The 1994 film Serial Mom comes from John Waters, and although it’s probably one of his most accessible films, it still maintains the writer/director’s appreciation for oddball antics and his obsession with particular topics. In this case, the major thematic idea focuses on the suburban lifestyle and the true crime subgenre, smashing them both together for a zany comedy featuring a murderous mother who, either bored with her current lifestyle or simply fed up with having to deal with the things that aggravate her, decides to go on a rampage throughout her community. Waters’ direction emphasizes his script’s over-the-top absurdity, and Serial Mom is a darkly comical satire on real-life horrors, often juxtaposing the movie’s lack of realism within the context of reality.
Kathleen Turner stars as serial mom Beverly Sutphin, who, on the exterior, seems like a well-adjusted housewife raising two kids (Ricki Lake and Matthew Lillard) and taking care of her dentist husband’s (Sam Waterston) whims. But quickly Serial Mom shows the crack in Beverly’s facade, showcasing her penchant for getting unnecessarily angry, fulfilling fantasies about taking care of the people who cause her annoyance. As the film progresses, Waters shows a woman who becomes increasingly more detached from sanity until she’s blatantly killing people in public – and then getting away with it.
One of Serial Mom‘s most compelling aspects is its opening sequence, in which Waters skillfully sets up an idyllic Leave It to Beaver-style breakfast – Beverly serves the family, the kids and Dad leave for school and work, and then Beverly rushes upstairs to make an obscene prank phonecall to her neighbor Dottie (Mink Stole). While there’s a bit of setup here when Beverly’s questioned about the Dottie’s harassment by the police, there’s nothing in Serial Mom to foreshadow the kind of foul behavior Beverly exhibits once her family’s gone. And Turner is an absolute delight, throughout the film but especially in this scenario, heavily getting into character and enjoying it at the same time.
That’s a recipe for success in this film, because Turner brings the whole film together. Despite its absurdity, Serial Mom is often grounded in a way that’s a little disconcerting for viewers; this is all satire of the true crime formula, but at the same time Waters’ script manages to evoke some sympathy for Beverly as well. She’s clearly bored of the posturing that most of her neighbors and peers do every day, and Waters never fails to showcase the kinks and strangeness of others behind closed doors to continue this theme. In his world, everyone has something to hide, something that is normal to them but perhaps not acceptable to others, and Serial Mom often revels in bringing those things into the open.
Waters doesn’t skimp on the violence in the film either, offering up some of the funniest moments during kill sequences. As Beverly begins to lose her mind, she starts getting more and more impatient with her murders. One guy she kills in a men’s bathroom at a crowded craft fair, accidentally pulling his liver out in the process; she murders another woman with a leg of meat, opting to beat her instead of stabbing her with a giant butcher knife. Waters wants his film bloody – as his appreciation for Herschell Gordon Lewis implies throughout the film – but he also doesn’t want it to seem brutal or exploitative, and his decision to make each murder into a physical gag fits well within the context.
Interestingly, Serial Mom‘s ending ultimately finds Beverly becoming something of a celebrity; they’re selling T-shirts, marketing a movie, and promoting Suzanne Somers as the movie serial mom. This comes just before the real-life trial of O.J. Simpson, but certainly inspired by the long list of serial killers who have, in some way, become somewhat celebrated in their infamy. Waters again works subtext into the film’s theme, forcing the viewer to question the harmful effects of giving so much attention to someone who has, by all accounts, done some horrid things.
Serial Mom is often uproariously funny thanks to its cast, especially Turner, but horror fans will also appreciate the subtle – and not so subtle – references to inspirational cinema, including the aforementioned Lewis, a standee for Death Becomes Her, and some Texas Chainsaw Massacre brutality. Waters’ film is ridiculous but also thought-provoking, and in an age of true crime revivalism, certainly an interesting study in the sociological impact of obsessing about murder.