Photo: Courtesy of Home Box Office Video.
I was 12 years old when I first saw Serial Mom and I've never looked at pussy willows the same way since.
The film turned 20 years old this month and its director, the inimitable sleaze-king John Waters, turned 68 today. The extremely dark comedy stars Kathleen Turner as the pathologically cheerful Beverly Sutphin, devoted wife and mother of two — and homicidal maniac. In an instant, she transforms from "Beaver Cleaver's mother" into raging killer, spurred by the most minor of slights: a stolen parking space, an interrupted weekend, the very idea of wearing white after Labor Day. Video store clerks everywhere must have felt a sweet sense of vindication when Beverly bludgeons to death (with a leg of lamb, no less) a woman who refuses to rewind her rentals.
Those same clerks might be the reason why this film eventually found its way into my young hands. My parents weren't the sort to take their child to R-rated movies, but after Serial Mom was released on VHS, I somehow sneaked it past my mother one weekend at the video rental store, and the guy at the counter said nothing.
I didn't absorb the full power of the movie at the time. Elements of it, however, stuck in my brain like fungal spores, where they would quietly take root and sprout some years later, when I would understand where I had first heard about splatter maestro Herschell Gordon Lewis and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. (That would be from Beverly's horror-obsessed son, Chip, played by Matthew Lillard.)
Serial Mom also introduced me to Waters' philosophy of "cinema terrorism," from which he'd shied away slightly in his two prior films. It was the relative success (mostly in the home video market) of Hairspray and Cry-Baby that allowed Waters to make this film with well-known actors and a budget of $13 million — quite a step up from the $10,000 he used to make Pink Flamingos 22 years earlier. Waters used Serial Mom to return to some of his baser interests: celebrity culture, true crime, genre film, and deviant sex.
That was what hooked me. Within the first few minutes, we see sweet Kathleen Turner prank-calling Mink Stole: "Is this the c**ksucker residence?" Pure, filthy gold.
Beverly might be mental, but she's hardly alone — the film is littered with Waters' typical gaggle of perverts. There's Scottie, a vigorous masturbator who carries around vintage Bettie Page smut magazines and watches Chesty Morgan sexploitation flicks. My favorite was Marvin Pickles, a man who writes dirty graffiti on bathroom stall walls and peers through gloryholes, and whose addiction to deviance ends up saving Beverly from conviction. Even the "normals" have their secret peccadilloes, like the old lady who makes her dog lick her feet as she watches Annie. Most offensively, Beverly's neighbor refuses to recycle.
That was critical for me. Like much of Waters' body of work, Serial Mom reminded me of my outsiderness as a gay teenager growing up in a manicured suburb. Screw inclusion, I realized, we're all freaks — but at least I put my bottles in the blue bin. Embracing difference instead of inclusion is a hard pill to swallow in this decade in America, when gay marriage is so commonplace that it's boring. "I look down on people that are getting married," Waters once said. "I know gay people want to get married. Why? The whole wedding experience is such a terrible, corny, hetero tradition." He didn't mean people shouldn't have the right to get married, just not the inclination toward the sappy same-old same-old.
That same low opinion of everything normal animates the sex in his films. The infamous chicken scene in Pink Flamingos comes to mind, of course, but there's also that classic gem from Aunt Ida in Female Trouble as she tries to coerce her straight nephew to go gay: "The world of heterosexuals is a sick and boring life!" Hell, the whole plot of A Dirty Shame is about rejecting sex norms and embracing, say, your inner bear.
Sex is only part of it — Waters fires all salvos against wholesome entertainment, too. In Serial Mom, Beverly gleefully murders the elderly Annie fan to the tune of "Tomorrow." (If you ever doubt Waters' commitment to attacking wholesome film, just imagine how much the licensing for that song must've cost.) In Cecil B. DeMented, Melanie Griffith's character yells, "'Family' is just another word for 'censorship'!" after launching a tear gas attack on a screening of Patch Adams: The Director's Cut.
Waters certainly isn't encouraging anyone to go out and kill people, but he is interested in shock, and good art should shock us out of our comfort zone. Through his films, Waters prepared me and others like me for a love of outlaw art, and an appreciation for the role that trash must play, for better or worse, in pop culture.
Without Serial Mom I wouldn't have seen Cecil B. DeMented, which name-checks some of my now-favorite directors: Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Pedro Almódovar, Kenneth Anger, David Lynch. Without Waters, I might never have read Patty Hearst's autobiography about her ordeal with the SLA. I might never have seen Pasolini's Salò, and I wouldn't have subsequently read the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom. I wouldn't understand why Waters thinks people should be allowed to shout "fire!" in a crowded theater.
John Waters, I'd be worse off without you.