Credit: Universal
by Steven Warner Featured Film Kicking the Canon

Serial Mom | John Waters

April 19, 2021

1994’s Serial Mom marked something of a turning point for writer-director John Waters. A filmmaker who built his name and reputation on such outre, low-budget fare as Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, Waters found unexpected mainstream admittance with his 1988 musical/dance comedy Hairspray, a PG-rated tale of racial segregation in 1950s Baltimore. Shocked by the film’s success — and the MPAA’s family-friendly rating — Waters immediately took advantage of his good fortune and went Hollywood in 1990 with Cry-Baby, another musical, this one courtesy of Universal Studios and inspired by the disposable, rock-heavy films of Elvis Presley’s heyday. A box office bomb, Waters has stated that it was his courting of a PG-13 rating that led to the film’s ultimate downfall. Cry-Baby also marked the first film that didn’t the feature director’s career-long muse, drag icon Harris Glenn Milstead, aka Divine, who passed away from a heart attack in 1988. That’s not to say Waters exactly went A-list with his Cry-Baby cast — certainly not for 1990, anyway. Star Johnny Depp was known for his role in Fox television’s 21 Jump Street, but was still eight months away from the release of Edwards Scissorhands and his subsequent ascension to bankable leading man. In other words, when Iggy Pop is the most recognizable name in your cast and you opt to satirize a genre almost completely unknown to modern-day teenagers, it shouldn’t surprise when your film flops.

It was with Serial Mom, however, that Waters finally turned the page and embraced the star system, a trend that would continue for the remainder of his filmmaking career, for better and worse. Waters has stated in countless interviews that he wanted a big name for the titular role of a seemingly perfect suburban Baltimore housewife and mother who also happened to be a crazed mass murderer. Actresses such as Glenn Close and Meryl Streep were bandied about, but it was ultimately Kathleen Turner who won the role, a performer who had previously shown a flair for both steely and breezy character work in such varied films as Romancing the Stone and The War of the Roses. Nabbing Turner for the role was a major coup for both Waters and the actress herself, who was in the midst of a career downslide after the box office disasters V.I. Warshawki and Undercover Blues. And while it’s not hard to imagine the arch pleasures that Divine might have brought to the role of murderous mother extraordinaire Beverly Sutphin, Turner thrives in the film, putting her own special spin on the character and committing to every ludicrous act and line-reading with a commitment that would seem borderline ridiculous in the hands of a lesser actress. Waters had found his new muse — and in the process, brought Serial Mom into the limelight with him. Mini-major Savoy Pictures footed the $13 million budget, Waters’ largest to date, and secured a semi-wide release into 500 theaters on April 15, 1994, where the film was met with a resounding thud, ultimately taking in only $7 million dollars.

Audiences may not have been ready for Waters’ satirical take on the serial killer genre, one whose roots were firmly planted in the rot that existed under the carefully-manicured homes of suburban America. The director had certainly mined such territory before, in everything from Desperate Living to Polyester, with David Lynch later making the quintessential middle-American horror film in 1986’s Blue Velvet. Still, Serial Mom was broad in ways heretofore unseen by Waters — quite an achievement. His films specialized in protagonists whose eccentricities exposed the hypocrisy at the heart of conservative America; so it only made sense, for instance, that Divine ate literal dog shit at the end of 1972’s Pink Flamingos, given that he was metaphorically fed it for the preceding 90 minutes by moral watchdogs whose vile judgments only highlighted their own rotten core. It’s a notable early-career moment that speaks to why Serial Mom feels both oddly neutered and remarkably brash: mainstream audiences surely had a hard time finding common ground with characters affectionately referred to by Waters as “white trash” and who engaged in such vile acts as chicken-fucking and shit-eating, but Serial Mom ups that ante, making its lead character a homicidal maniac. And yet, relatively speaking, the “serial killer” is fairly sanitized in Hollywood terms, and in tandem with casting a big star, the whole thing was ironically easier to swallow. You start by explaining Beverly as simply an overzealous mother, and you’re fairly set. Add in the comic wrinkle that she is also dispatching individuals who epitomize the everyday annoyances of life, and she becomes a folk hero. Who hasn’t wanted to murder that person who stole a parking spot at Joann Fabrics? Or what about a judgmental high school teacher who blames the mother for the son’s perceived inadequacies (“Well, you must be doing something wrong.”) Or how about a woman who refuses to recycle? Beverly Sutphin is, above all else, a loving mother who will do anything to protect the sanctity of her family. In fairness, she’s also obsessed with serial killers and receives beefcake shots from Richard Speck, but, eh, no one’s perfect.

