Serial Mom: Some Secrets About John Waters’ Murderous Mother’s Day Classic
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Is Serial Mom the world’s most inappropriate Mother’s Day film or is it the most appropriate? Standing alongside films like Rosemary’s Baby or Dead Alive, it certainly paints an alternate view of the stresses of being a mom. And what better way to celebrate mothers than with a mother who only wants what’s best for everyone — even if it means a little killing now and then?
John Waters’ classic satire was a bomb when it debuted — costing around $13 million, it only brought in less than $8 million. But since then, it’s become a perennial classic, picking up new fans every year.
That’s probably because a lot has changed since 1992: the true-crime genre has taken off, for one thing. Back then, it was a still and novel idea that the country could be transfixed by a major story like the OJ trial, but now such films and TV shows are practically cliché.
Life has changed for John Waters as well. He often talks about his fondness for attending trials, as Suzanne Somers does in Serial Mom. But he simply can’t anymore, he says; he’s recognized and everyone assumes that he’s making a movie about whatever the trial is. (For the record, he doesn’t have any films he’s working on these days; he’s had too many disappointments with movies that don’t get made, so now he’s sticking with books, which are far easier to get published.)
Another reason for Serial Mom‘s enduring popularity: It rewards multiple viewings with strange little Easter Eggs and cameos. For example, John Waters provides the voice of Ted Bundy, the serial killer.
Even the locations are cameos of a sort: The school in the film was the one that Divine attended, and the video store was John’s actual neighborhood video store. There’s a clip of a William Castle film playing at one point; he was a horror director whom John Waters would go on to play on the show Feud.
Permission to use the church was the most difficult to obtain of any of the locations, but it was the use of “Tomorrow” from Annie that carried the most absurd price tag. It cost $60,000 to use the song, due to the murderous context in which it gets played.
And imagine what the movie might have been if Kathleen Turner had turned it down: Meryl Streep was considered for her role as was Glenn Close. Even Julie Andrews was potentially slated to star. Anyone of them would have been magnificent of course — and who knows, maybe there’s still time for a Serial Grandma sequel.
Perhaps because true-crime stories were less widespread back then, people still think that Serial Mom is a true story. People continue to ask Waters whatever happened to Beverly Sutphin, even though there’s no such real person.
In fact, if there’s any real basis for the mom in the film, it might be John’s own mother. Serial Mom has always been her favorite of his works, and he based the character’s fussy high standards at least in part on her. Of course, she never stabbed anyone — that we know of.
What do you think about the film Serial Mom?
This article was originally published on May 4, 2020. It has since been updated.