Universal // 1994 // 94 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // May 15th, 2008
She's a fabulous, loving, caring mother, who, er...happens to be a serial killer!
John Waters is a strange guy. With his gaggingly funny trash epic Pink Flamingos under his belt, he began to create increasingly mainstream seeming fare, including minor hits (by his budget's standards) like Hairspray and Cry-Baby. This movement seemed to culminate in Serial Mom, a film that contains all his usual subversive elements but doesn't rely on the quirks of Waters' childhood like Hairspray and Cry-Baby did. Despite this brilliant meeting of artist and material, Serial Mom failed to produce cash at the box office and has been MIA on the digital format for quite some time. Focus Features gives us Serial Mom: Collector's Edition with a fine audiovisual presentation and a lovely set of extras.
Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner, Body Heat) is the perfect suburban housewife, with two loving children (Ricki Lake, Cry-Baby, and Matthew Lillard, Scream) and a devoted husband (Sam Waterston, Law & Order). However, because of strong beliefs about right and wrong (right is wearing your seatbelt and wrong is wearing white shoes after Labor Day), she sometimes has to take drastic measures to ensure the sanctity of her suburban community. As the bodies pile up, the police get closer and close to catching Serial Mom.
Let's get this out of the way: I'm in love with the movies of John Waters. I think Cecil B. Demented is the independent equivalent of Sunset Boulevard, and A Dirty Shame is the best film about sex so far this century. That said, I vastly prefer his post-Hairspray output. I dig what he was trying to do with film like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble, but no matter how you dress it up, a fat man in drag eating dog sh*t is always a fat man in drag eating dog sh*t. Yes, some cried foul when he turned down the gross-out, but if you look at his later films, you'll see that he didn't turn down the ideas that made him want to show people having sex with a chicken between them. Instead, he just turned them into a more subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) attack on the same hypocritical values. His anarchic spirit never left him.
Make no mistake, hypocrisy is what John Waters has been fighting his entire career as a moviemaker. With Serial Mom, he exposes some of the hypocrisy surrounding the housewife. As characters in the movie show, housewives are admired, but if they're too good at what they do, then they must be weird. Waters also sets his sights on the craziness surrounding famous murderers. As a society we decry their actions, but can't wait to hear all the details so we can live vicariously through them. However, my favorite moment in the film is when we discover that Beverly's son Chip is doing very well in school, but his teacher is still worried that his viewing of horror movies is bad for him. It's this kind of knowing touches that make his films fun to watch.
In the hands of another filmmaker, this material could easily turn from funny to preachy. Luckily Waters never lets that happen. Taking touches from his own life (the Baltimore location, an obsession with murder trials, and a love of Herschell Gordon Lewis), Waters laughs at himself as much as anyone else, knowing he's guilty. It's this laughter that keeps him from the hypocrisy that his films attack. He doesn't hide his love for trash and sensation and murder trials, unlike the vast majority of the American public. This openness allows him to laugh at what he loves without guilt.
Serial Mom probably wouldn't work without the tremendous talents of its cast, especially Kathleen Turner. She looks pretty and unassuming, like she was gorgeous in her youth but has since faded in the suburban environment. She also rides the line between perfectly between realism and camp, never straying too far into either category. Ricki Lake and Matthew Lillard also stand out as Beverly's kids. Lillard is especially funny as a horror junkie (presaging Scream). Those looking for Waters regulars like Mink Stole and Patricia Hearst won't be disappointed, either, as there are numerous funny cameos throughout the film (including John Waters himself as the voice of a famous serial killer Ted Bundy).
Focus Features brings us a fine presentation of Serial Mom. The video looks great, especially for its age. Colors pop, detail is great, and there are no apparent transfer problems. John Waters' aesthetic doesn't often translate to good video, but Serial Mom is an exception. The audio is unassuming, but does a fine job with the dialogue and Waters' always intriguing musical choices.
Although perhaps not worthy of the Collector's Edition title, this DVD contains a fine selection of supplements. Starting out we get two commentaries featuring Mr. Waters himself, one solo (from the 1999 DVD release) and the other (freshly minted) with star Kathleen Turner. John Waters gives great commentary, and Serial Mom is no exception. Both tracks are laid-back, chatty affairs, dishing out lots of inside info and production stories. There is some repetition between the two, but with Water's charm, I didn't really mind.
There are also a number of documentaries on the disc. First up is "Serial Mom: Surreal Moments," a look more generally at John Waters. "Surreal Moments" features input from such luminaries as Waters himself, Patricia Hearst, Matthew Lillard, Ricki Lake, and Mink Stole. As the documentary continues, the participants become more specific, discussing their experiences making the film. Covering some of the same material is the contemporary promotional piece, "The Making of Serial Mom." It's a nice little EPK piece that shows how the film was envisioned at the time. Finally, there's a documentary on Herschell Gordon Lewis and his producer David Friedman, whose film Blood Feast gets a prominent role in Serial Mom. For most fans of Waters much of this info will be old hat, but for new fans, this is a nice peek into the life of the "Godfather of Gore."
I've never found John Waters to be a laugh-out-loud kind of comic filmmaker. I don't even recall if his films have jokes, per se, but I know there are clever moments of recognition that make me grin, where I recognize what target he's satirizing and how. However, those looking for a laugh-a-minute comedy a la the Zucker Brothers will be sorely disappointed.
Serial Mom is a wonderfully ironic satire on true crime and suburbia. It's not to everyone's taste, but it's a worthy entry into John Waters' canon. This DVD is easy to recommend to fans of the movie, with its excellent picture and sound, as well as a generous smattering of supplements. For those new to Waters' films, Serial Mom is a fine place to start, and this DVD makes it an easy recommendation.
Serial Mom would never be caught dead wearing white shoes after Labor Day (and neither would this DVD), so obviously the movie's not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2008 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 94 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Audio Commentary with John Waters and Kathleen Turner
* Audio Commentary with John Waters
* "Serial Mom: Surreal Moments"
* "The Kings of Gore: Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman"
* "The Making of Serial Mom"
* Theatrical Trailer
* DVD Verdict Audio Interview with Herschell Gordon Lewis