Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 35 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Satirical Presentation of Strong Violence, Vulgar Language, and Sexual Episodes
Directed by: John Waters
Written by: John Waters
Starring: Kathleen Turner, Sam Waterston, Ricki Lake, Matthew Lillard, Scott Wesley Morgan, Walt MacPherson & Patricia Dunnock
John Waters is an odd guy. His more than likable behind-the-scenes persona is instantly recognizable, but his filmography is definitely hit-or-miss and aimed at a very specific audience. With severe gross-out exploitation, low-budget satire, and a no-holds-barred sex comedy under his belt, would it be any surprise to discover that John Waters wrote a 50’s-esque serial killer comedy? Not at all. Whether that comedy comes off successfully is another matter entirely as 1994’s SERIAL MOM has its moments, but ultimately falls victim to heavy-handed satire in the final third that simply doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the film.
On the outside, Beverly Sutphin appears to be your average, suburban mother. She cooks, cleans, and chats with friends. However, this tidy homemaker has a very dark side as she has a secret habit of knocking off anyone who gets on her bad side. Beverly Sutphin is a mother first and a serial killer second. Two local detectives have stumbled across her web of murders and are hot on her trail. Meanwhile, Beverly’s family begins to suspect that there’s something not quite right with her.
One thing that John Waters really nails down in SERIAL MOM is a picturesque sort of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER suburbia that happens to hold a serial killer. On a budget of 13 million, Waters makes every shot look good. The kills are easily the best parts of the movie as each one is creative and has an over-the-top quirk that makes it funny in spite of all the dark deeds on the screen. The film also has a number of other comedic moments that work very well. The best of these involves Beverly’s harassment of a poor unsuspecting neighbor with extremely obscene phone calls. There are a number of jokes that fall flat though. John Waters seems to want us to laugh merely from him putting a serial killer story in a seemingly peaceful setting. Though that is pretty silly and makes for some good dark comedy (including Beverly trying to clean a murder weapon), that long running joke only works for so long before it becomes a bit tedious.
Kathleen Turner (THE WAR OF THE ROSES) seems to be having a blast as the title killer/mother. As Beverly, she keeps a chipper smile plastered across her face for a majority of the running time and plays the character as a deranged “do-gooder” in getting rid of her victims (who set her off through minor annoyances like not recycling, stealing parking spots, and failing to rewind VHS tapes). The rest of the family members are played well by Sam Waterston (as the naïve husband), Ricki Lake (as the hopeless romantic daughter) and Matthew Lillard (as the horror-obsessed son). There’s nothing to complain about in these performances, but the script simply doesn’t hand them a lot to work with (especially in the final third of the film).
While the plot of SERIAL MOM seems very straightforward, the film works well as a decent brand of demented comedy up until a certain point. The film reaches its peak at an hour into the story and there are still 30 minutes of screen time to fill. This is where the film takes a serious nose dive as it becomes a wacky courtroom comedy for the final third. Waters was clearly making an obvious point about how our culture and the media turn murder trials into sensations that light up the country as well as turning the accused into cultural icons. I felt these points weren’t necessarily bad ones to make, but they felt like they belonged in an entirely separate movie (maybe, SERIAL MOM 2). As a result, the plot feels wildly uneven and lacks a lot of the simple laughs during the finale.
Though I love John Waters as a unique personality in the world of filmmaking, I always find his filmography to be a bit of a mixed bag with hits and misses. SERIAL MOM is a decent enough hit for the first hour and then becomes a disappointing miss in its final act. There are merits to recommend this movie on in that Kathleen Turner is hugely enjoyable as the suburbanite murderer and the cheery atmosphere makes for a unique dark comedy. However, the faults are too big to discount. In the end, SERIAL MOM should serve as passing fun for those with a twisted sense of humor, but I can’t imagine it doing much for anyone else.