“All units: Serial Mom is headed south on Keswick. Proceed with caution. She is armed and fuckin’ nuts!”
John Waters, the pencil mustache auteur of camp and trash, likely isn’t capable of making a “mainstream movie”, and why would he even want to? But he does occasionally come close, and perhaps never quite as close as he did with 1994’s Serial Mom. Though peppered with bursts of graphic violence and glorious vulgarity, there’s a gloss and sheen over Serial Mom; the sense that it’s just a few inches away from a wider audience. Respectable, in other words. “I’ve made trash .5% more respectable,” Waters said in a recent interview with UPROXX. “That’s why I was put on this Earth. Now when you call somebody trash, people pause and think, ‘Is that good or bad?’”
Serial Mom features Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin, a sunny, corny housewife with a homicidal streak. Her dentist husband (Sam Waterston), lovelorn daughter (Ricki Lake) and slacker son (Matthew Lillard) think of Beverly as the very definition of “harmless”, but the smallest provocation can set her off. If someone is overly rude, either to her or her children, she doesn’t hesitate to mow them down with a car, or run them through with a fireplace poker, or beat them to death with a turkey leg.
Turner, who burst onto the film scene with her sexy, sultry role in 1981’s Body Heat, is the reason Serial Mom works as well as it does. “She’s delightfully wicked,” Waters said in a 1994 interview, and there is indeed a wicked, perverse joy in watching Turner go wild. One key distinction to the performance is how seriously she takes it while keeping it funny. In his review, Roger Ebert actually signaled this out as a weakness: “She isn’t funny crazy, she’s sick crazy…She gets a weird light in her eyes that I guess we’re supposed to laugh at, but, gee, it’s kind of pathetic the way she goes into murderous action…this is a movie where the comedy doesn’t work because at some underlying level the material generates emotions we feel uneasy about.” But I think the case can be made for the opposite — in fact, the character wouldn’t work nearly as well if we had a sense that she was in full control of herself and her actions. It would actually make Beverly even more deranged, almost repulsive. “[S]he means well,” Waters observed. “She doesn’t kill out of meanness. She does it out of really caring for her family.”
One gets the sense that Serial Mom simply opened just a little too soon. The film’s third act is devoted to a sensational trial that turns Beverly into a celebrity, and this was all on the cusp of the infamous O.J. Simpson trial. On top of that, the film has a loving, kitschy obsession with True Crime — Beverly has serial killer memorabilia, including a personal audio recording from Ted Bundy (voiced by Waters). When asked if he thought the film would have less of a chance being made today, Waters countered: “I think it would have more chance to get made today. Because now every cable network in the world has true crime. You can’t turn on a TV that isn’t… They’re looking for crimes.”
Shout! Factory has given Serial Mom the deluxe Blu-ray treatment, and rightfully so. Watching the film now, it seems quaint, almost tame even. There’s a chipperness on display here that any other filmmaker would run screaming from. But Waters finds just the right way to make it perfect. There’s a control and even grace here that you might not expect, and Turner, and by extension the rest of the cast — particularly Waterson as her impossibly square but loving husband — are entirely committed to Waters’ twisted vision. “I think it is my best movie, in a weird way,” Waters said recently. He may just be right.
- NEW – A Conversation With Director John Waters, Actress Kathleen Turner And Actress Mink Stole
- Serial Mom: Surreal Moments – Featuring Interviews With Waters, Stole, Actress Patricia Hearst, Actress Ricki Lake, Actor Matthew Lillard, Casting Director Pat Moran, Production Designer Vincent Peranio & More!
- Feature Commentary With John Waters And Kathleen Turner
- Feature Commentary With John Waters
- The Making Of Serial Mom – Original Promotional Featurette
- The Kings Of Gore: Herschel Gordon Lewis And David Friedman Featurette
- Original Theatrical Trailer