John Water’s “Serial Mom” is an often overlooked and nearly forgotten cult film that highlights the vast cultural differences between the early 90’s and today. Released in 1994, the film is Water’s reaction to the resurgence of the hyper-sanitized moral majority. in the early 90’s. The film stars Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin, a suburban home-maker and stay-at-home mom with intense psychological issues that turn her into a mass-murderer. Yes, this is a comedy, and yes it is actually funny.
Most serial killers have a reason for selecting their victims, or a particular manner of murder. For Beverly, her reasons are minor slights or perceived slights, particularly regarding her two children, Chip (Matthew Lillard) and Misty (Ricki Lake) or a failure to follow insignificant social rules. When we meet her at the start of the film, she hasn’t murdered anyone, but torments her neighbor Dottie Hinkle with obscene phone calls and letters. Her first murder comes in response to Chip’s suspension from school, after his macabre artwork is discovered by the principal. While Beverly takes pains to cover up her involvement in the murder, it isn’t long until her warped idea of justice causes her to kill again.
Waters has proved himself, if nothing else, as a master of camp. The film is full of memorable one-liners, over-the-top acting and bizarrely twisted visual comedy. Kathleen Turner is comically two-faced, switching between a Stepford-esque housewife and maniacal mustache-twirling villain. Where his early films with Divine were messy scatter-shot and veered aggressively into poor taste, Serial Mom is a relatively restrained singular vision in the service of a larger narrative.
The script is a sharp satire, skewering the pearl-clutching, vapors sniffing, “think-of-the-children” crowd in a way that hardly makes sense today. It’s easy to forget that the 90’s were ruled by an obsession with the potential corruption of America’s youth. With the specter of communism all but vanquished, cold-war paranoia turned into the Satanic panic, abstinence only sex-education and The Phil Donahue Show. While there are still groups concerned with the amount of sex and violence in media today, there is nothing like the organized moral majority movement of the 80’s and 90’s. Waters saw these people as hypocrites, clinging to a way of life discarded by the cultural revolution of the 60’s and 70’s. Indeed, the film shows a seemingly idyllic life not far from the perfect family seen in 1950’s sitcoms. The suburbs served as an escape from cultural progress, as a place where the traditions and values of the pre-60’s world still held true. Of course for Waters, these values are a mask to hide the fact that the supposedly normal moral majority are “just as sick of the rest of us”. This dichotomy is illustrated directly by Kathleen Turner’s rapid code-switching between mother and murderer.
Much of the film’s then shocking content would not even register for modern audiences. Perhaps the best example of this is the extended sequence at the punk-rock concert. One of the targets of the aforementioned Phil Donahue show was the culture of punk rock and the potential danger of mosh pits. Though her friends warn her not to go inside, Beverly runs through a punk rock show towards the end of the film, to find it full of regular fun-loving teenagers, there to see a band of empowered young women perform high-energy rock music. The fact that the band is made up of young women is significant, offering a stark contrast to the strict gender roles found elsewhere in the film.
Throughout the film, various characters criticize violent media, particularly the violent movies that Beverly’s son Chip finds so engaging. Chip and his friends watch several gratuitously gory films, seeking out the most depraved violence they can find, just for the kicks. However, when after they witness a real murder, Chip’s friend Birdie nearly goes into shock expressing the difference between real and imaginary violence–and illustrating that teenagers understand the distinction.
In the film’s final scenes, Beverly goes on trial in a sequence lampooning both the media glamorization of serial killers, and the ease at which justice can be manipulated. Suzanne Somers even arrives at the trial, to do her research for the film version of Beverly’s life she is set to star in. Beverly puts on her best face in court to appear as a normal and up-standing housewife. This mirrors the way such people use talk of “decency” and “family values” to hide their sinister agenda. However, in the final moments, Beverly is unable to stop herself from murdering a juror for a particularly comical crime, and shouting at Suzanne Somers herself.
While Waters is broadly criticizing the conformity and paranoia of suburban life, he also takes specific aim at capital punishment. Early in the film, Beverly’s friends openly root for a murderer to be executed. In a particularly pointed and not remotely subtle sequence in the middle of the movie the Sutphin’s attend church to hear a sermon supporting capital punishment. “If there was ever a time to condemn capital punishment, wouldn’t it have been [when Jesus was] on the cross? And yet he didn’t!” Beverly’s murders present parallels to the death penalty. With every murder she has a reason, something wrong the person did to deserve death. The film makes us wonder what make her judgments so much worse than the judgments meted out by the state.
Beverly’s violence also serves as a metaphor for the way this supposedly moral society views non-conformists. Each victim in her path is killed for a single shallow reason, often related to propriety or some sense of decency. The right-wing family values contingency is eager to judge, slow to listen and resistant to change. It’s not hard to imagine these people crushing opposition and rolling down the hill into fascism in the name of decency. I don’t doubt that Waters himself felt like a target for the sometimes rabid cultural traditionalists of the 80’s and 90’s.
While the moral majority isn’t a powerful political force in America anymore, Serial Mom holds up in nearly all the ways that matter. Outrage culture is no longer the exclusive territory of religious conservatives, but we would do well to remember the importance of free expression; even when it doesn’t share our values or even tests the limits of taste or “decency” (as Waters himself–and more recently Kathy Griffin–have done). Regardless, Serial Mom is a twisted good time and some of the best intentional camp I’ve ever seen. The satire is sharp, the comedy is outrageous, and the issues are still relevant enough to warrant serious after-film discussions.