Film reviews and more since 2009

Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (1991) review

Dir. Stephen Herek

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

The titular babysitter in Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead passes away approximately 12 minutes into the film, and the kids she was supposed to watch have her stuffed in a box and dropped off at the mortuary minutes later. They leave a note on the box that reads “Nice Old Lady Inside. Died of Natural Causes.”

This gives you an idea of the speed at which Stephen Herek’s (Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure) film moves. It’s an economical comedy in the regard that it remains kinetic, yet still uses its time effectively to give us enough character development to its two leads and the wacky circumstances in which they find themselves. Indifferently reviewed and only a modest box office success upon its release, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead saw its greatest success on home video (and numerous broadcasts on HBO), which makes total sense. This is a comfort movie if there ever were one, and even then, it’s one of the better ones in that department.

The film revolves around a sizable Los Angeles family at the dawn of the kids’ summer vacation. Sue Ellen (Christina Applegate) is 17-years-old, is about to graduate high school, but can’t afford to tag along on her friends’ European excursion. Her mother (Concetta Tomei) reveals that she’s leaving them with a babysitter while she takes a trip to Australia with her boyfriend, so there goes Sue Ellen’s plans of an unchaperoned summer amongst her siblings: her stoner brother, Kenny (Keith Coogan); the lovestruck Zach (Christopher Pettiet); the tomboy Melissa (Danielle Harris); and the rambunctious runt Walter (Robert Hy Gorman).

As soon as mom leaves, the elderly and tyrannical Mrs. Sturak (Eda Reiss Merin) shows up. Her rein of terror is short-lived, however, as she dies in her sleep. After the kids drop her body off at the mortuary, they reach an agreement that they won’t notify the authorities nor their mother for fear of their summer being spent answering endless questions. When they realize the funds their mom had given Mrs. Sturak were on her when she died, Sue Ellen, being the oldest of the siblings, is forced to take a job. That’s nothing a forged résumé and a lucky break at the corporate office of a clothing store can’t fix.

Initially, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead operates like a teenager’s fantasy: being left to one’s own devices without parental supervision. Had Sue Ellen been an only child, or just her second-oldest sibling in Kenny to look after, she might’ve been able to coast working a job at the chili dog joint in the mall. Yet, Sue Ellen has five mouths to feed, including her own, and that’s just keeping things simple. There’s no mention of how the electric, gas, water, and garbage bills are getting paid during their mom’s sabbatical.

It’s far too easy to pick apart the unrealistic or incredulous circumstances in Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead. The film operates like a sitcom in how breezy it transitions from one situation to another. Its material is undoubtedly elevated by a lovable Christina Applegate, who throws herself into the role and personality of a 17-year-old girl who feels stuck in life. When she finally gets a break, in the form of a cute boy she meets (Josh Charles), she’s too busy working and trying to keep the house afloat to appreciate it.

Therein lies the realism of Neil Landau and Tara Ison’s screenplay. Sue Ellen quickly becomes overworked to the point where Kenny spending his days doing bong-rips with his layabout friends is no longer an act that elicits an eyeroll and nothing more. One of the best scenes in the film involves Sue Ellen, home from a long day at the office, frantically getting ready for a date, snaps at Kenny for not shouldering any responsibility. Then, later on, it’s Kenny’s turn to play the angry dad/husband when he spends all day cleaning to help Sue Ellen, and she doesn’t give him a courtesy phone-call to inform him that she will be late.

Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead refreshingly has characters persistently trying to do the right thing. In a lesser movie, Sue Ellen and Kenny might’ve thrown a massive party, or found their mother’s mattress-money, alleviating any concern of where their next meal is coming from. Here’s a summery teen comedy about a 17-year-old girl whose first instincts when her adult chaperone drops dead is to look after her siblings by thrusting herself into the work-force. Her actions are rewarded by her brothers and sisters eventually falling into line, and all working towards a common goal during the film’s wildly entertaining third act.

You know how some premises don’t sound like they’d be appealing nor very effective if you try to summarize them in a sentence or two aloud? You have to watch Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead to understand its charms, and judging by how much HBO, the production company behind the film, aired on TV, there’s a good chance you already have and are already well-aware that its heart is in the right place.

NOTE: As of this writing, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead is available to rent on multiple platforms.

My review of Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead (2024)

Starring: Christina Applegate, Keith Coogan, Josh Charles, Joanna Cassidy, Christopher Pettiet, Danielle Harris, Robert Hy Gorman, John Getz, Jayne Brook, Kimmy Robertson, David Duchovny, Concetta Tomei, and Eda Reiss Merin. Directed by: Stephen Herek.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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