For many years, filmmaker John Waters spent his leisure time traveling the United States, stopping from city to city and eagerly hopping from one court date to another; not on trial, but as spectator. A self-described “crime hag,” Waters viewed criminal trials as a kind of elaborate theater. The often surreal circumstances of many of the cases, as well as the high drama of prosecution vs. defense and the curious public interest in the alleged criminals on trial, made a perfect showing of camp spectacle and bizarre farce. Waters shrewdly recognized the potential for a story and wrote Serial Mom, his brilliant, darkly comic 1994 satire of the true-crime genre and the media-driven celebrity of those who run afoul of the law.
Serial Mom follows the mild-mannered, apple pie-American Sutphin family: matriarch Beverly (Kathleen Turner), happy homemaker and doting but strict mother, her eager to please, pushover husband Eugene (Sam Waterston), and their teenage children, horror junky Chip (Matthew Lillard) and kitsch enthusiast Misty (Ricki Lake). The Sutphins are pillars of their community, well-liked and well-regarded. Eugene is the neighborhood dentist always on call, Beverly is a model wife and mother, and they always recycle. To glimpse their lives is to glean a picture-perfect snapshot of small-town American values.
Except, of course, for the inconvenient matter of Beverly’s murderous bloodlust.
Like many Waters films, Serial Mom gleefully digs up the perfectly manicured lawn of Suburbia to unearth the ugliness just beneath the surface, and in this case, Beverly Sutphin isn’t as wholesome as she appears. Beverly really abhors rude and uncouth behavior, so much so that even the smallest of perceived slights, missteps or sideways glances will result in death by her hand. Beverly’s unique problem first surfaces as comparatively mild harassment, terrorizing neighbor and unwitting parking spot stealer Dottie Hinkle (Mink Stole) daily with obscene phone calls, leaving her a neurotic wreck. But phone calls quickly escalate to homicide, and as the bodies start piling, the remaining Sutphin clan — as well as some pesky investigators from the Baltimore PD — grow suspicious of the rapidly accumulating evidence implicating Beverly in a string of brutal murders. As law enforcement closes in, and public interest in the media-dubbed “Serial Mom” mounts, the Sutphins quickly find themselves in the middle of a family conflict like no other.
Serial Mom takes refuge in audacity, daring its audience to laugh at situations that are, on the surface, uncomfortable at best and nightmarishly horrifying at worst, but framed in such a ludicrously improbable manner it’s impossible not to laugh at them. Blunt force trauma may not be inherently funny, but being bludgeoned to death for crimes against fashion sure is. This tongue planted firmly in cheek approach to the grand guignol absurdity of Beverly Sutphin’s murder spree is underscored by some dramatic irony in the form of Chip’s horror movie obsession. As the gruesome, real-life murders mount, we catch several glimpses of Blood Feast, the comically over-the-top splatter masterpiece from Herschell Gordon Lewis (the “Godfather of Gore,” and a Waters hero). Chip and his friends riff on the movie while ensconced in his bedroom, unaware of the real-life carnage unfolding, courtesy of mom.
Waters takes the Lewis homage a step further when, in a later scene, Beverly eviscerates her daughter’s two-timing boyfriend with a fireplace poker in a public bathroom. With the deed done, her face falls in slight distress when she withdraws the weapon to find the boy’s liver still stubbornly clinging to the end. She gingerly slides the organ off with her finger in visible disgust; a lady like her just isn’t cut out for the icky stuff. It’s a gross-out, silly and surreal moment played impeccably straight by Turner, and it perfectly encapsulates the oddly compelling dichotomy that informs the movie’s sense of humor.
Indeed, a large part of why Serial Mom works so well is Kathleen Turner, who doesn’t portray Beverly Sutphin so much as she inhabits her. Turner effortlessly maintains the balance of put-together, wholesome motherly exterior and creeping choleric temperament that is the embodiment of cheerful psychopath skirting by on good will, silently grateful that people reliably underestimate housewives. It also helps that Turner seems to relish every second she spends on screen; her enthusiasm for the role is infectious.
Turner’s performance is bolstered by an adept supporting cast, particularly Sam Waterston’s pitch-perfect turn as hapless, straight-laced Eugene, a perfect foil for Turner’s unfettered mania, and a scene-stealing Mink Stole as Sutphin nemesis Dottie Hinkle. Turner and Stole frequently butt heads over the course of the film, culminating in an incredible, profanity-laden courtroom meltdown that could draw laughter out of a decomposing cadaver.
This courtroom showdown in the film’s third act, a highly-publicized trial following Beverly’s arrest, is when the full weight of Sutphin’s sociopathic manipulation comes to the fore. With a rabid crowd of spectators and media vultures in and outside of the courtroom (spot Waters regulars Mary Vivian Pearce and Susan Lowe among them), and her son’s cell phone ringing endlessly with movie offers, Sutphin knows she’s already won the court of public opinion; all that’s left is the actual trial. Like Ted Bundy before her, she fires her lawyer on the spot and announces that she’ll be representing herself, drawing gasps and applause from the gallery. Maneuvering society’s prejudices in her favor — a woman can’t be capable of such brutal violence, can she? — Sutphin easily goes to work, playing the judge, jury and spectators like a fiddle, outwitting and undermining every hapless witness called to the stand until, incredibly, she gets off scott-free.
Serial Mom speaks to America’s fascination with lurid crime, and manages to satirize a kind of 24-hour, orgiastic media frenzy of a magnitude that didn’t really exist until the O.J. Simpson saga unfolded, several months after the film’s release (the movie even features a low-speed car chase, though no white Bronco to be found). It predates — and predicts — Court-TV, the endlessly replenishable water cooler chatter fuel of so many high-profile murder cases, and the binge-watch phenomenon of Making a Murderer. Patty Hearst’s cameo as an ill-fated juror adds another layer of meta brilliance. If the tasteless and absurd media canonization of Beverly Sutphin as America’s poor, misunderstood Sweetheart seems familiar, it’s probably because we now see this sort of thing play out in the media all of the time. America is obsessed with making heroes out of media figures, even when there’s not much heroism to be found, and all the better if there’s some sort of angle to be exploited — in this case, a seemingly unremarkable housewife wrenched away from her family. That Beverly Sutphin triumphs is really no surprise.
Of course, deep down, and true to form, we really want her to. At the core of Serial Mom’s enjoyability is how effectively it appeals to our darkest, innermost private fantasies; how we sometimes feel so frustrated or disgusted with someone that, however briefly, we entertain the idea of doing them in. Beverly Sutphin is the manifestation of that shameful twinge inside of us, without the impulse control, moral wiring or fear of consequences to keep her from acting on it. Watching her enact her revenge on screen is, in a strange way, cathartic. And perhaps, however incidental, it’s this impulse in us that affords the celebrity killer so much leeway to sink their claws into the collective public psyche. Maybe Waters knew this all along, and is simply letting us in on the joke.
Serial Mom Collector’s Edition Blu-ray is available May 9 from Scream Factory, just in time for Mother’s Day.
Check out Part 2 of this feature: an interview with MINK STOLE.