The Daily Stream: Serial Mom Is John Waters' Moral Murder Masterpiece

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they've been watching, why it's worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: Serial Mom

Where You Can Stream It: Peacock

The Pitch: Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) appears to be the perfect all-American housewife. She dresses neatly, keeps the house immaculate, bakes and cooks, and she always remembers to sort the recycling. She lives in an upper class suburban neighborhood outside of Baltimore with her dentist husband, Eugene (Sam Waterston). Their teenage children, Misty (Ricki Lake) and Chip (Matthew Lillard) think their mom's a little weird sometimes, but they really have no idea. Secretly, she's a serial killer, murdering anyone who gets in her way or on her nerves.

Why It's Essential Viewing

It's no secret that I'm a huge fan of the epicurean Pope of Trash, John Waters. This is a man who required a museum to name bathrooms after him in order to receive a massive donation of art from his personal collection. He has a remarkable sense of humor and love for weirdos, and "Serial Mom" is a great example of both. While many of Waters films are too grotesque or vulgar for your average viewer, "Serial Mom" balances the writer-director's brand of suburban satire with some fun meta-commentary on the media and violence, along with stellar performances by the entire cast. The movie hinges on Turner's ability to be the kind of villain you can root for, and she delivers in spades. 

Turner plays both loving mother and psychotic killer with intensity, but both share a certain sense of mischief. Early on in the film, Beverly harrasses a neighbor, Dottie Hinkle, with prank phone calls. She changes her voice and continuously shocks her neighbor, who has no idea who could be calling and saying such vulgar things. Later, Beverly and Dottie, played by Waters' film regular Mink Stole, are having a conversation in a mutual friend's living room. Beverly notices some flowers that bear the same name as one of the crass phrases she was bothering Dottie with, and she starts saying it repeatedly, grinning with maniacal glee. Beverly is having a ball terrifying her neighbors, and it's kind of hard not to have fun right along with her. 

Beverly has a very strict moral code. It's a bit old fashioned (no wearing white after Labor Day!), but surprisingly progressive in other ways. She doesn't care if son Chip watches gory horror movies with his friends, she is open-minded with regards to sex and sexuality, and she is fairly lax on drugs and alcohol. Her moral code is a little like Hannibal Lecter's... she really, really doesn't like the rude. People who act with disregard for others that come in contact with Beverly tend to end up dead, especially if they're unpleasant to her children. 

A Murderin' Mama

Part of what makes Beverly a likeable leading lady is her relationships with her family, especially her children. Many of Beverly's victims are people who treat her children poorly in some way. She kills a teacher who is overly critical of Chip, a woman who refuses to rewind movies that she returns to Chip's video store, and a boy who stood up Misty on a date. She's a doting mother who does everything she can to protect her children and raise them to be the kind of adults she thinks the world needs, but her methods are far too extreme. 

The video store and Chip's love of gory movies is a fun way for Waters to poke fun at himself as a gore fan while also poking fun at some of the moral outrage over violent movies. When "Serial Mom" released in 1994, cinephiles were still reeling from the satanic panic and banning of "video Nasties" of the 1980s. Violence in movies, especially horror films, was still being hotly discussed. It's a theme Waters would revisit often in his later work, as censorship and moral panic are also major parts of "Cecil B. Demented" from 2000 and "A Dirty Shame" from 2004. In Water's sublime suburbia, the last guy you need to worry about is the one renting "Blood Feast". After all, the most dangerous murderer in Maryland is an unassuming housewife that looks like Mrs. Cleaver, not like she'd actually wield one.

A Camp Comedy Classic

Beverly eventually gets caught and goes to trial for her crimes, but even that is pure Waters silliness. People begin selling "Serial Mom" merchandise outside of the courthouse, and '90s star actress Suzanne Sommers shows up for research because she might play Beverly in a movie adaptation. Waters loves playing with the idea that fame and infamy are the same thing, especially with modern media, and he brings it to a fever pitch here. Despite the fact that "Serial Mom" is often overlooked in favor of Waters' earlier, more transgressive work, he has always counted it among his most personal films. Beverly even has lines inspired by his own mother!

Not everyone can dig deep into truly unhinged side of Waters' work, and "Serial Mom" is a great way to get an understanding of the director without having to see anything too shocking. It's fiercely funny and sharply satirical, while also serving pure uncut camp as sweet as Beverly's homemade apple pie. Waters is a camp maestro, and "Serial Mom" is his masterpiece.