Serial Mom (1994)

Maryland isn’t a bad state to be from. We’ve got the Chesapeake Bay (nevermind the fact that it may be destroyed in a few years, it was awesome once) and with it, Old Bay seasoning. There’s Natty Boh and marriage equality. I guess there’s some other cool stuff, but when it comes to movies us Marylanders can boast that we come from the same state as the one and only trash king John Waters, and that’s the coolest thing of all!

It’s hard to believe Serial Mom will be my first John Waters entry, and that it’s taken me 300 movies to get here! As a young, curious movie lover I somehow got my hands on a copy of Pink Flamingos. I really wish I remembered more about how I’d heard of it; I’m not sure if I read about it because I’ve always had an affinity for garbage, or if it was more available to me in the Maryland suburbs than it would have been to me elsewhere. It doesn’t really matter how I got my hands on it, but that videocassette circulated throughout my high school and I never got it back. I did earn a reputation for being weird, though, and I’m glad for that. At any rate, Serial Mom is quite a different film than Pink Flamingos, and that is not a bad thing. Comparatively it’s downright wholesome.

The Sutphins are good at putting on a happy face...

The Sutphins are good at putting on a happy face…

The Sutphins are the picture of suburban happiness. There’s Misty (Ricki Lake), a boy-obsessed teenager. Her brother Chip (Matthew Lillard) runs a video store and his favorite movies are, naturally, gory 60’s exploitation (he’s got good taste). Papa Eugene (Sam Waterston) keeps everyone in business by providing the town with the best dentistry around. And then there’s Mama Beverly, just about the best mom anyone could ask for. And, like any good mother, she’ll go to the ends of the earth to keep her family happy.

But there is trouble in paradise! A pair of cops stop by with a horrendous note one of the Sutphin’s neighbors received and, I can barely type this, it said ‘PUSSY’ on it! What a shock! Of course the Sutphins know nothing about this, after all Beverly can barely even say the “p” word! That’s what she says, at least, but does she, in fact, relish saying that very word? As soon as the cops leave and the rest of the family is off, she runs upstairs to make an obscene phone call to her neighbor! Oh dear, it looks like things aren’t exactly what they seem in suburban Maryland!



Surely we’d be willing to forgive Beverly for a few obscene phone calls and letters. Life as a stay-at-home mom can be mundane, you can’t blame her for finding her own way of spicing it up a bit. But it seems Beverly harbors a secret much worse than obscenity! When Chip’s teacher suggests he see a therapist due to his lust for gory flicks, Beverly loses it and it’s curtains for the teacher. And that’s just the beginning! Mrs. Sutphin has lessons to teach all over town; there’s that kid who never wears his seatbelt, that woman that never recycles, and worst of all that old cow who never rewinds her videotapes!

All those slobs probably deserved it, right? It’s about time someone whipped this town into shape! The trouble is, Beverly’s not so good at covering her tracks. Her family and the cops are all sure that she’s the culprit behind the rash of murders. But she might be charming enough to get herself out of it, and if her kids can sell the story to the right media outlets, the Sutphins might even stand to profit!

It's amazing what people will do behind closed doors.

It’s amazing what people will do behind closed doors.

Serial Mom is a sheer work of genius! Beverly’s maniacal obsession with her family’s happiness, neighborly duty and outward appearance trumps any sense of right and wrong. What a perfect way to show how people can get wrapped up in the most mundane details of life while forgetting the bigger picture, namely that, you know, murder is wrong. Serial Mom is the other side of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet: They both depict the dark side of suburbia and the secrets hidden underneath the idyllic veneer of singing robins and picket fences, and both have quite a bit of voyeurism involved. The difference is Waters does it with outrageous humor rather than dark drama — instead of finding weird freaky rape fantasies played out behind closed doors, Beverly finds something she considers much more horrifying: people eating without forks!

Beverly has perfected the deer-in-the-headlights look.

Beverly has perfected the deer-in-the-headlights look.

Not only does Waters do a great job of showing how despicable suburban life can be, his handling of the Sutphins’ rise to fame as a result of Beverly’s murder spree offers pretty pointed commentary on the shamelessness of good old American entrepreneurialism and thirst for fame. Q pointed out that Natural Born Killers did the very same thing the very same year, and though that film had a good bit of humor in it as well, it wasn’t a comedy first and foremost. In Serial Mom Waters saturates the screen with parodic (roast as murder weapon?) over realistic violence. Ultimately, I’d have to say I prefer comedy over drama or violence as the vehicle for any message; usually things are funny because they are true.

But the greatest thing about Serial Mom is that it isn’t trying to convince you how horrible things can be under the covers. Instead, it assumes you already know that people are dirty and gross, no matter what they look like on the outside. Waters is just showing us what we already know, or at least suspect, about our neighbors. And maybe that’s the biggest difference between him and Lynch; Lynch relies on naïveté and innocence for his films to be effective, whereas Waters not only makes fun of the concept of innocence, he tries to prove that true innocence and naïveté are, in fact, rather rare. If we’d all get off our high horses and laugh about camel toe once in a while, wouldn’t the world be a better place?


1 Response to “Serial Mom (1994)”

  1. 1 ladyfaceladyface
    August 11, 2014 at 7:25 am

    I love Serial mom and I love Maryland.

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