Serial Mom

John waters and Kathleen Turner bring out the sicko best in each other in Serial Mom. It's a killingly funny spoof of crime and nonpunishment that couldn't have come at a better time for us or them. Waters, the writer and director of such beloved cinematic outrages as Multiple Maniacs, Female Trouble and Polyester, has been looking for a star big enough to personify his distinctively warped view of the mad, mad world since Divine died in 1988. Born Harris Glenn Milstead, Divine was a 300-pound drag diva who brought heft and heart to Waters films from Mondo Trasho to Hairspray. There's no forgetting Divine's Babs in the 1972 Waters classic Pink Flamingos as she snacked on dog shit or sucked off her son, Crackers (Danny Mills), who begged: "Do my balls, Mama."

But enough tender nostalgia. Turner, even dressed in suburban frocks that hide her Body Heat allure, gives Waters star power to spare as Baltimore's homicidal homemaker Beverly Sutphin. Serial Mom is a spirited return to form for the actress after V.I. Warshawski, House of Cards and Undercover Blues. Turner's found the crack comic timing she lost after The War of the Roses; also back is the go-for-broke silliness she showed in The Man With Two Brains when Steve Martin shouted, "Into the mud, scum queen."

Turner is liberated by Waters, who in turn gets a leading lady who really is a lady. You can't take your eyes off her. Turner is dynamite in a performance that keeps springing surprises. Beverly may look like Martha Stewart on ludes, but she is seething inside. It's not the injustice of the world that she wants to avenge. Waters would never be concerned with anything so banal. Beverly is bothered by minor infractions. Very bothered. We can all relate to anger of the "little things," but Beverly acts on it. Around her, remember to recycle your trash or wear your seat belt. And be nice to her nerdy dentist husband, Eugene (Sam Waterston), her lovelorn daughter, Misty (Ricki Lake), and her horror-film fanatic son, Chip (Matthew Lillard). Beverly loves her family so much she'd kill for them.

Waters has rarely come up with such a fiendishly comic conceit to stick it to the powers that be. He has created a virtuous housewife who kills in the name of political correctness and family values. The kids are slow to discover the murderer in Mom. But Eugene (Waterston in a delicious sendup of his usually somber self) refuses to believe it, not until he finds the Charles Manson scrapbooks under Beverly's bed and the taped messages from Ted Bundy.

It's great to see Waters up to his demented tricks again. There were only glimmers in his last two films, Hairspray and Cry-Baby. Though Serial Mom is a mainstream movie with a modest budget ($13 million) and a respectable R rating. Waters stealthily and steadily kicks ass. Cinematographer Robert Stevens (The Barbs) contrives to make everything look normal. But you can practically hear Waters snickering behind the camera: "The better to fool you with, my dear." Big bad wolf Waters assimilate? Never!

Waters' twisted touch is evident from the first scene. Beverly, cereal box in hand, is rudely interrupted while serving breakfast to her family. The culprit is a buzzing fly who flits from plate to plate, leaving fly goo on the toast and juice. She grabs the swatter, takes aim and hits her mark. In close-up, Waters reveals the squashed, bloody insect body. Superimposed over the gross image is a screen credit: written and directed by John Waters.

The scene is a cue for the wussies to exit and the Waters buffs to settle in for two hours of choice perversity. Beverly runs a clean home. No gum chewing and no use of the f word, the p word or the "brown word." But once the kids are off to school, she can't resist an anonymous obscene call to her neighbor Dottie Hinkle, hilariously played by Waters regular Mink Stole. "Is this the cocksucker residence?" asks the gleeful Beverly, who had previously dashed off a note to Dottie using letters cut from magazines: I'll get you, pussy face. When the police later discover the letter p missing from her copy of Premiere, Beverly says the film magazine belongs to her nosy neighbor Rosemary (Mary Jo Catlett). "I don't like to read about movies," Beverly tells the cops. "They're too violent."

Serial Mom might also prove too violent for those who refuse to accept murder as a proper subject for laughter. These are the times that try the souls of filmmakers who don't blame movies for instigating all the violence in the world since Cain and Abel. No matter. Waters soldiers on, the banners of his bad taste flying high. Without giving away the details, it's fair to say that Beverly makes lethal use of a car, a fire poker, a pair of scissors, an air conditioner, a telephone and even a leg of lamb. Beverly sings along with Barry Manilow's "Daybreak" as she drives off to each kill. Nice touch. The film recalls David Lynch's Blue Velvet in the way darkness lurks just below the surface of sunny suburbia. But Waters, bless him, would rather be playful than profound. The grossest sight involves an internal organ that dangles on the end of the fire poker. And the funniest moment concerns a woman who gets whacked for wearing white shoes after Labor Day. Beverly considers it an unforgivable fashion faux pas.

If Serial Mom merely consisted of watching Beverly knock off victims in lock step, you could dismiss it as a one-joke farce with unusually clever variations. But Waters is chasing bigger game. It's the glamour of crime and the celebrity and riches it confers that draw his satirical barbs. You wouldn't think parody is possible anymore in the age of Bobbit and Buttafuoco, but Waters gives it a game go.

In an uproarious trial sequence, Beverly defends herself as the court turns into a circus of family, friends and media sharks trying to cut themselves in for a piece of the "serial mom" action. Waters sees the trial as a junk-culture playpen. Check the cameos, a Waters trademark: That's Patricia Hearst as Juror No. 8. And Suzanne Somers shows up as herself for pointers on playing Beverly in a TV movie. The looks the two women exchange as they size each other up are priceless. Waters, a court junkie himself, knows this tacky scene well. He doesn't even try to hide his lurid fascination with the Hard Copy world he's lampooning. You may miss the old shock value — though shit is exposed, none is eaten — but Waters dishes out enough subversive wit in Serial Mom to keep you memorably entertained.

From The Archives Issue 519: February 11, 1988