In my view John Waters’ best film, a funny and subversive comedy about serial killer worship starring a never-better Kathleen Turner. It’s pure John Waters through and through, but still watchable and entertaining (not always the case with his films).
1994’s SERIAL MOM, budgeted at a reported $14 million, was and probably still is John Waters’ most expensive effort, and yet he still injected quite a bit of his personality and obsessions (I’ve heard Savoy Pictures execs tried to have the ending changed because they felt it was “too John Waters”). It’s set, as are all Waters’ films, in his hometown of Baltimore, and readers of Waters’ books SHOCK VALUE and CRACKPOT will recognize many of his favorite pastimes played out here, including his penchant for sitting in on high-profile murder trials. But unlike early no-budget Waters works such as MONDO TRASHO and PINK FLAMINGOS, SERIAL MOM actually looks and feels like a real movie, and nor does it go the crassly commercial route like his later films CRY-BABY and PECKER.
SERIAL MOM can also be viewed as one of the key films in a subgenre unique to the year 1994, which also saw the releases of LOVE AND A .45 and NATURAL BORN KILLERS, both of which pitilessly examined the murder chick popular back then. For those who don’t remember, that time gave us the Amy Fisher, Lorena Bobbitt and Tonya Harding scandals, all avidly followed by an extremely accommodating media, not to mention the beginnings of the O.J. Simpson case and the inception of serial killer trading cards. Sounds like perfect material for a John Waters movie, and indeed it is.
The pretty Beverly Sutphin is the perfect Baltimore homemaker in every way: she lives in a large suburban home, has a dentist husband and two reasonably well-adjusted teenage kids—and a morbid preference for making obscene phone calls and following the doings of serial killers! Despite her seemingly happy demeanor, Beverly is a coiled spring just waiting to snap, and does so when during a PTA meeting a snooty instructor says disrespectful things about her son’s love of horror movies. She runs the guy over in the school parking lot, and then backs over him to be sure he’s dead.
From there Beverly stabs an un-neighborly neighbor woman to death with scissors, offs the woman’s husband by dropping an air conditioner on his head, and impales a young punk who’s cold-shouldered her daughter. By this time the police have become suspicious of Beverly, and commence going through her garbage and casing her house. She still manages to get in two more killings: first she fatally beats a woman with a leg of lamb because she doesn’t rewind her rental videos and then burns to death one of her son’s buddies because he never wears a seatbelt when driving.
It’s at this point that Beverly is caught and dragged into court, which immediately becomes a media sensation. News people swarm the place and Beverly’s kids enthusiastically hawk specially made “Serial Mom” merchandise. Susanne Sommers, in preparation to play Beverly Sutphen in an upcoming biopic, even shows up to watch the proceedings. Beverly acts as her own council and manages to sway the jury in her favor, but is nonplussed by the fact that one of the jurors is wearing white shoes after Labor Day—can another killing be imminent?
John Waters got his start making skuzzy, no budget underground pictures that flaunted their tackiness, and never seems to have really “gotten” the jibe of professional moviemaking, despite having been working in that sphere for the last couple decades. At their best his films have a distinctive personality and skewed worldview that set them apart. That’s definitely the case here, where the filmmaking is actually reasonably polished; it has an easy flow, with action-murder sequences put together in slick and concise fashion (as opposed to Waters’ more recent films CECIL B. DEMENTED and A DIRTY SHAME, both of which succumb to incoherence).
The humor is funny and disarmingly perceptive for the most part, even if it is overly broad at times (apparently not Waters’ intent, but that’s how it plays). At times the film does evince a hint of the moral queasiness that characterized NATURAL BORN KILLERS in Waters’ glorified treatment of his serial killer protagonist, but the proceedings are ultimately too outlandish to ever seem very troubling.
At the center of it all is Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin, the Serial Mom, appearing alongside Waters regulars like Mink Stole, Ricki Lake, Patricia Hearst and Traci Lords, and evidently fully at ease in Waters’ twisted universe; Turner clearly understood the role and the film’s overall tone, and furthermore looks great throughout, every inch the movie star she used to be (this film was, incidentally, one of Turner’s last worthy screen roles, with the remainder of her movie career devoted to supporting parts in forgettable fare like THE REAL BLONDE, A SIMPLE WISH and BABY GENIUSES). Sam Waterston, the refined star of respectable films like THE GREAT GATSBY and THE KILLING FIELDS, also comports himself well as Beverly’s understandably befuddled hubbie.
Director: John Waters
Producers: John Fiedler, Mark Tarlov
Screenplay: John Waters
Cinematography: Robert Stevens
Editing: Janice Hampton, Erica Huggins
Cast: Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake, Suzanne Somers, Matthew Lillard, Patricia Hearst, Mink Stole, Scott Wesley Morgan, Walt MacPherson, Justin Whalin, Mary Jo Catlett, Traci Lords, Patricia Dunnock, Lonnie Horsey, John Badila