(1994) Written and directed by John Waters; Starring: Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake, Matthew Lillard, Mink Stole and Mary Jo Catlett; Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“‘All My Trials’ was the chapter in Shock Value about going to murder trials all over the country, and sort of the sequel to that was in Crackpot, which is called ‘Going to Jail,’ when I took that even further and got a job teaching film in an actual prison… and Serial Mom was part three from that.” – John Waters (from 1999 DVD commentary)
Come on, admit it. Other people piss you off. Sure, not everyone, and certainly not all the time, but if you had the power to stop certain behaviors, you’d probably stop them, right? …Or perhaps not. Thanks to many years of internalizing societal norms, morals and inhibitions, you’d probably just grin and bear it. But what if that flimsy wall of civility suddenly collapsed? John Waters’ Serial Mom answers that question with his antihero protagonist, played with maniacal exuberance by Kathleen Turner. While the production values are up a few notches from his earliest efforts, it continued to incorporate the subversive elements his fans have come to know and love. Waters viewed Serial Mom as “Female Trouble, part two,” incorporating his lifelong fascination with true crime (which included attending murder trials across the country). Serial Mom was filmed in the same suburban Baltimore neighborhood where Waters and his muse Divine grew up. Keeping a direct link to his earlier films, he included his usual bunch of regulars and semi-regulars, including Mink Stole, Ricki Lake and Traci rds.
On the outside, Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is a stereotypical, innocuous suburban mom who dresses like June Cleaver, disapproves of swearing, and talks to the birds outside her window. She’s a couple of decades behind the times, a cheerful and genteel caricature of the ideal ‘50s housewife, a doting mother to her grown children (Ricki Lake and Matthew Lillard, in his debut film) and a loving wife to her straitlaced dentist husband Eugene (Sam Waterston). But there’s something seething just beneath the surface, as indicated by her pastimes of collecting serial killer memorabilia,*/** and making obscene crank calls to her unsuspecting neighbor Dottie (Mink Stole). Her pet peeves, such as chewing gum, not fastening a seatbelt, or refusing to recycle, become punishable offenses,*** worthy of dire consequences. When her daughter Misty (Ricki Lake) is stood up by her narcissistic boyfriend, he becomes yet another person to end up on her ever-growing murder list. The role was based on the director’s own mother (minus the homicidal urges). According to Waters, when she screened it, she commented that she identified with Turner’s character (“All the things they said I hate, I hate.”). Turner has a great time with her character, turning her charm on and off like a switch, vacillating from sweet-tempered to merciless. When Beverly eventually goes to trial, she basks in the ensuing media circus, and instead of being a pariah, becomes a counter-culture celebrity (a common Waters theme). In the eyes of her family, she quickly transforms from an embarrassment to a hero.
* Fun Fact #1: When Eugene Suthpin (Sam Waterston) browses his wife’s serial killer scrapbook, a Christmas card created by John Wayne Gacy can be briefly seen amongst the various photos and newspaper clippings. According to Waters, the cast never knew about the origin of the card.
** Fun Fact #2: Waters himself has a brief cameo, as the voice of Ted Bundy on a tape in Beverly’s collection.
*** Fun Fact #3: Also watch for Patricia Hearst, appearing as a jury member, who commits a “fashion mortal sin” (in Waters’ words) by wearing white shoes after Labor Day.
There’s something deliciously cathartic about watching many of the offenders on Beverly’s list get their due. In a scene that ardent genre fans can relate to, she meets her son’s math teacher,* who states he’s a good student, hard-working and active in class discussions, but in the same breath thinks there’s something wrong with Chip (and by extension Beverly’s parenting) due to his fascination with horror movies. Waters makes it clear whose side he’s on, illustrating how school administrators and reactionary parents often focus on the wrong things, while displaying affection for his exploitation movie influences,**. It’s not enough to be a good student or have a group of friends who get you. In order to truly belong to society, you must conform within a narrow range of expected parameters.
* Fun Fact #4: The scene where Beverly runs over her son’s math teacher was filmed at Towson High School in Baltimore County. It represented a sort of revenge for the mistreatment his friend Divine (aka: Harris Glen Milstead) experienced while attending the school as a teenager.
** Fun Fact #5: Horror and exploitation fans will enjoy clips from some of Waters’ celluloid heroes, including Strait-Jacket (William Castle), Blood Feast (Herschell Gordon Lewis), and Deadly Weapons (Doris Wishman).
Waters has fun demolishing the façade of domestic complacency and tranquility, as Beverly awakens something that was always dormant. It’s a comforting thing that most of us would never go to the murderous extent she takes things, but it doesn’t mean the message is lost. It’s an invitation to be more genuine and authentic with ourselves and others. If there’s anything that deserves to die, it’s rote obligation to play nice with the people we despise, along with the unhealthy repression of the things that bring us joy. Waters reminds us it’s okay to like something that’s frowned upon by “polite” society, as long as it’s not harming anyone.
Serial Mom revels in uncovering the hypocrisies of suburban life. We’re quick to condemn people for what they watch and read, while being dishonest with our own preferences. When one of Beverly’s neighbors visits a video store, she expresses her disgust at the staff, watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, instead preferring her “family” movies. As we soon learn, her pious exterior hides an individual who’s less than squeaky clean. Beverly’s husband Eugene (played with deadpan sincerity by Sam Waterston) takes an almost casual pro-death penalty stance for criminals, until his wife becomes the prime suspect for a string of murders in their community. Capital punishment only stops being abstract idea when it affects him personally
Compared to the guerilla filmmaking of his earliest features, its (modest by Hollywood standards) $13 million budget must have seemed exorbitant to Waters. Sure, it’s a far cry from Pink Flamingos, (the late Divine, David Lochary and Edith Massey are conspicuously absent) but that doesn’t mean Waters lost his fondness for bad taste (including jokes about serial killers, fetishes, and female anatomy) or rooting for the underdogs. Serial Mom is a more refined (if that’s the appropriate word) look at the same themes he’s always employed, albeit in a more digestible format for a broader audience. After all, what could be more subversive than Waters convincing a major studio that his sensibilities could be thrust upon the greater public?