And so, Waters finally found the formula that allowed him to stay close to his roots while courting mainstream audiences, and though it took Serial Mom several years before it found its following, that shouldn’t exactly surprise those familiar with the director. There are essentially two camps when it comes to Serial Mom: those who view it as Waters’ best, the perfect synthesis of ideas and themes he had been trading in for his entire career, and those who view it as the moment he finally sold out. But that latter reading does a disservice to the obvious care and intent that went into the film. One does not accidentally cast Sam Waterston as Beverly’s loving yet flummoxed husband, and even the inclusion of Waters mainstay Ricki Lake is a bit of a shock, as she was the second biggest talk show host in the country at the time of Serial Mom‘s release. There are still plenty of moments that recall the agitator Waters of yesteryear — a middle-aged man obsessed with writing sexual graffiti in public bathroom stalls (“Eat Me”), a murder scene where the graphic removal of a liver leads to comedic pratfalls, an all-girl band named Camel Lips with giant, bulging female genitalia — but if it all seems a little quaint in retrospect, with later properties like Jackass cycling through endless grotesquerie, like shit shooting out of assholes, it must be remembered that men like Waters crawled so the Johnny Knoxvilles of the world could run.

It’s in the film’s final stretch, however, that Waters proves especially prescient. Arriving two months before O.J. Simpson would race through Los Angeles freeways, and nine months before the resultant Trial of the Century, Waters offered his own fractured take on the media circus that accompanies any high-profile murder trial. Who could have guessed that the absurdity presented in Serial Mom would seem tame by comparison? Waters highlights the utter inanity with pinpoint precision, using wipes, fade-outs, overexaggerated whispers and gasps, a sitcom-ready soundtrack, and the arrival of a low-level star (Suzanne Sommers) who would distract both the judge and jury members from seeing the truth that was right in front of them? The thing is, Beverly never stops being (semi-)likable, even as she mouths the words “Fuck you!” to an irate witness or engages in a bit of Basic Instinct-style leg crossing with an enamored male admirer. Her kids even become media sensations themselves, eager to sell the rights to their mother’s abhorrent life story. Meanwhile, Waters pushes still further to work a critique of capital punishment into the proceedings, as husband Waterston quickly changes course when the potential victim is his own wife. That this co-exists with a scene where a muscle-bound man with a shish-kebab walks upon a murder scene and lets out a comically loud Wilhelm scream only proves that Waters is in complete control, executing a balancing act that only looks effortless in his skilled hands. But none of this sings in the same way without Turner by his side, seemingly invigorated at the chance to sink her teeth into such a plum role. The glee with which Turner attacks the material, from her stifled giggles during an obscene phone call to the comedic timing with which she plugs her ears and hunches her shoulders after brutally murdering a man at a rock concert, is something to luxuriate in, and one will never again be able to encounter the phrase “pussy willows” without imagining it in uttered in Turner’s husky cadence. Serial Mom ultimately proved Waters’ lightning in a bottle, as subsequent star-studded projects ran the gamut from hollow (Pecker) to downright atrocious (A Dirty Shame).  For a lot of film lovers of a certain age, Serial Mom was their introduction to the world of Waters, and there remains a special place in their hearts for the ultimate counterculture filmmaker who had a profound affection for outsiders. Waters encouraged us to all fly our freak flags, and for a brief moment, middle-America’s multiplexes were all the better for it.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.