We are living in a time where true crime is more popular than ever before. The podcast Serial seemed to help push the genre’s popularity to incredible heights and since it first appeared there has been an incredible amount of podcasts, documentaries, and books that appear to have been inspired by it.
Although true crime is a current pop culture phenomenon, people becoming obsessed with real crime stories (especially ones involving murder) is not new in the slightest. The brilliant filmmaker John Waters (Cry-baby, Pink Flamingos) portrayed this fascination with murderers and their trials in his 1994 comedy Serial Mom. Despite the film “flopping” in the box office, it did something that was quite special: It predicted the current true crime craze that has taken over the media.
In 1993, the Menendez brothers’ were on trial for the murder of their parents. The trial became a national sensation and was aired live on TV for the country to sit around and take in as entertainment. The following` year, topping the Menendez bros received, O.J. Simpson’s infamous trial for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman gained an even larger amount of publicity and was also aired live on TV. The car chase that preceded his arrest was even shown live on TV as it unfolded, causing television networks to interrupt the coverage of the 1994 NBA finals.
Simultaneously, John Waters finishes the filming of Serial Mom, a dark comedy about a housewife who becomes a murderer, and a media sensation. She receives celebrity status from both her family and strangers, not unlike people that the country was seeing become actual, real life media sensations in their own backyard. Waters even begins the film with title screens explaining that the movie is based on true events, which of course it wasn’t, but even I believed it may have been until a quick google google search after watching it for the first time.
There are a lot of reasons that John Waters’ Serial Mom should be considered a classic, but the simple fact that it almost holds up better now than it even did 25 years ago is mind-blowing. The relevance that the film had with current events at the time of its release is notable by itself, but it has definitely gained a whole new sense of relevance since 1994.
All of these profound characteristics are additions to the films’ humorous way of dealing with such heavy topics. The satirical nature of the movie is beautifully over-the-top, which is where so much of its humor derives from. The sermon the pastor gives is a fantastic example of this. As they enter the church, we get a shot of the church’s marquee which reads “Today’s Sermon: Capital Punishment and You.” This is followed by the pastor giving a ridiculously hilarious sermon claiming that because Jesus did not take a stand against capital punishment on the cross and because it is now law, that it only makes sense for them all to approve and promote capital punishment.
Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner), the titular “Serial Mom”, a clever name given to her by the media, attempts to murder her son’s best friend and follows him to a club where a rock band is performing. While she waits outside in the line to get into the venue, people begin recognizing her as if they are her fans and start letting her go ahead of them while the bouncer excitedly lets her in. Once inside, she begins killing Scotty Barnhill (Justin Whalin) with an entire crows of onlookers cheering her on. In the poor boys final moments, the crowd goes wild with their applause and even begin chanting “Serial Mom! Serial Mom!” The celebrity status that Beverly is given at this club is alarming, shocking, and comical.
The bigger examples of the satire in the film all reside in the trial of Beverly Sutphin. The film’s trial is immediately a media circus, just as we saw with O.J. Simpson’s trial and plenty of high profile trials afterward. In a key moment, Beverly‘s daughter Misty (Ricki Lake- Hairspray, Cry-Baby) poses for photographers as they are walk into the trial. Her mother is about to appear in court for committing multiple murders and she doesn’t hesitate to show off in front of the cameras. Later she can be seen outside the courthouse selling “Serial Mom” t-shirts alongside her new love interest, the photographer, who is also selling Serial Mom books to other housewives. One woman even asks him to sign the book to her as a “Future Serial Mom.”
Beverly‘s son Chip, played by Scream‘s Matthew Lillard, can also be found outside the courtroom on the phone booking talk shows appearances for him and his family. Topping that is a hilarious moment with a family member of one of Beverly‘s victims. He approaches Chip and yells “Your mom killed my brother” before punching him in the face. Chip calms the mourning family member down quickly and immediately asks him if he’s “signed off yet.” The brother of the deceased responds, You mean for TV or print?
Towards the end of an elaborate trial sequence, Suzanne Somers (Three’s Company) makes a late entrance into the courtroom distracting everyone, including the detective on the stand, the jury, and even the judge. Somers arrives to the trial because she is in talks to play Beverly Sutphin in an upcoming TV movie chronicling the larger-than-life story. She even does an interview after Beverly is acquitted where she calls Beverly “a normal housewife” and praises her feminism.
Serial Mom accomplishes a lot despite its slightly overlooked immediate release. Whether or not the film is ever considered one of John Waters greatest films, it deserves a place among some of the best dark comedy movies. Its satire and its humorous take on violence was ahead of its time and can be considered a fantastic social commentary just as much now as it was in the 1990s. The casualness of those involved and obsession of those that weren’t, display a reality that exists in the world right now. But the film doesn’t even need those references to real things or any commentary at all, because on its own Serial Mom is an excellent and entertaining dark comedy.