Serial Mom (1994): John Waters’ Most Accessible Film, Starring Kathleen Turner

After making a movie about every decade he has lived in, Waters went back to a more contemporary humor with a story that takes place in the “real” world.  The result was “Serial Mom,” in 1994, a likable but soft satire of suburbanism.

Waters built into “Serial Mom” the affection that audiences must have felt for TV shows like “Leave It to Beaver” and “Ozzie and Harriet.”  He wanted the viewers to fantasize about the off-screen lives of the persona of those shows—to speculate about them as “real” human beings.  The movie is as much a satire of TV sitcoms as an ode to them.  Juxtaposing bloody murders with Beaver backgrounds, “Serial Mom” reflects a compromise between Waters’ early gross-outs and a new, more polished look.  The director aimed at courting mainstream audiences, a strategy that worked in “Hairspray,” but failed in “Polyester.”

Kathleen Turner plays Beverly Sutphin, a fiercely devoted middle-class housewife, a Supermom in the mold of June Cleaver and Donna Reed (best known to American households from her popular TV show, “The Donna Reed Show”).  Thriving at her chores, Beverly cooks meat loafs, keeps the house spic-n-span, goes to PTA meetings—in short, she performs all the duties expected of a Good American Mom.  Happily married to Eugene (Sam Waterston), a meek dentist, Beverly is ultra-sensitive to her children’s growing pains.  Misty (Ricky Lake) is in college, but she is more interested in boys.  High-school senior Chip (Matthew Lillard) works at a video-store where he cultivates appetite for horror flicks–the kind Waters himself adores. Behind the chipper façade of a suburban housewife, however, stands a serial killer: Beverly murders people for any criticism or insult of her family, taking the kind of action that’s more Cleaver than Beaver.

The Sutphin family is having a normal breakfast, when two police officers arrive to interrogate mail threats and obscene calls to their fellow resident, Dottie Hinkle.  It turns out Beverly is the predator, punishing Dottie for stealing her parking space at the mall. The first murder Beverly commits occurs after attending a PTA meeting, in which Mr. Stubbins (John Badila), the math teacher, criticizes her son’s fascination with violent horror films. Questioning the strength of the family unit, Stubbins recommends therapy for Chip, and Beverly, terribly offended, sees no choice but to run him over.  When Misty is upset for getting stood up by her date, Carl Pageant (Lonnie Horsey), and Beverly spots him with another girl (Traci Lords), she impales him with a fireplace poker.  The Sterners get killed at their house, while daring to have a chicken dinner–Beverly is an avid bird watcher.  When Betty Sterner (Kathy Fannon) opens the closet, Beverly stabs her with scissors, and then topples an air conditioner onto her husband, Ralph (Doug Roberts).

Eugene uncovers disturbing items under their mattress, such as an autographed photo by Richard Speck, sent to Beverly from prison, audiotape of Ted Bundy (voiced by John Waters), and scrapbook of clippings of Jonestown and Charles Manson. On Sundance at church, the Sutphins are met with suspicion. Ironically, the sermon that day is “Capital Punishment and You.” The service ends when a strange sound causes panic. Hiding from the police at her son’s video store, Beverly overhears a customer, Mrs. Jensen, complaining to Chip about fees for failing to rewind her tape—she calls him “the son of a psycho.”  Beverly follows Mrs. Jensen to her home, and when the woman sings along to “Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie,” Beverly bludgeons her to death with a leg of lamb.  (This is also the way that Carmen Maura kills her husband in Almodovar’s “What Have I Done to Deserve It?”)

“Serial Mom” is not as macabre as the deliciously nasty “Parents,” a horror comedy that coincidentally was released earlier that year.  Set in the l950s, “Parents” stars Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt as the ideal conformist American parents, defined by only one “minor” flaw, cannibalism.  With the obvious move toward the mainstream, Waters began to lose the subversive sensibility that had marked his underground films.  As he disclosed: “In the old days, I wanted to make people nervous about what they were laughing at.  In ‘Serial Mom,’ there’s a stream of good hearty laughs, but the nervousness is missing from the humor.”

The film’s less original sequences deal with the media coverage of Beverly’s trial and how the family exploits the case via agents, book rights, and TV movies, a theme already exploited in several Hollywood films, including Waters’ own “Female Trouble,” and, of course, Scorsese’s 1983 “King of Comedy,” a darkly humorous satire starring Robert De Niro as a seeking-fame sociopath who kidnaps a famous comedian (Jerry Lewis). But even in this section there are genuinely funny moments, as when Mary Vivian Pearce (Waters’ regular who here plays an extra) asks Beverly to sign her book with, “to a future serial mom.”

“Serial Mom” reflects a middle-ground between Waters’ outrageous early work and the lighter tone of his later one.  Slightly edgier than “Hairspray” or “Cry Baby,” Waters perceived “Serial Mom” as a way back to the R-rated territory, filtering his characteristic humor through a big Hollywood showcase.  The picture helped Waters feel the sweet smell of revenge.  For him, “Serial Mom” was a subversive showcase not least because it played in neighborhoods that had scorned him, never before showing his movies.

For the first time in his career, Waters worked with a star of the caliber of Kathleen Turner, then at the height of her popularity after appearing in “War of the Roses,” opposite Michael Douglas, who had produced the pictures that put her on the map, “Romancing the Stone” and “The Jewel of the Nile.”  Waters wanted the audience to like Turner as a heroine, not as a villainess, to the point where they wouldn’t mind how many people she kills, because it’s all done in the name of an “honorable” cause, protecting the sacredness of the American nuclear family.

Though Turner plays her role with verve and gusto, some critics thought that Waters showed too much restraint in treating potentially subversive material, perhaps because of the double constraints of getting a bigger production budget than the usual and the presence of a glamorous Hollywood star.  Sensible spectators, however, could discern different kinds of suburbia in Waters’ films: “’Polyester’ was plastic-covered, an homage to bad taste, but the home in ‘Serial Mom’ is not in obvious bad taste.”  Waters said that while he didn’t want to live in that house, he did not hate it.  Revisiting suburbia in his later work, Waters found it ironic that the new denizens liked his work: “It was their parents who hated me, but the generation that chased me out doesn’t live there anymore.”

Self-reflexive, “Serial Mom” contains references to Waters’ artistic influences.  Images from films by Russ Meyer, Otto Preminger, William Castle, and Herschell Gordon Lewis are seen on TV sets throughout the tale. And as usual, celebs like Patty Hearst, Suzanne Somers, Joan Rivers, Traci Lords, and Brigid Berlin make cameo appearances.  Waters still cites “Serial Mom” as his prototypical and favored kind of picture, an offbeat comedy about Americans’ obsession with serial killers, a film that delivers its ideas in a light farcical way without being too judgmental or messagey.