatives for help, so Sue Ellen agrees to get a job if Kenny will stay home and take care of the house and the other siblings. Thinking she can find work at a clothing store, Sue Ellen is disappointed when the only place that’ll hire her is a fast-food restaurant called Clown Dog. She’s miserable, and despite liking her cute coworker Bryan (Josh Charles), she decides to quit and find something more suitable.
After finding an ad for a job at a local clothing manufacturer, Sue Ellen creates a resumé using material straight from one of those “how to write a resumé” books, which makes her seem as though she’s older and has more experience in the fashion industry than she really does. With her phony CV in hand, she goes to apply for the position of receptionist at General Apparel West, only to gain the attention of the senior vice president of operations, Rose Lindsey (Joanna Cassidy). And although the current GAW receptionist, the obnoxious Carolyn (Jayne Brook), is supposed to become Rose’s new assistant, Rose can’t stand her and gives the job instead to Sue Ellen, who she thinks is much more qualified. Of course, this snub immediately makes our protagonist Carolyn’s enemy.
Sue Ellen is at first overwhelmed by her new job, but she quickly starts learning tricks to help her get by, including delegating some of her tasks to a secretary named Cathy (Kimmy Robertson). As she finds her footing, she has to fight off the sexual advances of Rose’s boyfriend, Gus (John Getz), another GAW executive. She must also deal with Carolyn and her smarmy boyfriend, Bruce (David Duchovny), who make repeated attempts to get Sue Ellen fired.
Balancing work and a personal life is difficult for Sue Ellen, especially since her siblings refuse to help out around the house. She tries to start up a romance with her former Clown Dog coworker, Bryan — who also happens to be Carolyn’s younger brother — but her need to hide certain elements of her life from him strains their relationship, and they wind up getting into a huge fight. She’s also frustrated by the fact that she has no money — she hasn’t received her first paycheck from GAW yet — and must figure out a way to feed the family. That’s when she discovers something at work called petty cash.
At first Sue Ellen only takes enough money from GAW to buy groceries, convinced she’ll be able to pay it back once she gets paid by GAW. But soon she takes a little more, which Zach, Melissa, and Walter steal so they can spend it on frivolous things like an entertainment center and a diamond ring for Zach’s girlfriend. When Sue Ellen discovers what they’ve done, she freaks out.
To add to her stress, she finds out from Rose that GAW is close to bankruptcy and needs a miracle to stay afloat. In an attempt to save her job — and keep from being found out as a petty-cash thief — Sue Ellen pitches an idea to Rose and the other senior staff members: hipper clothes marketed to teenagers might be just what the company needs.
Rose is very impressed with Sue Ellen’s ideas and decides to hold a fashion show to spotlight the new General Apparel West. Since she knows there isn’t enough money in petty cash to rent a venue and pay for some of the amenities needed, Sue Ellen convinces Rose to have the event at the Crandells’ house.
By threatening to turn them all in for stealing, Sue Ellen convinces her brothers and sister to help her get the house ready for the event. They use what’s left of the petty cash to buy what they need, and Sue Ellen asks her high school friends, who’ve just returned from a trip to Europe, to appear as models in the fashion show. Kenny, who’s learned how to cook by watching Julia Child, acts as caterer, and Zach, Melissa, and Walter dress up as waiters. Even Kenny’s stoner friends help out by parking cars.
Everything is going great, despite Carolyn’s attempt to convince Rose that Sue Ellen is only 17 and lied about her qualifications. The fashion show is a hit, and everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. But then everything falls apart.
Bryan shows up in the Clown Dog van, yelling over the loudspeaker that he wants to make up with Sue Ellen. Then Mrs. Crandell comes home early from Australia, demanding to know what’s going on. Finally overwhelmed by the lies she’s told, Sue Ellen confesses to the crowd that she’s only 17 and has no idea what she’s doing. She apologizes to Rose for lying and making a scene, but Rose tells her that the buyers don’t care about any of it — they loved the clothes they saw. She offers Sue Ellen a new position at GAW, but Sue Ellen tells her she wants to go to college instead.
Next, Sue Ellen must deal with her mother. After being the head of the household for nearly three months, she’s more mature; she convinces her mom to let her handle the aftermath of the party, and tells her that they’ll talk about everything in the morning. Observing her children’s improved behavior, and noticing how clean and organized the house is, Mrs. Crandell doesn’t argue with Sue Ellen when she suggests her mother go to her room.
Finally, Sue Ellen finds Bryan waiting for her in the Clown Dog van. They make up, but just as they start to kiss, Sue Ellen’s mother interrupts to ask, “Where’s the babysitter?”
As many times as I’ve seen Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, I have to admit I’m ignorant about most of the artists who appear on its soundtrack. I’m familiar with Modern English and Spinal Tap, but that’s about it. Most of the songs are hard rock or pop, with a few being hybrids of the two, and they sound pretty dated when you listen to them now. That being said, I really like the soundtrack as a whole, and I think the songs do a great job of representing the characters, particularly Sue Ellen and Kenny.
I’ve compiled the entire official soundtrack album, which is now out of print, along with a few tracks that appeared in the movie but not on the CD. Enjoy, Metallica breath!
Flame – What She Don’t Know
Alias – Perfect World
Valentine – Keep the Faith
Lorraine Lewis – Chains
Timothy B. Schmit – I Only Have Eyes for You
Boom Crash Opera – The Best Thing
Army of Lovers – Viva la Vogue
Brad Gillis – Stampede
Terrell – Bitter
Modern English – Life’s Rich Tapestry
Valentine – Runnin’ On Luck Again
Spinal Tap – Gimme Some Money
Beat Goes Bang – Draggin’ the Line