We live in a time where crime re-enactment shows are back and bigger than ever. With hit TV series like American Crime Story, films like Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile or even hit podcasts like Serial, we can’t get enough of stories about murderers and the crimes they committed. This obsession has been around for years but it really hit the big time in the 90s when the O.J. Simpson murder trial became must-see-TV and effectively took the True Crime genre into the stratosphere. Of course, whenever there’s a genre this popular it will inevitably get a few people parodying it. We’ve all seen a thousand various parodies of Making a Murderer, Netflix ended up just making an official parody of their own hit series with American Vandal. It’s an easy genre to make fun of but there was one movie that beat them all to the punch, possibly one of the earliest to parody this genre right before its big O.J. related explosion… the cult comedy Serial Mom
Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is your average Baltimore mother. She has a wonderful family, her dentist husband Eugene (Sam Waterston), her boy-crazy daughter Misty (Ricki Lake) and her horror-obsessed son Chip (Matthew Lillard). She lives a good life, so sweet that Doris Day would find her to be overly cheery with her dislike of gum and constant need to pointedly recycle, as though sorting the plastic from the glass is some sort of social symbol. Of course, being the perfect housewife and mother is not that easy and eventually, the little things that have been bugging Beverly for a while get to her and she begins one of the most terrifying murder sprees in Baltimore history, murdering people for the capital crimes of rudeness and general thoughtlessness. Can Beverly get away with her crimes or will Serial Mom soon be the mother hen of a cell block?
I’ve made no secret that John Waters is my favourite film director, his comedic aesthetic is unlike anyone else’s and I’ve yet to see a film of his I didn’t immediately enjoy. Serial Mom would honestly be my second favourite film of his, certainly the best of his mainstream fare. It’s a sharp skewering of a genre that was still growing; the lack of understanding of just what was being parodied at the time may help explain why it was such a bomb at the box office and with critics. Time has been kind to Serial Mom, as the more we have come to enjoy the true-crime drama, the more this satire lands brilliantly. You could run this movie beside any of the True Crime documentaries and it would fit in among them all, even giving them a run for their money with hammy performances and cheesy dialogue.
Kathleen Turner easily delivers one of the best performances of her career, filling Beverly with an almost manic cheeriness that changes to a murderous glare with just the raising of an eyebrow. The amount of control that Kathleen has over her expressions is incredible and it sells every single joke. Watching her go from pure elation after one of the films more memorable murders (you will NEVER listen to “Tomorrow” from Annie the same way again) to evil irritation at seeing a witness she now has to chase down while wearing her Sunday best is the kind of comedic perfection that you can’t teach. Her delivery of every line is incredible; she finds the joke and sells it expertly. She’s created a complete maniac in Serial Mom and pushes her just far enough into insanity so it’s funny but real enough that they don’t ruin the “based on real events” joke that the entire movie leans on.
This is also some of the greatest ensemble work of John’s career, a career that’s loaded with a ton of great ensembles but this one is special. Every character is so gloriously developed that if you throw any combination of them together there’s going to be a joke. Not only do we have this Leave it to Beaver-on-steroids main family but then there’s a porn-obsessed weird kid, a high-strung neighbour getting obscene phone calls (from Beverly), a pair of jerks who don’t take care of themselves and get upset when things don’t go their way and a pair of bumbling detectives who are about as unprofessional as they can get. My personal favourite though is Birdie (Patricia Dunnock), Chip’s girlfriend who is also a horror obsessive but when she sees real violence by stumbling onto one of Beverly’s victims, instantly recognises the difference between real and fake violence and is justly horrified. That’s kind of poignant nowadays since we’re apparently back to blaming violent video games and movies for actual violence, even though the people who enjoy those forms of media are usually the least violent. This point was being made in films during the 90s and it somehow still needs to be said..
The high point of this film is easily the third act set in a courtroom, somewhere Waters knows well since he has been open about enjoying going to trials and watching the proceedings and that sharp view of the courtroom lends itself to some of the best comedy in the film. From having a laugh at the gross commercialisation of murder to the behaviour of the jury and witnesses to just how easy it is to distract a judge (the stuff with Suzanne Somers distracting the judge feels almost like a warning about the upcoming OJ case where Judge Ito would be infamously distracted by all the celebrity attention he would receive). It’s all brilliant and culminates in one of the most gloriously perfect endings that puts a lovely little exclamation point at the end of this movie, completing the joke of the film with perfect grace and a gloriously delivered “Suzanne Somers! This is my bad side!”
Serial Mom was ahead of its time and unappreciated on release but here we are 25 years later and it works better than ever. Brilliant performances, a sharp-as-a-knife script and plenty of great comedic murder there to delight us all, it just works. It feels like a lost episode of a series about mothers who mutilate, but this time the laughter is intentional. If nothing else, you need to see it just for Kathleen Turner’s delightfully demented performance that dominates the entire movie.