Retrospective: Serial Mom – Are those… pussy willows?

Fans of John Waters’ trashier side may have been left slightly disappointed after his tamer efforts, Hairspray and Cry Baby. Fortunately, Mr. Waters would make a remarkable return to camp trash in his masterpiece, Serial Mom and I for one am thoroughly glad he came back. Obviously after the sad death of Divine in 1988, Waters’ was left looking for alternative stars for his films and what followed was one of the finest pieces of cinema casting of all time – that of Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin, a typical suburban housewife turned serial killer. This collaboration produced one of the most downright enjoyable cult comedies of all time.

From the onset, Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) seems like your average suburban housewife – she is the wife to dentist, Eugene (Sam Waterston) and loving mother to average kids, Chip (Matthew Lillard) and Misty (Ricki Lake). However we soon learn that she goes to extreme lengths to protect this family and fight against moral injustices (like not rewinding rented VHS tapes or not recycling). What follows is a tongue and cheek satire on celebrity and crime, comprised of a fusion of gags, hysterical performances and witty dialogue.

The wonderful Mink Stole
Serial Mom was an important move for Waters – it was a combination of his trash-filled early films channeling their camp and outrageous humour, but this was now handled in a mainstream fashion – it featured big stars, was backed by an established studio and filmed with a glossy sheen. Serial Mom channels this combination of old and new, that would be repeated in his next three films – Pecker, Cecil B. Demented and A Dirty Shame.

From the onset, Waters unforgettable brand of humour hits us. We see Beverly as the perfect mother, helping her family get ready for their day ahead, once they leave the sweet Beverly wanders upstairs. She picks up the phone and completely unsuspectingly launches an obscene tirade against her neighbour, Dottie Hinkle. Hearing Turner’s deep voice screams lines like “Is this the cocksucker residence? Isn’t this 4215 Pussy Way? Let me check the Zip code 212-fuck you?”  is truly unforgettable The sheer unexpectedness of this, combined with the sweet Beverly that we have seen earlier makes for hysterical viewing.

Turner is so over-the-top and outrageous yet still completely lovable as Beverly. This is a woman balancing suburban life with a twisted passion, she originally denies her crimes to her family stating “The only ‘serial’ I know anything about is Rice Krispies.” or after a murdering spree can quickly jump back into ‘mother mode’ – “I don’t know what it is about today but I feel great. Cookie?” This is Turner at her best, she’s clearly loving playing the part – Beverly is a wonderful character and surely one of Waters’ finest creations.

This satire is equally strong throughout, somewhat parallel to that in Female Trouble – mainly society’s fascination with crime and how closely it is linked to fame. Beverly’s son, Chip, doubles as an agent selling the rights to his mothers’ crimes – they are to be made into a TV miniseries starring Suzanne Somers. Meanwhile, her daughter, Misty, sells serial mom badges an t-shirts outside the courthouse. Waters’ also taps into the facade of suburban living – where the smallest things take the utmost importance and attacks the ridiculous image of the perfect family.

Turner on form
There are also two wonderful supporting performances in Serial Mom. The first being that of Mink Stole as Beverly’s neighbour. This Waters’ regular has been upped from cameo duty and allowed to show off her full comic talents in this hilarious role. Dottie is tormented by Beverly, through her obscene prank calls and threats. Beverly asks Dottie if her flowers are “Pussy willows” and upon hearing the word ‘pussy’, Dottie immediately discovers it has been Beverly tormenting her. There is also a riotous scene when Dottie testifies against Beverly in court. Mary Jo Catlett also shines as another of Beverly’s interfering neighbours. 

However, personally I believe the standout scene in Serial Mom is the infamous ‘Annie‘ murder where Beverly hunts down Mrs. Jensen, an obnoxious woman who refuses to rewind her rental video tapes. Whilst the woman sits watching Annie with ‘The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow’ blasting, Beverly commits the crime. The scene is so wonderfully outlandish that it is hard to forget.

Serial Mom is certainly a return to form for Waters, that is likely to have you grinning for start to finish. Kathleen Turner is incomparable and the gags and storyline are truly unforgettable, serving as wonderful satire on crime and suburban life.

Next: Pecker
Previous: Cry Baby

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