The career of John Waters can be looked at in two halves. The first half of his career were the outlandish, outrageous, and truly shocking movies like Pink Flamingos and Female Trouble. The second half starts with his biggest commercial success in Hairspray and eventually being forced to work without his friend and star Divine, who passed away shortly after Hairspray. After the success of Hairspray, Waters was able to take on projects with bigger budgets within the studio system, and from this second half of his career none of his movies were better than Serial Mom. Waters has always been fascinated with true crime stories and serial killers, and he’s written about the topic in his various books over the years. He’s also always had an interest in the crossroads where fame and infamy meet, and Serial Mom allowed the filmmaker to explore both subjects in a raucous comedy that is now getting a deluxe special edition from the good people at Shout! Factory.
The Sutphin family lives a quiet life in their little corner in the suburbs of Baltimore. Beverly (Kathleen Turner) is a loving housewife with her husband Eugene (Sam Waterston), a dentist, and their two children Chip (Matthew Lillard) and Misty (Ricki Lake). Lurking under the quaint façade of their family life, Beverly Sutphin has a nasty streak. She’s currently harassing her neighbor Dottie Hinkle (Mink Stole) over a stolen parking spot in the past, sending vague threats littered with profanities in the mail and tormenting her with obscene prank phone calls. That’s just the start as Beverly Sutphin begins taking the lives of those who wrong her family or who simply offend her with their boorish behavior. It will make the Sutphin family a media sensation as their suburbanite mother is arrested and placed on trial for a series of ghastly murders.
Serial Mom in a lot of ways is John Waters’ homage to the legendary godfather of gore, Herschell Gordon Lewis. Chip is a horror movie fanatic, and Waters is sure to include a scene where the son along with his girlfriend Birdie (Patricia Dunnock) and friend Scotty (Justin Whalen) are watching Lewis’ classic film Blood Feast. As Beverly Sutphin goes on her murder spree, the film has a number of moments that are seemingly culled straight from the works of Herschell Gordon Lewis, none more explicitly than the murder within a bathroom where her victim’s liver is dangling on the end of a fire poker. This new edition from Shout! Factory features a short documentary where Waters and others discuss the work and legacy of Herschell Gordon Lewis, a fitting inclusion that should give those unaware a bit of extra insight into some of the origins to the wild ideas that Waters has had over the years.
As much fun it is to behold Beverly Sutphin exact her unique brand of politically correct vengeance against those who break her code of manners, there’s probably nothing funnier than her prank calls to Dottie Hinkle. Aside from Divine, Mink Stole was always the best actress in Waters’ close-knit group of friends that would become his stars and she’s masterful as the woman tormented by Sutphin’s obscene calls. All of which culminates in a hilarious scene that revolves around pussy willows, where the demented suburbanite gives away the fact that she’s been making the calls. In the special features it’s obvious that Waters is immensely proud of the scene, discussing how fans present him with pussy willows at screenings and that Boy George has a clip from the scene on his answering machine. Kathleen Turner has also faced similar enthusiasm from fans, confessing that she’s often asked to recite some of the more colorful language from the scene for fans on the street.
John Waters has always given the best audio commentaries, telling hilarious anecdotes and providing interesting factoids about his work. The Shout! Factory edition of Serial Mom doubles the pleasure with two commentary tracks by the infamous writer-director, one of which where he’s joined by Kathleen Turner. On top of that there’s also a lengthy conversation between Waters, Turner, and Mink Stole where they exchange stories about the production, the enduring adoration of the fans, and how the film was rather prescient in its depiction of murderers as celebrities. Waters is right in remarking that Serial Mom predated the trial of O.J. Simpson and the media circus that became, and the film does feature Beverly’s children trying to turn the media circus into an ample payday. Years before, Waters would attend trials as a spectator and wrote about the experiences in his book Shock Value, and obviously he applied everything observed into the frenzied events of the movie while adding aspects of where he saw our society moving towards as criminal trials would become sensationalized in the era of Court TV.
Serial Mom is the finest of John Waters’ movies from the second half of his career and this new Blu-ray gives the movie reverential treatment it deserves. As much fun as I had revisiting this movie and its oddball sensibilities, it struck me with a bit of sadness. John Waters is still in the public eye with speaking engagements and new books but he hasn’t made a movie since 2004’s A Dirty Shame and seems to have no intention of returning to directing any time soon. The style of John Waters is something that is often imitated and never matched, and we could really use his sensibilities in these crazy times. While he may not be making new movies, his classics will endure and thanks to great special editions like Shout! Factory’s Serial Mom. When watching Serial Mom, make sure you’re not wearing white after Labor Day and surround yourself with gorgeous pussy willows from the garden.