Serial Mom (1994)
By all accounts I was considered a rather unusual child particularly evident by my unusual preference for the movies I attended on a regular basis. Of course, I enjoyed the usual types of flicks preferred by my age group, science fiction, horror and action/adventure. The thing is I quickly broadened the scope of my predilections to encompass many of my favorite genres such several types of rather specific comedy formats like British sitcoms and dark comedies. The first dark comedies I was exposed to along this path remains one of the defining films of the category, ‘Arsenic and Old Lace’. That has always been my gold standard for the genre. My favorite filmmakers possess extraordinary skill set and dark comedy, John Waters. Most aficionados of cinema and agree that Mr. Waters is one of the most bizarre and unpredictable auteurs ever to sit behind the camera. His very earliest work correctly cemented his reputation as an acquired taste even the most seasoned film buff such as ‘Pink Flamingos’ was condemned by many mainstream critics as rude, crude and socially unacceptable was excessive use of scatological imagery. One achievement that could never be taken away from him is that he is one of the very first directors to help kickstart the midnight movie phenomenon. Since his movies redeem not suitable for mainstream consumption they found a willing audience with the devotees of midnight showings. Like many directors, he tended to maintain a semi-informal ensemble of performers. Two years after his initial opus Mr. Waters and honed his satirical skills to a razor’s edge becoming one of the undisputed masters of dark comedy. This is one of the more difficult genres why filmmakers are master. It depends upon the ability to elicit laughter from your audience utilizing the carbon some deeply disturbing themes and circumstances. Mr. Waters had a genius for focusing his attention on some of the foibles and peculiarities of our society and twist them to his own ends. The movie of the consideration here, ‘Serial Mom’ juxtaposes a pair of very familiar cinematic themes that no one would ever consider bringing together; the middle class nuclear family and serial killers. In lesser hands this would be a mess for Mr. Waters is a synergistic combination like chocolate and peanut butter.
Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is the epitome of the American suburban housewife. She resides in a nice house with her husband Eugene (you will Sam Waterston), a dentist by profession and two teenage children Misty (Ricki Lake) and Chip (Matthew Lillard). One of the trademarks of Mr. Waters is his choice of setting, Baltimore, his hometown. One personality trait that is dominant for Beverly is her fanatical insistence on order and proper procedures. Her need to preserve and defend her immutable, albeit myopic view of correct deportment extends far beyond what might be exhibited by a person with obsessive completion disorder. Some might feel the OCD behavior is inconvenient or annoying but not usually tittering on the precipice of criminal insanity. For Beverly that line has been crossed long ago and is no longer visible in the rear-view mirror. Mr. Waters paints such a finely detailed view of this woman that the audience is inexorably drawn into the world as inhabited by her family; knowing what she has done and attempting to rationalize the behavior yet perpetually denied an iota of understanding. Ms. Turner is provided with a showcase to exhibit the extent of her range as an actor. Her career has built on intense performances is erotic neo-noir, as in ‘Body Heat’, to an impressive resume containing examples of drama and mastering an eclectic spectrum of comedy. Ms. Turner captures Beverly’s dual sided personality to perfection. Underneath the smiling, amiable façade lurks a heartless psychopath devoid of even a modicum of compassion. For example, one of the first times the audience is permitted a glimpse to the way Beverley’s mind processes life a neighbor, Dottie Hinkle (Mink Stole), does something regarded as universally rude, stealing a parking space just as Beverley was starting to turn into it. Many people share the trait of ‘never forget and never forgive’. Later, when Beverley spots Dottie working on her front yard garden. The infraction is recalled in detail tempting her to point the car at her and floor the gas. She resists not out of concern or forgiveness but it is too close to home, too obvious and earlier Police Detectives Pike (Scott Wesley Morgan) and Gracey (Walt MacPherson) paid her home an official visit. The matter that disrupted breakfast. The matter being investigated was a series of extremely obscene phone calls to Dottie using language that truckers, long shore men and bikers would consider reprehensible. Beverley does get an opportunity to perpetrate vehicular first-degree murder when she notices her son’s math teacher, Mr. Stubbin (John Badila). He recently derided Chip for his attitude blaming it on mental health issues strongly inflicted by bad parenting. Beverly dubs the engine smashing directly into the hapless educator reversing her car to roll over him again. This was witness by Luann Hodges (Kim Swann)) who had snuck outside to smoke a joint between classes.
Subtle nuances infused in the characters proves to be crucial to the success and timeless nature of the very dark comedy. The neighbors are straight out of a fifties sit-com or family oriented movie. The same holds true for Beverley, albeit taken to a wickedly humorous height. Beverley can hide her true nature with a pleasantly convincing smile that morphs into facial expression that is demonic. It reminds me of the first episode of Showtime’s awarding winning series ‘Dexter’. The protagonist, a serial killer, who describes himself as an emotionless monster hiding behind a human mask, providing Beverly with a means to hide in plain sight. When among people her ‘cloaking device’ is active deceiving those near her. During the time when her inner killer is active, her expression shifts into one that relishes being the uncouth offenders to the justice they deserved. The charade extends to her bedroom when alone with her husband. Before retiring the night Beverly knees beside the bed for her evening tide prayers.
Beginning in the second act and retaining the focus of the story for the duration is Beverley’s capture and subsequent trial. It is at this point that Mr. Waters unsheathes his claws and unleashes his remarkable penchant for his remarkable social commentary. The trial of Beverly instantly turns into a media circus. Younger members of the audience are reminded to understand that this film preceded the extreme influence social media exerts today. If the movie was produced now Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and other outlets would have to be included in the story. Again, proof of the endurance of the themes some details would be altered but the message pertaining to how the media makes heroes out of heinous psychopaths would remain, perhaps greatly intensified because of the explosion in the dependency. In a brilliant scene that spotlights the way that tragedy loses its inherent horror as the story goes viral shifting the focus from the crime to the soaring increase in the alleged perpetrators notoriety and media presence. Like vultures flocking to carrion media outlets descend on the Sutphin family most with contracts and checkbooks in hand. News networks scramble to secure exclusive rights for interviews ensuring their exclusivity in disseminating the salacious craved by a public ravenous for a slightest iota concerning the misery of others. Years ago, it was that the medium would be the message, how we receive information superseding the facts. When Chip is confronted by the angry son of one of his mother’s victims the vengeance induced ire quickly turns to a conversation were Chip explains of a movie deal over interview honorariums. Chip secures the point by stating that the deal they were considering already has Suzanne Somers attached to play Beverley. The other boy’s natural grief, anger and desire for revenge dissolves, overwhelmed by the potential pf large sums of money. A young man who should be grieving the inexplicable murder of his brother and a fellow student in their high school whose mother committed that inexplicably insane action are joined together not in a natural commiseration of pain and loss but with the goal to milk as much fiscal gain as possible by feeding the perversely interested public with all the gory details they crave, for the right price with many of zero on the check.