In real life John Waters is a true-crime fan (evidenced in Divine’s rant about her criminal associations in Female Trouble (1974)). So it was only a matter of time before he tackled a full-scale murder-spree satire, Serial Mom (1994), which is actually as much about the cult of celebrity that surrounds serial killers (the film’s reference to serial killer trading cards is not a Waters joke; they do exist). Waters takes the idea one step farther by having his serial killer, Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner in the second best performance of her career), commit her crimes out of a sense of outraged decorum.
I showed the film to a few Waters neophytes the other night, and in the first few scenes—before they got the joke—they were complaining, “This is like a sitcom.” Of course it is—this is Leave it to Beaver with mayhem (almost a suggestion that maybe the mom (Barbara Billingsley) in that show wasn’t named June Cleaver fer nuthin’). Beverly is a lady who, by her view of the world, is perfectly justified in making the world a better (or more decorous) place by removing people who stand up their dates, don’t recycle, steal a parking place or are simply unbearably rude. What makes the film truly subversive is that Waters has shrewdly made it so that the viewer more often than not is on Beverly’s side. How much guiltier can you feel than rooting for a serial killer? Deliciously wicked and deliriously funny, Serial Mom is one of Waters’ most accomplished works.