Serial Mom (Blu-ray)
(Shout! Factory, 5.9.2017)
You don’t have to be a great admirer of John Waters’ filmmaking to revere the man himself. While he should be commended for the guileless way he portrays those on the margins of society, and his films have an anything goes spirit that’s entirely their own, he never developed a real command of the medium. Instead, he poured his time and energy into an equally worthy objective: refining his abilities as a cultural observer, bringing together his interest in radical politics, true crime reporting, avant-garde art, film history, and rebellious music of all kinds to develop an instantly recognizable sensibility. Evidence of this can be found in his interviews, articles, books, and speaking engagements, but it comes through most powerfully in his films, in spite of their technical shortcomings. Tapping most powerfully into Waters’ interest in true crime and B movies, Serial Mom is littered with film clips and outrageous acts of criminality—not to mention the strange digressions involving a Pee-wee Herman doll (“that guy’s a weirdo”) and L7 (known here as “Camel Lips”)—simultaneously pleasing Waters’ outré fanbase and a substantial segment of the mainstream.
For this Blu-ray release, Shout! Factory has resurrected Waters’ commentary from the 1999 DVD, pairing it with the 2008 DVD extras, including a second commentary (with Waters and star Kathleen Turner) and two featurettes totaling 40 minutes. The longer of these is Serial Mom: Surreal Moments, which brings together many of Waters’ long-term collaborators (aka Dreamlanders) to discuss their experience with the director on this film—and beyond. The Kings of Gore devotes 11 minutes to Waters’ B movie background, specifically his interest in two directors whose work appears onscreen in Serial Mom: Herschell Gordon Lewis and Doris Wishman.
The only substantial new extra is a 34-minute conversation involving Turner, Waters, and co-star Mink Stole. Still visibly starstruck, Waters and Stole repeatedly interrupt Turner, but she still manages to share some intriguing memories. (Some of these anecdotes can be found elsewhere on the Blu-ray, but this extra is nine years newer than anything else on this disc.) The actress reveals that her representatives strongly resisted the project, but she was persuaded by her affection for the characters in Waters’ Cry-Baby, even though some of the violence in the Serial Mom script turned her off. When Stole thanks Turner for daring to work on the film, the star reminds her that she had already worked with Ken Russell (on 1984’s Crimes of Passion), a titan of transgressive narrative filmmaking.
As for Waters, he reveals the personal policies and strategies he had in place to ensure that he had a successful collaboration with Turner. For example, he insisted on showing confidence and strength whenever he was in her presence, which was quite often, as he was determined never to leave her alone on set. (Presumably, he feared that she might come into contact with one of the shadier Dreamlanders). He also repeats a favourite anecdote about the time Turner called gossip columnist Liz Smith, inspiring an item concerning studio executives’ efforts to bury the film. In the end, Waters’ version emerged unscathed, earning strong reviews and a standing ovation at Cannes. While Serial Mom never got the release the director hoped for, its popularity has never dimmed and Waters still regards it as one of the highlights of his career. -- Jonathan Doyle