Personal Camp: Close-Up on John Waters' "Serial Mom"

The surprisingly prescient 1994 cult classic is unexpectedly one of John Waters' most personal and autobiographical films.
Nathanael Hood
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. John Waters' Serial Mom (1994) is showing from March 11 - April 10, 2018 in many countries around the world.
Serial Mom
When kidnapping victim and unwilling media sensation Patty Hearst first met director John Waters, it was at the Cannes Film Festival where he reportedly walked up to her, introduced himself, and casually mentioned “I went to your trial!” Years later, Hearst recalled her astonishment, both at Waters’ nonchalance and the idea that anybody would willingly attend another person’s trial, let alone her own. But in the era before Judge Judy, before the 24-hour news cycle, and before social media, there was in fact a thriving counterculture of serial killer groupies who traveled the countryside attending the trials of the most despicable and loathsome murderers in American history. They would camp out in front of courthouses for seats in the gallery like tailgaters at a football game or techies at an Apple launch. They would write cards and fan letters to the killers, some even professing undying romantic love or hybristophiliac lust for people who had gruesomely kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered untold innocents.
Is it any surprise that Waters, the king of bad taste and trash cinema, would count himself among their number? Long fascinated by death and violence—in his autobiography Shock Value Waters recounts traveling to junkyards as a boy so he could look at the blood-soaked insides of totaled cars—he journeyed to famous trials in-between shooting transgressive classics like Multiple Maniacs (1970) and Pink Flamingoes (1972). And it was here, decades later at this unexpected meeting in Cannes, that Waters’ two great loves—trials and cinema—would collide. Shortly afterwards Hearst would become a member of Waters’ stock company, appearing in all of his post-80s movies. And though the part was minor with only a minute or two of screen time, none of her roles were more biting and ironic than Juror No. #8 in his 1994 black comedy Serial Mom. Shortly after helping declare Baltimore’s first serial killer Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) not guilty on all charges of murder in the first degree, she’s confronted by the titular maniacal mom in a side-room of the courthouse. With a winsome smile, Beverly chastises her for wearing white shoes after Labor Day.
“But fashion has changed,” she squeaks.
“No, it hasn’t!” roars Beverly as she grabs the handle of a nearby payphone and bludgeons her to death. 
Like much of Waters’ later work, with the exception of the family-friendly and Broadway-adapted Hairspray (1988), Serial Mom tends to get overlooked when compared with the rest of Waters’ oeuvre. Though it visually recalls the Douglas-Sirk-on-crack sheen of Polyester (1981) with its highly polished suburban surfaces and garish lighting, the film at times feels too clean and palatable for the maestro of coprophagic drag queens, giant rape lobsters, and lip-synching rectums. The only nudity comes in brief close-ups of Betty Page centerfolds and Chesty Morgan nudies. The violence is brief and only sporadically gory, unlike the close-ups on Divine’s acid-sprayed face in Female Trouble (1974) or the cannibalistic feast concluding Desperate Living (1977). The most perverted moment in the film comes when one of Beverly’s future victims encourages her dog to lick her toes—an act Waters merrily describes as “shrimping” in interviews.
And yet Serial Mom is one of Waters’ most personal and autobiographical works. Not only has Waters repeatedly called the film one of his best, it captures better than any of his other movies save maybe Female Trouble the central thesis of his work: in America infamy and fame are the same thing. 
The film centers on Beverly, as perfect a vision of a 1950s white picket fence matriarch as possible: perfectly coiffed hair, blindingly clean dresses, an ingratiating demeanor, a permanent smile. She lovingly dotes on her dentist husband Eugene (Sam Waterson), her boy-crazy daughter Misty (Ricki Lake), and her gore film obsessed son Chip (Matthew Lillard). Little do they know that Beverly is actually a ruthless serial killer, wantonly murdering neighbors, acquaintances, and bystanders for perceived slights and rudeness. When Chip’s teacher insinuates during a PTA meeting that she’s a bad parent, she runs him over in the parking lot behind the school. When Misty’s boyfriend dumps her for another girl—one played by none other than Traci Lords—she stabs him to death with a poker in a men’s restroom while at a community swap meet. Heaven help you if you cut her off in a parking lot, fail to rewind a tape before returning it to the video store, or forget to wear your seatbelt. And as poor Juror No. #8 learned, whatever you do, do not wear white after Labor Day.
