Serial Mom: An oral history of John Waters' comedy classic
To celebrate Mother’s Day, director John Waters and star Kathleen Turner look back on 1994’s lethal comedy classic Serial Mom, which is now available as a collector’s-edition Blu-ray and DVD from Scream Factory.
By the early ’90s, cult filmmaker John Waters had gone (somewhat) mainstream with 1988’s Hairspray and 1990’s Cry-Baby. But his script for Serial Mom seemed to find the director of the notorious Divine-starring Pink Flamingos channeling his earlier, more outré output. The screenplay concerned a housewife named Beverly Sutphin who starts killing people with a variety of weapons — including a leg of lamb — for such “crimes” as failing to rewind videotapes.
JOHN WATERS: Nowadays, this kind of movie, for real, is on every cable network. It’s a ratings guarantee. If I see Casey Anthony one more time, you know?! [Laughs] This was early on — O.J. hadn’t even happened yet. Obviously, you had to have a star to get the movie greenlit.
The Baltimore-based Waters sent the script, which also included a scene in which Beverly removes a teenager’s liver with a fire poker, to Romancing the Stone and Prizzi’s Honor star Kathleen Turner.
KATHLEEN TURNER: I got to the point where she pulls the boy’s liver out with the poker iron and I went, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no.” Threw that one down, went about my way. But I couldn’t dismiss it. So I went back and read further until she kills the guy with the air conditioner and said, “No, no, no.” Threw it down again. I’m talking to my husband and saying, “You won’t believe this one.” But I went back and read it again. [Laughs] I was just so intrigued. I called John and said, “Is this a gorefest or a comedy?” He said, “Let me come and talk to you.” About four hours later he shows up at my door in New York.
WATERS: Every one of my movies is satire of a genre. Hairspray was a dance movie. Cry-Baby was a musical. Serial Mom was true-crime. Each one was satirizing a certain genre.
TURNER: I said, “As long as you’re going to do it this way, then yes.” I walked into a storm of resistance, from agents, friends, actors, everyone. “You’re an A-movie actress and he’s a B-movie director!” I said, “He’s made films that have touched and moved people all over the world!”
WATERS: She was lovely and she got the movie greenlit immediately.
Waters cast Matthew Lillard and Ricki Lake as Beverly’s children, while Sam Waterston agreed to play her husband.
WATERS: Getting Sam Waterston was more surprising than getting Kathleen. He had done The Killing Fields! He was lovely to work with, too.
TURNER: Sam is a doll. But he was a little concerned. He came up to me at one point and he said, “Do you think that we’re glamorizing serial killers?” I said, “No, no, Sam.” He has a very strong moral center. Obviously, I don’t quite share that.
As usual, Waters shot the movie in Baltimore.
WATERS: It was filmed mostly in the neighborhood where I grew up, which was weird. The high school where we filmed her killing the teacher was where Divine got bullied every day when he went to high school.
TURNER: The only murder I disliked, honestly, was lighting the can of hairspray on fire at that boy. I didn’t like that. That somehow was too real for me. But I trusted John. The rest — the liver, the leg of lamb — come on, they’re just absurd!
Waters butted heads with the film’s distributors, Savoy Pictures, during postproduction.
WATERS: They hated it. They said, “You can’t show Serial Mom setting her children’s friends on fire!” I said, “Well, that was in the script!” They said, “Well, no one’s going to like it.”
TURNER: They never got it. I was sitting in this screening with one of the heads of the studio. He turned to me and said, “It’s a comedy?!” And I [thought], “Oh, we’re in so much trouble.”
WATERS: They said, “We’re going to have a screening in deep suburbia.” God knows where — it was some place where Rodney King’s jurors live, I don’t know. It was a bad experience. But you know what? They paid me a very, very good salary to make that movie. The more money Hollywood pays you, the more they’re going to have a say. If you don’t want to hear notes, then go make an underground movie. Nobody will tell you what to do! Hollywood treated me fairly.
Released in April 1994, Serial Mom was a box office disappointment, earning only $7.82 million.
WATERS: It did not make much money. They opened it pretty wide all across America in regular movie theaters and it was the first nice spring day. No one went to see any movie that weekend. Every person worked on their yard, started their garden. You don’t think of that — at least I didn’t — when you think of the opening day. But who knows? All my movies are weird to the American public.
Over time, Waters’ film would become widely regarded as a comedy classic, and the director says there has been interest in developing a new version of the movie.
TURNER: It’s very popular.
WATERS: It lasted. It plays on television a lot, especially on Mother’s Day. With my fans, it is one of the most popular movies that I’ve made.
TURNER: There’s a group out of Long Island that reenact the entire film and they trade around who gets to play Beverly.
WATERS: There has been talk of different things. I think it would make a good TV series, where she kills once a month, and you build to that every three episodes. [Laughs]
TURNER: Did you see what was going around the internet? Somebody Photoshopped in Beverly Sutphin right behind Donald Trump with the leg of lamb over her head. He probably doesn’t rewind tapes either.
Serial Mom is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Scream Factory.