Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Serial Mom (1994)

Serial Mom is my favorite of the later period, more accessible John Waters films. I’ve seen the films that made him famous, including the infamous Pink Flamingos and I found them largely repulsive. I don’t have a burning desire to see live chickens used for sex acts or the fabulous Ms. Divine eating freshly evacuated dog droppings. I do, however, have a soft spot for Kathleen Turner as the world’s cheeriest serial killer, and I’d like to tell you why.

Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is a perfect wife and mother to a perfect little family. She whistles while she works (well, enthusiastically sings Barry Manilow’s “Daybreak” to be more specific), doesn’t allow gum chewing in her house (an oft repeated and hilarious facet of the character), prepares tasty and magnificently displayed meals…and kills anyone who gets in her way! We meet her and the family at breakfast one morning. Husband Eugene is a local dentist (Sam Waterston who many of you know as D.A Jack McCoy over the past 15 years on Law & Order…I’ve never seen that show so I just know him from this), boy crazy daughter Misty (Waters regular Ricki Lake back before she went and got skinny and forgot her B-movie roots) and gore obsessed son Chip (Scream/Scooby Doo’s Matthew Lillard in only his second feature film, his annoying on-screen persona only partially developed). They bicker cutely as mom stalks and kills a housefly and we get the first glimpse that this woman is perhaps a tad unhinged. Breakfast is interrupted by a pair of policeman who, we learn, are investigating a series of harassing phone calls and threatening notes their neighbor Dottie Hinkle has been receiving. The good Dr. and Mrs. Sutphin are shocked to be shown a letter, put together in that cut up ransom note style with the words “I’ll get you pussy face”. Beverly proudly declares that she has never even spoke “the p word” let alone written it down.

Soon after the police leave though, we, the viewers, delight in witnessing her making an obscene phone call to neighbor Dottie. We delight in her delight really as she giggles and squeals like a little girl between loudly calling her neighbor a cocksucker. Minutes later Beverly, in her car, cheerfully waves to her neighbor Dottie and we get a quick flashback to the situation that stirred this abuse. Beverly, like a respectable driver, pulls past her parking spot in order to parallel park but as she’s backing in, Dottie Hinkle quickly zooms in and takes it. We see Beverly stare with hatred as Dottie walks past her and into the store without so much as a glance or an apology. This reminds me of a moment in the film Fried Green Tomatoes where a pair of young girls in a flashy car cut off Kathy Bates for a parking spot and taunt her as they walk away, saying “Face it lady, we’re younger and we’re faster”. She reacts by repeatedly smashing the girl’s vehicle with her own ending with an empowering yell “I’m older and I have more insurance”. I remember my mom cracking up at this but I was only 9 or 10 and didn’t really get it. As an adult of course, minor flashes of road rage are a part of the daily grind. That’s part of the vicarious fun of Serial Mom if you can open yourself up to it. We don’t harass and threaten our neighbors when they take our parking spots, we don’t kill our kids teachers when they criticize at parent teacher conferences, we certainly don’t beat old ladies to death with slabs of meat for not rewinding video tapes. But that part of us that wants to, even for just a split second, can’t help but smile when Beverly does the dirty work for us (another great example of this is the "tailgating scene" from Lost Highway which I will most assuredly get to another day).

The other thing I’d like to point out is how ahead of its time Serial Mom was in terms of its social satire. As Beverly is discovered for her mischief, she becomes a national celebrity. While it came out in 1994, Waters wrote it in 1992. This was before the Lorena Bobbit case (and at least 3 subsequent made for TV versions), before the O.J case, etc. Waters, in making this film, truly had his finger on the pulse of our culture right on the cusp of some disturbing changes in media and celebrity. Unfortunately, as Serial Mom is not very well known it does not get the recognition it deserves in this area. Waters clearly delights at poking fun at our celebrity-obsessed culture, our fascination with horrible criminals and the false veneer of the perfect American family. He does this so perfectly because he’s guilty of it too (well maybe not the perfect American family part). In a fast paced and consistently hilarious 90 minutes of film, he tackles these concepts with razor sharp insight and wit.

I’ve maybe said a bit too much about the events in the film, but fear not as the true joy is the tour de force performance from Kathleen Turner. My words cannot do justice to how uniquely hilarious and frightening this character is. I can rattle off so many little details that I cherish, the aforementioned gum chewing incidents, her little scrapbooks on Charles Manson and John Wayne Gacy, her response when asked by her family if she’s a serial killer (“oh honey, the only “serial” I know anything about is Rice Krispies”), the brilliant use of “Tomorrow” from “Annie” to create a sense of dread and tension (while still being very funny), the obscene phone calls to Dottie (which again, I can’t begin to do justice to on paper). I truly could go on and on. I’m pretty sure my wife would list this in her top 5 (maybe top 2 or 3) favorite movies I’ve ever introduced her to. So take my word for it, you can thank me later…
Grade: A


  1. Hey, keep up the good work! I will try out some of the movies you listed here. Nice Blog!

  2. Thanks very much Matthias!! I'll keep writing them if you keep reading them. How did you come across my blog by the way? I'm just curious what's working and what's not in my initial efforts to promote the site.


  3. Hey, its me again.. havent been here in a while! Watched Serial Mom with my brother and it is awesome!! Very funny!

    I found your blog through imdb!

    I'm going to watch Two Girls and a Guy next.

    I've got some other good movies:

    - Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
    - The Weather Man
    - Cashback
    - Dedication
    - Griffin and Phoenix
    - Hot Rod

    just a few :)

  4. Hey Matthias,

    Sorry for my delayed reply. I'm so mad at myself for not keeping up with this blog over the holiday's but I have plans to finally make a new entry this weekend. Now, for the movie's you suggested, I love Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (the scene early on with "the Native American Joe Pesci" and that whole running gag is amazing). The only other one I've seen is Hot Rod but I honestly thought it was pretty bad. I love Ian McShane was why I saw it but the only part that made me laugh was from the preview where he is about to start some stunt and pronounces the “wh” in a funny way.

    Anyway, thanks for your comment and keep coming back nmy friend! I promise I'll have some new content up soon! :)

  5. You have to turn off your brain for Hot Rod! ;)

    I watched Two Girls and a Guy and realized that i watched it on TV some years ago. It was pretty good.. and i liked Downey in this.. like always.

    The last movie i havent seen on the first page is Brazil.. should watch that someday.

    Another very good movie i would recommend (which i thought i got from here, but i was wrong) is "Eulogy"! Very very good black comedy!

    Sorry if i write a little incomprehensible.. I'm german. This is a good way to practice my english. :)