Serial Mom Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 1 release of Serial Mom.

Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is the perfect all-American wife and mother – and, not unreasonably, expects the rest of the world to be as immaculately-behaved as she is, particularly with regard to rewinding video tapes, recycling household waste, not wearing white shoes after Labor Day, and so on.

Of course, the rest of us just aren’t like that – so she takes the law into her own hands and starts meting out summary justice to those who don’t measure up (via traditional disciplinary methods such as impalings, bludgeonings, car smashes, electrocution, etc). Needless to say, when she’s eventually caught, she becomes a media icon and a defender of traditional family values beyond the Daily Mail’s wildest dreams…

It sounds wonderful on paper, but I have to admit it’s not a total success on celluloid. John Waters has never exactly been the most subtle of filmmakers, and for every gag that hits the target dead-on there are half a dozen that flail around wildly without making much of an impact. This is true of virtually all his films (Hairspray is just about the only exception, and even that’s debatable), but it’s most keenly felt in a film like Serial Mom where the satire aims to be rather more pointed. It’s never less than hugely enjoyable – but it could, and should, have been significantly funnier than it turned out to be.

That said, Kathleen Turner is hysterical in the title role – apparently she was deeply unsure about playing the part (not too surprisingly, given that she was the first genuine A-list star ever to appear in a John Waters film), but she’s the main reason that the film never goes entirely off the rails – her character is a total psychopath but it’s impossible not to sympathise with her: after all, how many times have we wanted to kill someone when we get their discarded chewing gum stuck to our clothes, or when they steal the parking place that was rightfully yours? And I loved the way she remained the ultimate houseproud mother throughout, right down to her total disgust at the way her victim’s liver remains quivering on the end of the poker that she’s just impaled him on.

She’s also given sterling backup by Sam Waterston as her bewildered dentist husband and Ricki Lake and Matthew Lillard as her understanding offspring, and there are cameos galore from Waters regulars like Traci Lords, Mink Stole and Patty Hearst, female punk band L7 (clad in bizarre moulded crotchpieces) and Suzanne Somers, who’s been cast as Beverly in the inevitable TV movie of her life story (which sadly we don’t get to see).

Technically, the DVD is adequate but unspectacular. Unusually for an American film, it’s been shot in 1.66:1, and the non-anamorphic NTSC picture is distinctly on the soft side thanks to the relative lack of definition. The colours also looked a little washed-out to me, but the print is in excellent physical condition. That said, no-one ever watched a John Waters film for technical finesse (Serial Mom, for the record, had the biggest budget he ever worked with), so none of this really matters that much. The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack does the job perfectly adequately, though as this is an overwhelmingly dialogue-based film it’s never going to be used as a surround sound demo. Chapter stops have been set at a very generous 31.

There’s a pretty comprehensive set of extras: biographies and filmographies for Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake, Matthew Lillard and John Waters, the original theatrical trailer, five 30-second TV spots, one 15-second TV spot, a very funny six-minute production featurette including interviews with John Waters, Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston and Ricki Lake (this film was made before she shot to international fame as a chat show hostess). There’s an additional page offering four interviews and more behind-the-scenes material, though the interviews are so brief (Sam Waterston’s clocks in at just 12 seconds, and the others aren’t much longer – even the behind-the-scenes shots only add up to two minutes) that they don’t really amount to much. Still, it’s the thought that counts.

But the highlight of this DVD, as it was on the Pecker DVD before it, is Waters’ commentary track which, as before, elevates the film from near-misfire to laugh-out-loud comic genius.

Waters is unfailingly hilarious, whether he’s talking about the film’s basic rationale (he wanted to make a serial killer film where we’d all be rooting for the killer, though that’s not quite as radical a concept as he thinks – just about every 1970s/80s slasher movie where repellent American teenagers are preyed on falls squarely into that category, at least for me), or his inspiration for many of the set-pieces (“As a child, I used to love phone harassment”) or anecdotes from the production (wondering what on earth his cleaning woman was thinking when she overheard her idol Kathleen Turner shrieking obscenities in Waters’ living room during rehearsals), or tributes to his favourite film-makers and stars (“Come on, just who’s going to masturbate to Chesty Morgan movies?”) or just his general philosophical outlook (“I have this real hatred of authority: teachers in my films generally end up murdered”).

My favourite bit was a quite astonishingly bitchy comment as the gorgeous, pouting Suzanne Somers (playing herself) enters the courtroom, where Waters goes “Come on – do heterosexual men really find that attractive?”

So, as with Pecker, a so-so film has been turned into a great DVD – and I hope Waters is planning to record commentaries for all his other films: my old VHS copies are starting to look naked without them!

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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