Serial Mom (1994)

Mention Serial Mom to a suitably knowledgeable crowd, and you’ll hear a lot of, “Oh yeah, that was his [Waters’s] last…” and then some trailing off. His last great film? His last successful film? Depending upon whom you ask, both are true, or neither. Whatever your thoughts on it, although it’s part of his post-Hairspray mainstream canon, it’s pure John Waters, even if it does sacrifice a great deal of his notable filth (and maybe picks up some cohesion along the way).

Beverly Sutphin (Kathleen Turner) is the perfect wife and mother in a squeaky-clean Cleaver-esque family, as noted in the text itself. Her dentist husband Eugene (Sam Waterston), son Chip (Matthew Lillard), and daughter Misty (Rikki Lake) all dote on her and are doted upon in turn. Everything is a picture of idealized domesticity, except that Beverly is severely mentally ill and holds intense grudges against those she perceives as having slighted her. She acts out relatively harmlessly at first, making obscene phone calls to her neighbor Dottie Hinkle (Mink Stole, acting against type), but quickly escalating to murder when Chip’s teacher claims at a parent-teacher meeting that he thinks the boy’s interest in horror film is affecting his academic work. Once she crosses that line, she falls down the slippery slope at a rapid pace, snowballing into murdering of Misty’s crush Carl (Lonnie Horsey) for rejecting Misty and bringing another girl (our old friend Traci Lords) to a local swap meet, as well as a various others who are impolite or rude. This leads up to a trial of great spectacle, in which Beverly represents herself and discredits various witnesses and earns the sympathy of the jury, including Patty Hearst (credited as Juror #8), although the films ends on an ambiguous note about the ultimate fate of Beverly (and her family).

As always with Waters, this film is hilarious, with touches of absolute comic genius. Undersung comedian Justin Whalin has a minor role (and a major scene) in the film, and Patricia Dunnock is consistently fantastic as Chip’s (girl?)friend Birdie. There’s a lot to recommend here, but I hesitate to go into more detail for fear of ruining the fun for those who have yet to experience the comic genius. If I had one note to give, it’s that I agree with Roger Ebert’s review of the film; Turner is phenomenal in this film (that “pussywillow” scene alone manages to be both pure art and pure comedy), but she does play Beverly with such an earnest sincerity that, at times, the sympathy for such an obviously unwell woman supersedes humor, but not always.

After all, isn’t Serial Mom the more palatable version of Female Trouble? Or, more accurately, doesn’t (Female Trouble + Polyester) – Desperate Living = Serial Mom? I’m pretty sure my math is right here. Like Dawn Davenport before her, Beverly Sutphin goes on a killing spree and ultimately stands trial for her crimes. But whereas Dawn got the chair, Beverly, lovable insane Beverly, gets away with her crimes (maybe). Dawn gives a pre-execution monologue like she’s getting an Oscar; Beverly’s story is transformed into a TV miniseries and victims of her crimes are willing to sign away their story rights. Both films are chasing a thesis about the celebrity of crime, but Serial Mom does it through the eye of someone who’s seen twenty years of growing media attention and the resultant dilution of public outrage into ironic (and perhaps unironic) antiheroism, not to mention someone who crossed the Rubicon into the mainstream (for better or worse). What I’m saying is this: you can get Kathleen Turner and America’s Darling (D.A.) Sam Waterston into a movie wherein a man gets stabbed in the back with a fire poker and his liver has to be removed from said implement comically, but not a film in which a chicken is crushed to death by fucking. John Waters couldn’t make Female Trouble or Pink Flamingos in 1994, and maybe that’s a good thing; it gave him the opportunity to tackle a similar concept in two different ways, and although the size of an audience isn’t the sole factor in determining success, it can’t be said that Serial Mom didn’t reach a larger audience. What (if anything) it lost along the way is worth the sacrifice to create a John Waters movie you can (almost) watch with your mom.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

A Dirty Shame (2004)

As loudly & proudly as I’ll proclaim John Waters the greatest filmmaker/artist/human being of all time now, he was even more important to me when I was an ornery high school student in the early 00s. I owe the entirety of my sense of humor, camp, and love of “bad” movies to teenage introductions to works like Pink Flamingos & Serial Mom, which shook me out of my nü metal shithead phase into something much sillier. That’s why it was a huge deal when Waters released a new film in theaters the summer after I graduated. A Dirty Shame was a return to form for Waters, whose previous two efforts, Pecker & Cecil B. Demented, were a little too mired in arts world self reflection & nü metal era creative doldrums to match the singular eccentricity of his earlier works. With A Dirty Shame, The Pope of Trash figured out how to re-energize his voice in a cinematic climate where once taboo, over-the-top gross-out comedies had become the norm, thanks to success stories like The Farrelly Brothers & the Jackass crew. He did so by returning to the sex-obsessed comedies of his youth and the suburban-invasion narratives of his mid-career mainstream successes like Hairspray & Polyester, crafting a kind of career-retrospective overview of his cinematic aesthetic. A Dirty Shame has only become more valuable over time for that redemptive act of career-spanning review & revitalization, if not only because it might very well be the last film Waters even directs.

