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Serial Mom (1994)
Universal Studios Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 5/6/2008
All Ratings out of
Review by Mike Long, Posted on 5/13/2008
My, how times have changed. During the 1970s and 80s, John Waters was seen as one of the ultra maverick filmmakers. His movies featured outlandish characters and wild acts of degradation, and each earned a reputation for being the height of trash. Even when Waters toned things down (somewhat) in the late 80s and even made films with big stars, his movies were still quite weird. Given that, who would have ever thought that we would live in a world where there would be a Broadway musical based on one of Waters' film that had won awards and spawned a movie? (And now, there's a second Broadway musical!) Now may be a good time to rediscover some of Waters' older movies, such as the before-its-time Serial Mom.
Kathleen Turner stars in Serial Mom as Beverly Sutphin, the perfect suburban mom. She lives with dentist husband, Eugene (Sam Waterston), and her two children, Misty (Ricki Lake) and Chip (Matthew Lillard). Beverly keeps an immaculate home, cooks, and recycles -- from the outside, she is a model citizen. However, Beverly has very strict moral code, to the point that it's warped. She judges her friends and neighbors and if they break a rule that she sees as sacred (or even worse, rude), she takes it upon herself to punish them. At first, she sticks with prank phone calls, but it eventually reaches the point where she turns to murder. She kills those around her who she sees as unfit, and yet, she's able to maintain her very normal persona. As the bodies pile up, the police begin to suspect Beverly, but her family refuses to believe that she could be a killer. But, when the evidence being irrefutable, the family must decide if they want to support or condemn Beverly.
Arriving in 1994, Serial Mom came on the heels of The Silence of the Lambs, which had sparked an interest in both serial killers and serial killer films in America. At the time, the film was seen for what it is, which is a spoof of serial killers -- I mean, how absurd is the idea of a stay-at-home-mom who is a serial killer. However, the years have been very kind to this movie, as the other themes of the film have become even more prevalent. The O.J. Simpson trial demonstrated the kind of media scrutiny and hype that a crime could receive, and this idea is spoofed in Serial Mom. Then, we have the whole P.C. angle. The fact that Beverly wanted to kill someone who didn't recycle was certainly funny in 1994, but today, it's very easy imagine this.
The genius of Serial Mom is how subversive Waters is in his portrayal of sex and violence. The murders in the film are somewhat graphic, especially the one where a liver is impaled on a fireplace poker! However, the truly gross moments are perpetrated by the "normal" characters, such as close-ups of a couple eating chicken, or the woman who likes to have her feet licked by her dog. Beverly doesn't mind killing others, but she is very opposed to blatant sexuality and profanity. While Waters is skewering our love of sensationalizing crime, he's also commenting on the bizarre ways in which Americans judge what is acceptable and what isn't.
Underlying themes aside, Serial Mom is one of Waters' most consistent films. The movie is very funny at times, and it does an good job of taking us on this journey with the Sutphin family as we find ourselves siding with Beverly, despite her outlandish behavior. Turner is very good in the main role and she always stays in character -- Beverly never sees what she is doing as wrong. The film has some slow moments, but otherwise it's great fun and if you haven't seen it in a while, you should definitely see how well the film has held up over the last 15 years.
Serial Mom harshly judges others on DVD courtesy of Universal Studios Home Entertainment. This newly released DVD replaces the previous 1999 release from HBO Home Video, which presented the film in a full-frame aspect ratio. For the new DVD, the film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. It's odd that this is a brand-new release, because it doesn't look like it. The image is somewhat sharp, but it is littered with defects from the source material. From the opening credits, the viewer is distracted by dirt, scratches, and white specks on the image. There is some slight grain as well. Now, this isn't as bad as some cheap public domain transfer, but the defects here are quite startling. On the positive side, the image's brightness helps to translate the way in which Waters' shot the film, as do the realistic colors, most notably the reds. The DVD has a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects, which can often be weak, are quite good here, especially during crowd scenes. The surround effects are a bit too mild, and the rear speaker action from the swap-meet scene, which should very intense, is barely a whisper.
This new release of Serial Mom contains several extra features. We start with a new AUDIO COMMENTARY featuring Director John Waters and Kathleen Turner. Waters does most of the talking here, which is OK, as Turner doesn't sound well. They talk about the making of the film, and Turner is quite frank about her trepidations about being in Serial Mom. Waters is his usual self-depreciating self as he talks about the production and the actors. The DVD also contains the John Waters COMMENTARY which was found on the original release. This is a great talk, as Waters holds nothing back and gives all kind of details about the making of the movie. I've heard this commentary a couple of times, and I'm still shocked by Waters' comments about Suzanne Somers. "Serial Mom: Surreal Moments" (29 minutes) is a very detailed "making-of featurette" which features interviews with most everyone involved in the film except for Kathleen Turner. The piece starts with a breif overview of Waters' career and then carefully examines the making of the movie through comments from the cast and filmmakers. The speakers give personal and well-thought-out anecdotes about the movie. (Here we learn that Sandra Day-O'Connor visited the set!) "The Kings of Gore: Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman" (11 minutes) discusses the gore films of Lewis (which are shown in Serial Mom) and contain comments from Lewis and Friedman. Essentially, this is a primer for those who know nothing about Blood Feast and movies like it. "The Making of Serial Mom" (6 minutes) is the original promo reel for the film from 1994. This is the typical "clips and quips" shorts which has scenes from the movie and few comments from the actors. The final extra is the THEATRICAL TRAILER for the film, which is shown full-frame.
Review Copyright 2008 by Mike Long