John Waters’ films are all about transgression. Like his contemporary David Lynch, the underground cinema icon seeks to expose the rot at the heart of the idyllic world of post-World War II America. But where Lynch deals in dark, atmospheric melodrama, Waters prefers outright pulp-novel camp. His movies’ heroes are deranged, murderous, sex-crazed megalomaniacs. They live on the fringes of society and engage in any number of depravities, while the supposed upholders of decency are framed as villains. It’s Waters’ way of skewering the puritanical, homophobic attitudes of mainstream American culture.
Waters gained a cult following in the 1970s with low-budget “trashterpieces” like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. But in the following decades, he toned down his aggressive, sensationalist style considerably. His works from this period largely read as more commercial, more tame. And yet Waters still finds plenty of room within them to revel in the strange obsessions of his warped mind.
Case in point: 1994’s Serial Mom. Waters’ wacky true-crime saga turned 25 last week and remains just as screwy and darkly hilarious today. Let’s take a closer look at this beloved 90s cult hit.
“Life doesn’t have to be ugly.”
Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) lives in suburban Baltimore with square dentist husband Eugene (Sam Waterston), boy-crazy daughter Misty (Ricki Lake), and horror-obsessed son Chip (Matthew Lillard). She’s a kind-hearted homemaker who loves birdwatching, listening to Barry Manilow, and cooking up a mean meatloaf.
She’s also responsible for a string of grisly murders that rocks the neighborhood over the course of a single weekend. Her friends, neighbors, and family gradually put the pieces together, and it all culminates in a wild trial with plenty of surprising twists.
“Dr. Sutphin, is your wife mental?”
Stylistically, Serial Mom creates a perfect tonal spoof of the kind of suburban locale where young John Waters grew up. Our introduction to the Sutphin family could have come straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. We see them sitting down to breakfast on a sunny Friday morning as Basil Poledouris’ cheerful score swells in the background.
Beverly and Eugene, we soon learn, are traditionalist 1950s-style parents in almost every sense. They won’t let their kids chew gum, eat sweets, curse, or even say the word “hate” in the house. Eugene refers to Misty’s date as her “new beau.” And everyone derides Chip for his fascination with violent slasher flicks. The four actors play their characters hilariously straight and earnest, adding to the naive, innocent feel of their family dynamic.
At one point, a pair of detectives (Walt MacPherson, Scott Morgan), who are investigating the obscene phone calls that Beverly is secretly behind, even liken her to Leave it to Beaver’s June Cleaver. And it seems at first that the comparison isn’t too far off.
“Now I’ll never get a boyfriend!”
It’s Beverly’s wholesome lifestyle that makes the contrast between her home life and her “serial” side gig all the more jarring — and funny. Take, for instance, the scene where the Sutphins drive to church, trailed by a parade of police cars. A radio announcement names Beverly as a suspect in the recent killings.
The family’s various reactions are priceless. Eugene furtively asks if his wife’s murderous rage is a side effect of menopause. Misty’s chief concern? “God, now I’ll never get a boyfriend!” The radio announces even admits his shock at the very idea that a woman would commit such atrocities (“She — yes, she!”) Beverly laughs it all off, insisting that “the only ‘serial’ [she knows] anything about is Rice Krispies.”
Beverly can (and does) frequently use her harmless housewife image to her advantage. Besides, who could possibly suspect a loving wife and mother of killing someone, right? Right?
“I’m your mom, and I love you”
On a certain level, Serial Mom is simply the story of a woman who loves her family — and has a very unorthodox way of showing it.
Every one of Beverly’s victims has hurt or offended a Sutphin family member in some way. Chip’s math teacher, who accuses Beverly of poor parenting. The boneheaded cad who stands Misty up on a date. A local couple who refuse to follow Eugene’s dental advice. An elderly woman who won’t rewind the tapes she rents from the video store where Chip works. All find themselves at the cruel mercy of a caring (if slightly disturbed) mother. It seems harsh, but it’s just the way Waters’ twisted world works. You don’t mess around with family. You just don’t.
“It’s the influence of all those family movies.”
Waters’ film also lampoons America’s rampant morbid fascination with true crime. The strongest example of this element, of course, comes when Beverly goes on trial for murder.
The trial itself is a veritable media circus. Misty sells “Serial Mom” memorabilia outside the courthouse, while Chip argues over the phone with TV producers hungry for the rights to his mom/client’s story. Sitcom star Suzanne Somers (Suzanne Somers) shows up in the courtroom, having been slated to play Beverly in the TV-movie adaptation of her story. We watch as Beverly, serving as her own legal counsel, uses her newfound celebrity — and her knowledge of her neighbors’ weaknesses — to discount the testimony of each witness the prosecution puts on the stand.
Amazingly enough, the movie’s release predates a somewhat similar incident — O.J. Simpson’s murder trial — by several months. The onscreen legal proceedings prove eerily prophetic of the sensationalistic mayhem with which the media framed the Simpson case.
It’s so easy for a supposedly decent public to get caught up in the strange curiosity and novelty of an alleged killer and their crimes. It can reach the point where everyone forgets about the lives lost and surrenders to the spectacle.
Serial Mom might not be as depraved as Waters’ radical early work, but it’s still a hell of a fun time. It works terrifically as both a comedy and shock-value device.
Waters turns his wacky magnifying glass (which he may or may not have been using to burn ants) towards society’s attitudes about crime, morality, and family. As a result, we learn a bit more about ourselves than we’d like — which is just fine, because we’re likely too busy laughing to notice.
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This was a hilarious movie 🎥.
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