Indecency in the Suburbs: Serial Mom Turns 25

Indecency in the Suburbs: Serial Mom Turns 25

Written by Joe Lipsett | @bstolemyremote

Throughout the 70s and most of the 80s John Waters was a celebrated auteur of trash cinema. In the twenty years that followed Pink Flamingos, which established him as a director of gross indecency, Waters directed five other films – but only two of them dared to color closer to the mainstream: Hairspray, the body positive, dance-obsessed film about racial segregation, and Cry-Baby, the James Dean-inspired “wrong side of the tracks” romance starring Johnny Depp. Both were period dramas and focused on youth culture, but they maintained Waters’ penchant for satire, dry humor and (often) offensive humor.

1994 marked a change of pace for Waters. Serial Mom is a modern film, with an adult protagonist, and it is firmly entrenched in the scariest of locations: suburbia. The film centers around a suburban housewife who literally turns serial killer over the course of a single weekend, and, in the process, reflects (with astute observation) the ridiculousness of the white picket fence fantasy that defined the United States throughout the 80s and early 90s. Although David Lynch gets the lion’s share of credit for 1986’s Blue Velvet, the sartorial and critical eye of Waters’ most accessible mainstream film is just as acute.

Things begin innocuously enough as the Sutphins, a middle-class white suburban family, sit together at the breakfast table to share a meal. Dentist father Eugene (Sam Waterston) reads the newspaper, while daughter Misty (Waters favorite, Rickki Lake) and Chip (Matthew Lillard) politely bicker. On the periphery, preparing the food and fastidiously stalking an errant fly, is mother Beverly (Kathleen Turner). Over innocuous conversation, Beverly eagerly tracks the insect, waiting for the optimal moment to strike before eventually leaving a blood splattered corpse on the table. It’s the perfect introduction to both the character, as well as Serial Mom’s mix of tones, which alternate seamlessly between camp (naturally), social commentary/satire and the macabre.  

One of the film’s more ridiculous satirical components is Waters’ explicit tracking of time. The majority of the action in Serial Mom takes place over three days (May 14-16) and the film is filled with time quotes. Part of the joke is that Beverly depreciates into murderous rampage so quickly and suddenly; in many ways it defies explanation, although her fascination with various serial killers (the Manson biography she reads at night, the pin-up photo of Richard Speck, the audiotape of Ted Bundy) suggests that she has been threading the needle between housewife and homicidal for some time. Naturally Waters’ use of the time clock is less of a narrative device than a tool to poke fun at true crime stories, which in hindsight, two decades later, is a piece of very prescient satire considering the recent renewed interest in the genre.

The single best conceit about Serial Mom is Beverly’s motivation. While she clearly has an interest in murder, her crimes belie the fantasy of every day folks. She liberally murders her victims for the most average, mundane reasons: avenging her daughter’s broken heart, protecting her son’s right to watch horror films, and, in one hilarious case, for refusing to rewind a video cassette. These are patently not reasons to kill someone, but they are incredibly relatable. Who among us has not wished to strike down a rude acquaintance or make an obnoxious stranger pay for cutting in line at the grocery store? Beverly is a kind of suburban folk hero and Waters’ script - along with Turner’s performance and the film’s aesthetic styling - continually play on the idea that murder is a public service when it is committed to protect your family or to uphold public decency and decorum.

Two and a half decades later and Serial Mom has two enduring legacies: Waters’ script and Turner’s performance. The latter is one for the ages: Turner was a screen legend by the time Serial Mom debuted, an actor as renowned for her talent as her imminently recognizable deep voice. In Beverly, Turner has a truly iconic role: an eminently relatable wife and mother who murders those who cross her with a sly smile (witness the infamous ad-libbed scene when Turner waves to her family while pursuing a victim). In lesser hands the role could have easily descended into caricature; the comedy and the malice could have been overplayed or delivered too broadly. Despite the ridiculousness inherent in murdering a woman for wearing white shoes after Labour Day, Turner ensures that Beverly has a humanity about her. She’s wacky, disarming and even a little scary, but she is never not a human being; Beverly simply cares deeply about social niceties. There is never a sense that the woman who prank calls her neighbor for stealing a parking spot is different from the mother who challenges an intrusive high school teacher about her son’s love of horror films. Beverly may be a homicidal housewife, but she’s still a fully fleshed out character, thanks to Turner’s bravado performance.

Then there’s the film’s other strength, which is Waters’ ability to weave a rich tapestry of depth, humor and deeply unsettling imagery into the film. There’s the expected ridiculous, offensive charm: the smash cut from a woman getting her heart cut out in a film to a bloody roast being served for dinner, and Beverly vigorously opening and closing her legs to win over a peeping tom testifying in court against her are both classic Waters. There’s also no shortage of political commentary in Serial Mom, such as the Baltimore concert venue’s willingness to allow a known serial killer to enter and murder a teenager simply as a fuck you to the police, or the Sutphins’ ability to turn their matriarch’s sensational trial into a revenue generating opportunity that is both micro (t-shirts and pins!) and macro (TV movie deals with Suzanne Summers!).

On this level, Waters’ wit and technical (writing and directing) proficiency have never married so perfectly. It’s no surprise that the film received a rocky reception from critics and a cold shoulder from audiences; it has all of the trappings of an obvious cult classic. Its audacious mix of tones, its hilariously astute commentary about the suburbs and the nosey, judgmental denizens that live there and its wonderful lead performance are all iconic.

In this regard, Water’s queer sensibility serves him well; the result is a film that crossed over into popular culture to become an enduring icon of the weird. 25 years later, the wit - and bite – of Serial Mom remains as strong and relevant as ever.

Joe is a TV addict with a background in Film Studies. He co-created TV/film festival blog QueerHorrorMovies and writes for Bloody Disgusting, Anatomy of a Scream, That Shelf, The Spool and Grim Magazine. He also co-hosts two podcasts: Horror Queers with Trace Thurman (about queer elements in horror films) and Hazel & Katniss & Harry & Starr (about young adult literature and their filmic adaptations). While he loves all horror, if given a choice, Joe always opts for slashers and creature features.