“Are those… pussywillows?” -Serial Mom
Just in time for Mother’s Day comes a lush release of quite possibly John Waters’ most accessible comedy (well, after Hairspray of course). For many filmmakers, that would be an insult. For Waters, it’s kind of a nice thing. The man who has lovingly been called “The Prince Of Puke” and “The Pope Of Trash” practically invented shock comedy at the start of his career and proudly introduced new forms of perversion, gross out gags, ideas, and irony to American cinema. The thing is that Waters filthiest and most subversively transgressive work was so deliberately geared to the underground and alternative audiences that he essentially preaches to his filthy choirs. That’s why it’s delightful when movies like Hairspray and Serial Mom worm their way into the mainstream. It helps point audiences who would never give Pink Flamingos a second glance towards an oeuvre of outrageous filmmaking unlike any other. John Waters is like a delightful perverted uncle for the world and a welcome bad influence to us all. Serial Mom is an ideal gateway drug to his dirty little world and Shout! Factory showed their own sense of dark humour by slipping it onto Blu-ray just in time for mom’s holiday.
The film was John Waters’ homage to true crime tales and the particularly sensationalistic TV movies cranked out about those tragedies in the 90s. Thanks to his twisted sense of humour, his goal was to put the audience on the side of the killer and he kind of pulled it off. We meet our killer in a quiet and lovely suburban home, played by Kathleen Turner through the massive smiles and painfully controlled mannerism of a Martha Stewart nightmare. We’re slowly introduced to her idyllic existence and realize that she has an obsessive fury over anyone who brakes her social taboos. They are very mom-friendly issues, like chewing gum, not recycling, giving her children a hard time at school… you know, all those little annoyances. The only difference is that Serial Mom is willing to kill the hell out of anyone who breaks her rules.
The murders pile up quickly and soon the movie is about the sensationalism surrounding her trial. Waters gently satirizes America’s fascination with violence as well as the circus and celebrity that surrounds a truly great murder trial. It’s a film that’s very on point in its targets, yet never feels vicious. Waters’ love of the gang of misfits that makes up his cast is palpable. Sure, a few bodies fall for such egregious crimes as a teacher not appreciating her son’s Blood Feast art (the film is dripping with references to the early gore and horror flicks of the director’s youth) or not recycling (the horror!), but it’s all in good fun. In a weird way, the movie is one of Waters’ most gentle outings. The violence is surprisingly restrained and the humor is constant. Sure, it’s all a sick joke done in bad taste, just executed with such a wry smile from everyone involved that it’s nearly impossible to be offended, which is oddly the filmmaker’s most subversive touch.
The cast is also one of Waters’ best, filled with his typical cult figures like Traci Lords, Patricia Hearst, Ricki Lake, and his old buddy Mink Stole. But there are also more mainstream players like Sam Waterston (clearly having a blast toying with his image in one slapstick sex scene) and an obscenely young Mathew Lillard. Yet the film belongs to Kathleen Turner in one of her finest performances. Serial Mom only exists because of the actress’ involvement and her psychotic spin on homespun love is a delight from the first frame to the last. There’s an unfortunate reality in Hollywood that actresses are often typecast “mom” roles after a certain age and Turner gleefully dove headfirst into that cliché with an ironic pisstake of suburban mother fantasies and one of the most loveable comedic killers in film history. She’s an absolute joy to watch as is Serial Mom in general, provided that you’re sick enough to join in on the joke.
Shout! Factory have given Serial Mom their usual loving treatment. Despite being John Waters’ biggest and slickest production, the film was still quite low budget and not hugely visually ambitious (it was designed to look like a glossy movie-of-the-week afterall). However, the flick was also shot in blindingly bright colors as part of its parody of middle American life, cornball comedies, and exploitative true crime productions. So the movie shines in HD like few efforts in John Waters’ shock comedy oeuvre and benefits from the care that Shout! Factory gave to one of the most underrated comedies of the 90s.
The special feature section is surprisingly robust as well, given that the film got a special edition DVD long ago thanks to it’s consistent success on video and TV broadcast. Carried over are a 30-minute making of documentary featuring giddy interviews from the main players, a short feature on godfather of gore Herschel Gordon Lewis and his influence on Waters, and one of John Waters’ patented audio commentary tracks (in which he never stops talking and provides so many hilarious anecdotes and observations that it’s almost as funny as the film itself). There’s also a second commentary track featuring Waters and Kathleen Turner that’s a bit of a letdown since the actress seems confused by the process and doesn’t know what to say. Fortunately that’s more than made up for by a new 30 minute feature exclusive to this release: a fresh interview with Waters, Turner, and Mink Stole. That is an absolute blast with Waters’ pushing his twin muses for fond memories of a production that was clearly one of the most amusing of all their careers. Like the movie itself, there’s a sense of gentle joy to all of the special features on Shout’s Serial Mom disc.
Does this deserve a spot on your Dork Shelf?
You’ll never have more fun with a murdering mommy that you will with this disc, so why not share it with the fam in time for the big day? Lord knows no one would be more amused by that than the great John Waters.