As mentioned, Serial Mom was heavily autobiographical, a fact which might throw many who happen to be familiar with Waters’ early days in Baltimore’s counterculture for a loop. But the film takes many important cues from Waters’ life. The bucolic neighborhood where the Sutphins live was the same one where Waters grew up and later bragged about escaping from. Several of the locations were among Waters’ old haunts, most notably Hammerjacks Concert Hall and Nightclub where Sutphin hunts down her final victim in the midst of a concert. (In one of the film’s only concessions to traditional bad taste, the band featured during the concert was L7 masquerading as the “Camel Lips,” a hardcore punk group that performed while wearing gigantic foam labias under their tight-fit pants.) And most importantly, the character of Beverly Sutphin was heavily influenced by Waters’ mother: her hatred of gum, her cattiness about people’s hair, and a certain predilection for leg of lamb. The world and inhabitants of Serial Mom were not original creations like the Cavalcade of Perversion in Multiple Maniacs or Mortville in Desperate Living; they were Waters’ very own. And it is a world drawn up with loving affection.
Hairspray also featured an idealized reconstruction of Waters’ childhood Baltimore. But if that film looked towards the nation’s past with its struggles for racial integration, Serial Mom was queasily accurate in its forecast of the nation’s future. When Beverly is eventually caught and arrested by the police, she becomes an overnight celebrity. Before her trial can even begin Chip has sold the television rights to Beverly’s story to the highest bidder. Misty opens up a souvenir stand out front of the courthouse selling merchandise. Opportunistic true crime writers hawk their new paperbacks about the case to a desperate public that insists the authors autograph and personalize their copies with well-wishes like “To a future Serial Mom!” Suzanne Somers appears as herself at the trial so she can study Beverly in preparation for starring as her in a movie. And in one of the most unexpected instances of life imitating art, a scene where a long convoy of police cars slowly pursue Beverly as she calmly drives to church was eerily filmed mere months before an almost identical low-speed car chase occurred involving a former NFL running back and a white Bronco. In a way, the film becomes a twisted companion piece to Billy Wilder’s masterpiece about a media circus gone sour, Ace in the Hole (1951). But whereas Wilder sneered with indignant fury, Waters can’t help but stare at all the insanity and laugh himself hoarse. 
And of course, there’s Kathleen Turner as Beverly Sutphin, in perhaps the single greatest piece of stunt casting in Waters’ entire career. By the mid-90s Turner had already established herself as one of the last true movie stars in Hollywood: appearances in Lawrence Kasdan’s erotic neo-noir thriller Body Heat (1981) and Robert Zemeckis’ throwback adventure film Romancing the Stone (1984) imbued her with the otherworldly mystique of classic Hollywood stars while roles in critical darlings like John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor (1985) established her bona fides as an actor. And here she is in a John Waters film, mugging towards the camera in full Mommie Dearest mode, sneering, leering, guffawing, conniving, stalking, killing, laughing, and getting away with it all. One shot of Turner sprinting down the sidewalk in heels towards a hapless teenager with a butcher knife raised like Michael Myers is enough to elevate the film into the realm of camp immortality. Perhaps it is in this role, one so atypical from anything else she’s ever done, that proves she is one of American cinema’s great living treasures. As Joan Crawford learned, it’s hard to come back from camp. But Turner did. How lucky we are that the king of trash cinema himself saw in her the same potential he did with all the drag queens and dropouts he transformed into movie stars. She fits as comfortably into Waters’ peanut gallery of weirdoes as did Divine, Mink Stole, and Ricki Lake. The only tragedy is she only stopped by Baltimore the one time.


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