John Waters’ outrageous and satirical classic Serial Mom comes stabbing to Blu-ray from Scream Factory
Some say the John Waters train of transgression came to a halt in the 1980s. when he “sold out” to studio dough. PG rated films like Hairspray and Cry Baby somewhat alienated his hardcore fan base founded in the 1970s, where he and his merry band of misfits made outrageous 8mm and 16mm shock-comedies, usually centering around the iconic, rotund transvestite Divine. The most famous/notorious of those pictures was of course 1972’s still offensive Pink Flamingos. You know, the one where a man screws a chicken to death, Divine fellates her own son and at the stirring climax, eats a real deal dog turd, grinning and gagging while she chomps.
But anyone can throw geek show shtick at the screen and truly, the real joy of a John Waters joint is his irreverence coupled with his obsession with exploitation film culture, use of music and a certain warmth, a sense of family. Which makes sense. Growing up gay in Baltimore and loving all things counterculture and camp, Waters naturally moved to the fringe and became part of a circle of weirdos and artists who took “revenge” on the artifice of normalcy by making confrontational art. Theirs truly was a family of freaks – gooble gobble, one of us – who protected each other. And again, that sense of banding together on the sidelines of society is all over virtually every single film Waters ever made. If anything, his “mainstream” movies are even MORE outrageous because he was able to manipulate big budgets and thus draw in A-list talent to figure prominently in his berserk worlds.
Case in point, Kathleen Turner in Serial Mom. Turner was the “It” girl of the ’80s, a sexual, sublime performer whose appearances in films like The Man With Two Brains, Body Heat, Romancing the Stone (and its lesser sequel, Jewel of the Nile) and Ken Russell’s incredible Crimes of Passion, proved her to be a bold actress who could conquer the Hollywood blockbuster and then fearlessly venture off the path into the arthouse without incident. She was a natural fit for the world of John Waters and indeed, she’s the motor that drives his incredible 1994 satirical slasher/true crime melodrama Serial Mom, an addictive, laugh out loud romp where Turner just might give the best performance of her career.
Turner plays Beverly Sutphin, matriarch of an over-stylized, typically Waters-ian family who live in a world that is contemporary and yet filtered through a dirty 1950s, Leave it to Beaver gone wrong lens. Waters wastes no time in getting to “know” Beverly, to show the cracks in her cheery, muffin-baking facade when, over breakfast conversing with her kids (Ricki Lake and Matthew Lillard) and husband (Sam Waterston), she becomes fixated on killing a housefly that keeps sullying her carefully presented meal with its filthy legs. It’s like that line from Psycho, where the now totally mad Norman states in his mother’s voice that she “wouldn’t hurt a fly”. Beverly is Norman and Mother and June Cleaver and she’s gone completely off her rocker.
Next we see her sadistic side when, in the film’s funniest running gag, she crank calls a long-suffering neighbor (Waters regular Mink Stole) and unleashes a barrage of profanity, driving the poor woman to the brink. A flashback reveals that this woman once took Beverly’s parking spot at the mall. And well, you don’t cross Beverly. Ever. Or else.
The rest of Serial Mom tips its hat (and flips the bird) to phony investigative “true crime” films (the movie comically claims it was based on a true case: it wasn’t) and takes a stab at America’s addiction to serial killer culture and how we make folk heroes out of maniacs. Beverly violently murders any and all who offend her moral code or disrespects her brood while not bothering to even cover up her trails, leading to an uproarious, protracted court case that beat the real life O.J. Simpson televised court fiasco to the punch.
In Scream Factory‘s lovely looking and sounding Blu-ray release (with a great cover by the CRP group), most of the special features ported over from the previous DVD release, including a great segment where Waters riffs on the world of gore kings H.G. Lewis and David Friedman, whose splatter films figure so prominently into Serial Mom‘s narrative and bloody kills and a delightful commentary with Waters and Turner as well as a stand alone Waters commentary. But the real treat is a brand new sit down with Waters, Stole and Turner where the three legends hilariously flash back on the making of the movie. Seeing Turner is a bit jarring at first for those in my generation as her already husky voice has deepened to the point of Marge Simpson’s sisters and her face is considerably more bloated. But time kicks all our asses and you can still see and hear Turner in there and she’s clearly having a blast walking down memory lane with the ever-buoyant and boyish Waters and jubilant Stole.
In that chat, Waters says that Serial Mom is his best movie. And I think he’s right. It’s a madcap masterpiece.