A loose remake of Female Trouble with Polyester’s subversively accessible polish, Serial Mom is the strongest film of the post-midnight-movie chapter of John Waters’s career. Successfully uniting his classic themes of celebrity, crime, exploitation filmmaking, the horrors of suburban interior design, and the idiocy of American politesse, Serial Mom stars Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin, a cheerful but mutedly uppity housewife who serves up waffles and maternal advice while swatting flies with glee and none too silently clicking her tongue when she spies her neighbors forgetting to recycle.
While Beverly’s doting, June Cleaver-worthy fastidiousness is taken as a minor anomaly in 1990s America, most who encounter her take her retrograde attitudes as a welcome return to traditional American values. The problem comes when those same people don’t live up to her standards. Wickedly skewering America’s “do as I say, not as I do” approach to morality, the film eventually reveals Beverly as an unforgiving absolutist: She finds no other alternative for the woman who wears white shoes after Labor Day than to bludgeon the fashion faux pas out of her, and reacts to having her parking spot outside a fabric store stolen right out from under her by calling the other driver and barking a stream of obscenities until the woman can’t even answer her phone anymore without preemptively shouting “Fuck you!”
Beverly’s reign of domestic terrorism is presented as a neatly episodic force of nature, just like it would be in one of the tawdry true-crime paperbacks Beverly has stashed under her mattress next to pin-up beefcake photos that Richard Speck autographed and sent to her. Waters uses his watered-down, latter-day aesthetic presentation in much the same way his earlier films adopted a grotesque, hairy sheen; both styles get inside both the main characters milieu as well as the audience’s comfort zone before the filmmaker lets the latter know they’re as much the target of his ridicule as the buffoons on screen. (Who can forget the vicious assault Waters leveled against gay pride in Female Trouble, with Edith Massey’s snaggle-toothed Aunt Ida unconvincingly positing, “The world of a heterosexual is a sick and boring life” while trying to actively recruit her nephew into the joys of same-sexin’, just like the reactionaries said the “gay agenda” was prone to do?)
One of the underlying constants in Waters films is the notion that there’s nothing more disgusting and depressing than for the renegade, rogue element of society’s underbelly to achieve some level of acceptance, and Serial Mom’s third act, in which a grossly guilty Beverly is put on trial for the murder of umpteen people (some of whom she killed in broad-ass daylight in full view of police officers) and rallies herself to a glowing acquittal based on her lily-white attractiveness as a media icon in the making. This accounts for the somewhat out-of-character decision for Waters to fill his central role with an established star and seasoned, trained thespian in her own right.
If having Turner and, to a lesser extent, Sam Waterston share a film universe with an adolescent boy violently jacking off to a Chesty Morgan movie does more to elevate the latter to the mainstream (as opposed to momentarily demoting the former to the underground), then Serial Mom makes Waters’s notion that stardom and perversion are basically the same thing almost meta. Oh yeah, then O.J. Simpson murdered Nicole Simpson and Ron Goldman.
Finally, Serial Mom looks about as pristine as the image Beverly Sutphin projects onto her little slice of suburbia. Previous home-video incarnations of the film looked like white shoes after Labor Day, flecked with debris and imperfections. This Shout! Factory transfer, though, resurrects this relatively low-budget, early-’90s artifact to the edge of glory. The color scheme is still somewhat crushed compared to John Waters’s razor-blade-laced candy colors from the ’70s, but "artistically conservative" is the Trojan Horse by which the filmmaker achieves his lurid ends here, so to that end, the transfer holds up its end of the bargain. The sound mixes—one stereo, the other 5.1—are, to my ears, about on par with the most recent DVD release, with maybe a little more heft in the low end whenever Barry Manilow sings it to the world as Beverly cues up her signature killing tune "Daybreak."
Shout! didn’t exactly pull out all the stops for their special edition. Rather, they pulled from an accrued wealth of previously produced material. Any time Waters gets a commentary track is a five-star blessing. When you give him a second commentary track (this one splitting the bill with Kathleen Turner), it’s a flat-out validation of the format itself, full stop. Waters working with Turner is great, and you can tell that he’s still turned on by the fact that he roped a veritable, Oscar-nominated Hollywood star into his own demented universe. But it’s his solo commentary track that offers the purest, most unfiltered Waters fix. Shout! also secured a 30-minute conversation between the filmmaker, Turner, and Mink Stole. Their chat is genial and congratulatory, if maybe a little thin on the dirt. Stole and Waters seem kowtowed by Turner’s star power, and Turner seems happy to reminisce on the days when she was still landing juicy roles in film. It’s a nice enough new bonus, but it’s the only one, so it can’t help but leave something to be desired.
There's a standee for Death Becomes Her in the video store where Serial Mom's son Chip works, linking up two of the greatest films Shout! Factory has ever brought to Blu-ray.