Serial Mom Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
Beverly (Kathleen Turner) is the perfect happy homemaker. Along with her doting husband, Eugene (Sam Waterston), and two children, Misty (Ricki Lake) and Chip (Matthew Lillard), she lives a life straight out of Good Housekeeping. But this nuclear family just might explode when Beverly's fascination with serial killers collides with her ever-so-proper code of ethics – transforming her from middle-class mom to mass murderer! Soon, the bodies begin to pile up… and suburbia faces a horror even worse than wearing white after Labor Day. (From Scream Factory’s official synopsis)
As I’ve probably mentioned in previous reviews, I’m a big fan of John Waters the person, the filmmaker, the cultural expert, and the ethos, but I tend to enjoy his films in the abstract, rather than the process of watching them. That said, he did make two of the most compulsively rewatchable and quotable movies of all time. The first, rather predictably, is Hairspray (1988), which was the director’s mainstream breakthrough. The other is Serial Mom (1994) – the often overlooked box office flop that more or less marked the end of his brief run as a ‘studio’ filmmaker. While not nearly as vulgar or grotesque as his earliest work, Serial Mom combines almost all of Waters’ key interests – gross-out gags, absurdly obscene language, Herschell Gordon Lewis movies, ‘50s pop culture, true crime, trashy courtroom drama, and other idiosyncrasies of Americana.
When the film was released in 1994, true crime entertainment had grown into a cottage industry, but America was not nearly as obsessed by true crime and real-world courtroom drama as Waters was himself (he had a habit of sitting in the audience during actual Baltimore area court cases for years). With the exception of the Menéndez brothers trial (which was parodied in Ben Stiller’s The Cable Guy, 1996), the concept was still usually connected to weekly TV dramas. It wasn’t a phenomenon and it’s very likely that the film suffered at the box office because audiences simply didn’t “get” the satire on the outrageously sarcastic level Waters was presenting it. Yet, shortly after the film’s US release, the O.J. Simpson murder case broke and the ensuing trial was televised by CourtTV to staggering viewership numbers. It turned out that Serial Mom was ahead of its time, though only by a couple of months (on the other hand, Gus Van Sant’s To Die For covered similar subject matter in 1995 and didn’t do much better at the box office).
Kathleen Turner has never been better or better suited for a role. She must not have seemed like the most obvious choice for one of Waters’ muses at the time. Her career as the mainstream sex symbol had been cut short by a couple of early-’90s flops (Herbert Ross’ Undercover Blues  and Jeff Kanew’s V.I. Warshawski , in particular). Waters likely cast her specifically because he liked the irony of a high-profile sex symbol in the June Cleaver role, but he couldn’t have assume that she’d be so perfectly tuned for the role (especially since she apparently wasn’t his first choice). The thing that’s so brilliant about this particular performance is that Turner ends up striking the perfect balance between the kind of affected weirdness that is expected from a John Waters movie and genuinely great acting – not to mention the sheer athleticism of committing to a foot chase, in heels, despite suffering from rheumatoid arthritis.
Serial Mom was originally released on stateside DVD in 1999 by HBO. That disc was correctly framed at 1.66:1, but was not anamorphically enhanced. Years later, in 2008, Universal’s Focus Features released a Collector’s Edition that included new extras and a new anamorphic transfer that was misframed at 1.78:1. A Blu-ray version surfaced in Germany, France, and the UK, but the film was absent from US HD disc until this Scream Factory release. Unfortunately, it appears they were handed their transfer directly from Universal (same as the European releases), who is, as many home video enthusiasts know, are not known for their consistency. The problem here isn’t exorbitant DNR, as seen on the Universal-born transfers of Scream Factory’s Darkman and Cat People discs, rather, some very obvious issues with edge enhancement, digital noise, posterized gradations, and over-sharpening effects, like edge enhancement. In fact, it looks so much like an up-converted standard definition transfer that I’m willing to assume that is exactly what it is. It’s a decent up-convert – details are more broadly distributed than a DVD transfer would allow (i.e. the backgrounds are significantly fuzzier than the foregrounds) and the pastel color palette is bright, but I don’t think there’s any way to spin this as anything but a disappointing transfer.
Serial Mom was released after Dolby Digital and DTS had made their debuts, but was low-budget enough to still have been released in ‘old-fashioned’ Dolby Stereo. This Blu-ray includes uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio versions of that 2.0 mix, as well as the 5.1 remix that has accompanied just about every digital home video release. For the most part, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two. The key difference is the discrete qualities of the center channel, which keeps the dialogue from bleeding. Effects work is minimal, limited mostly to incidental noises and a few cartoonish additions that are added to punch-up the slapstick. The concert scene, where L7 plays a fake band called The Camel Lips is the most aggressive in terms of its noise, immersion, and directional enhancement. Basil Poledouris’ mockingly sentimental score offers both tracks plenty of stereo effects and rich bass enhancement.
Commentary with director John Waters – This first commentary was available on the Collector’s Edition DVD and I assume it is the same one that was recorded for HBO’s DVD. There’s quite a bit of behind-the-scenes information here, but Waters’ commentaries are more about pretending to watch the movie with the director sitting on the couch next to you than learning about the filmmaking process. Really, the track is most enjoyable when he’s waxing on about the history of serial killers, courtroom drama, and celebrity scandals.
Commentary with Waters and star Kathleen Turner – The second track was recorded for the Collector’s Edition. Here, Waters covers some of the same ground, but is generally ‘better behaved’ as he asks Turner questions about her experience on the film. Unfortunately, they run out of steam pretty early on and there’s a lot of blank space.
In conversation with director John Waters, actress Kathleen Turner, and actress Mink Stole (34:27, HD) – Scream Factory’s one exclusive extra is a nice retrospective roundtable that covers the production of the film, it’s inspirations, audience reactions, and how prescient it was. There is a lot of overlap with the commentaries, but the group vibe is lively enough to justify hearing some of the same info again, and Stole talks quite a bit about the early days of Waters’ career.
The Making Of Serial Mom (6:06, SD) – The original promotional featurette.
Serial Mom: Surreal Moments – This retrospective featurette from the Collector’s Edition DVD includes interviews with Waters, Stole, casting director Pat Moran, production designer Vincent Pirano, and actors Patricia Hearst, Ricki Lake, and Matthew Lillard.
The Kings Of Gore: Herschell Gordon Lewis and David Friedman (11:26, HD) – In the final DVD holdover, columnist and critic Dennis Dermody and Waters offer a brief history of the groundbreaking splatter movies made by Lewis and Friedman, as well as their inspiration on Waters’ work.
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