Serial Mom (1994)

*. John Waters is one of the very rare low-budget, exploitation auteurs to make a successful jump to the (more-or-less) mainstream. He was able to do this because he has some talent. A lot of marginal directors fall on their face when given greater resources because guerilla filmmaking, a specific talent, is really all they can do. Waters, however, has a broader competence.
*. Serial Mom is one of his better known mainstream films, and despite its reputation (oversold, I think, as a cult film) it strikes me as only gently subversive. Once more conventional morality is shown to be hypocrisy, with the placid exterior of American suburban life concealing a host of evils. This was not a new theme for Waters, or really for anyone in 1994. Serial Mom is basically a genteel version of Female Trouble (1974), befitting a more genteel time.
*. Despite not having much in the way of shock value, however, I think Serial Mom is well made. It also has a rock solid central performance by Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin, the titular mom. But in the end it’s not much of a movie.
*. The big problem, which I’ve already flagged, is that it’s just not tough enough to be satire. The send-up of celebrity culture is always timely, and this movie came out just as the O.J. Simpson insanity broke, but it’s nothing new. And the trashing of the Leave It to Beaver caricature of the American family (with the Cleavers being specifically invoked at one point) is even older. We didn’t need John Waters to give us this.
*. But was satire even the intention? I’m not so sure. In his review Roger Ebert thought the film undone by Waters’s “essential niceness” and the tenderness he expresses for Beverly Sutphin. I think this is missing something. Though I don’t know Waters, I have read some of his books as well as seen many of his movies and I have to say I doubt he is a nice man. I think that’s an act. And I don’t think he expresses tenderness so much for Beverly as he identifies with her.
*. The thing is, Water is himself a collector of murder memorabilia and has a fan’s obsession for serial killers, so he can’t really be sending these things up. I think that this part of the movie isn’t meant as satire. Instead, I think he’s just saying that this is the natural state of the American id. Everything else is a lie. The kitsch you order from the Franklin Mint, singing along with the musical Annie . . . all of that trash. But no man is a liar in his vices, so the porn videos, the Chicks With Dicks magazine, and the serial killer scrapbook are real, or at least realer.
*. Beverly embodies this split in her multiple personality disorder. Half of her is perfect: ornithology, cooking, and generally keeping up appearances. But the other half, the real half, is the serial killer. And, crucially, it is this darker aspect that we are meant to approve of.
*. Like I say, however, none of this is new. Nor is it controversial or shocking or funny. And in the second half of the film you really have the sense that things are getting out of hand. The whole concert sequence should have been cut.
*. Worst of all, a fine performance by Kathleen Turner is wasted. Beverly is obviously the only character Waters is even slightly interested in, but he doesn’t get much out of her. She could have been so much more interesting. While going mainstream, Waters seems to have trouble going big screen. Serial Mom only feels like a rental. On VHS.

2 thoughts on “Serial Mom (1994)

  1. Tom Moody

    I agree about the 90s being a more genteel time than the 70s in terms of movie revenge angst. Beverly goes into a homicidal rage because her neighbor doesn’t recycle. (Around the same time, in Thomas Disch’s horror novel The MD, the evil transgressor was a tobacco company executive.) That said, Beverly’s murderous snit over Patricia Hearst wearing white shoes after Labor Day was very funny.
    Whether or not John Waters is a nice person (I think he is) his films certainly mellowed. Around the time of Hairspray he joked that filmmakers were supposed to make angry films in their 20s and maybe 30s but anyone who was still rebellious in his 40s was a “moron.”

    1. Alex Good Post author

      Yeah, I obviously don’t know Waters personally. He may be a sweetheart. I just get a creepy feeling from his books and interviews. Like he’s not a creepy artist who’s actually a really nice guy, but that he’s actually a creepy guy. But like I say, that’s just an impression.

      It’s certainly true that he’s mellowed, or just become more commercial. It’s also true that most people become more conservative as they get older. Though I feel like I’m more rebellious now, with regard to politics and the arts, than I ever was as a young man. I would argue, however, that this isn’t because I’ve changed any of my opinions but just because the world has gotten a lot worse.


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