Tracey Ullman stars as prudish Baltimore housewife Sylvia Stickles, whose calm suburban neighborhood, her daughter included, is seemingly being taken over by horned-up “sex addicts.” As more & more fetishists appear out of thin air and even the squirrels & shrubbery in her neighborhood begin to titter with teenage-level horniness, taunting her and other “neuters” with lewd acts, this phenomenon appears to be a supernatural event. It turns out to be more than supernatural; it’s divine. Johnny Knoxville soon appears as a Christ-like, miracle-performing figurehead with a devoted, DTF cult of apostles behind him, turning A Dirty Shame into a religious allegory so blatant & over-the-top it would make Aronofsky blush. Sylvia Stickles joins their ranks when she’s struck with a freak accident concussion that leads to a kind of religious epiphany . . . in her clitoris. Along with her fellow concussion-survivors/fetishists, she becomes a devotee to the Second Cumming as a self-identified “cunnilingus bottom,” waging war on the Neuters of her neighborhood & going on a religious pilgrimage to discover “a brand new sex act,” which is feared to be a myth. As the apostles barrel closer to the promised Resurrsexion, their horniness devolves from combative exhibitionism to zombie-level mayhem & sexual terror. Waters builds the cartoonishness of this societal meltdown to a point where it has to accommodate David Hasselhoff’s frozen feces, CGI squirrels headbutting each other in ecstasy, corpses rising from the dead, and a star-filled sky slathered in divine semen in its (literal) climax. It’s even sillier than it sounds.

Of course, like all John Waters films, A Dirty Shame survives more on the outrageous moments of individual flourishes than it does on strength of its plot. Outside a couple shots of flaccid dicks, the film does nothing especially vulgar to earn its NC-17 rating. In fact, it’s arguably a fairly tame entry into the modern sex comedy canon. It is irreverently aggressive in its sex positivity, though, stocking its legion of horned-up side characters with bears, sploshers, rimmers, adult babies, masturbation addicts, and a go-go dancing Selma Blair with Russ Meyer-proportioned CGI tits. Character names like Ursula Udders, Roddy the Rimmer, and Fat Fuck Frank mingle with intentionally shoddy CGI and intensely punny one-liners like “I’m Viagravated and I’m not gonna take it anymore!” to establish joke-a-second ZAZ rhythms that call back to the playful energy of Waters’s early, Dreamlanders era. The only real difference is that the film is more dedicated to silliness than shock value and outside of appearances from longtime collaborators Mink Stole & Patty Hearst, most of the traditional Waters crew has been replaced with the likes of Johnny Knoxville, Chris Isaak, and Tracey Ullman (who’s essentially doing her best Amy Sedaris in the role). Waters even advances his visual aesthetic here, integrating a lyrical use of Ed Wood-esque B-movie ephemera to visualize the film’s horned-up concussion sequences and fully embracing the drive-in horror movie trappings those concussed transformations imply.

Waters has long been teasing the production of a queer-themed Christmas comedy titled Fruitcake. As the years roll on and his struggle to secure the full funding he desires for the project stagnates, it seems increasingly likely that A Dirty Shame will be his final feature as a director. Of course, I’d love to see Fruitcake completed & distributed to as wide of an audience as possible; every Waters film I’ve ever seen in the theater (I’m up to eight now!) always plays better with a crowd. I’ve come to peace with the likelihood that A Dirty Shame will be his final filmmaking triumph, however. It’s a fittingly enthusiastic swan song that encapsulates both the wildly idiosyncratic energy a young & angry Waters gifted the world and the mainstream raunch comedy aesthetic he inadvertently pioneered. At the very least, it saved him from concluding his catalog on the downbeat of his creative lowpoint, the two late 90s arts scene comedies that preceded it. A Dirty Shame brought Waters back to sex cinema as an elder statesman of Filth. We we’re lucky to have seen him shine in all his smutty glory one final time, even if his sense of shock value had become an unlikely kind of cultural norm.

-Brandon Ledet