John Waters

Serial Mom (1994, John Waters)

Serial Mom gets a lot of mileage out of its concept–Kathleen Turner’s June Cleaver as a serial killer (actually, spree killer)–before it runs out of gas. Sadly, once it does, all of the plot problems become clear. But then Waters brings it to court and Mom is reinvigorated. Turner’s not special during the first hour or so, but she’s fantastic for the last third, when she’s defending herself in court.

Waters’s script seems incredibly fast and loose (like parent-teacher conferences being called a PTA meeting). For a while, he’s able to get away with it as he introduces all these annoying sitcom-esque characters for Turner to murder. Then he brings in two lengthy chase sequences back-to-back and it crumbles.

It doesn’t help the second one involves Justin Whalin, who’s simply awful in the movie. Waters can get away with a lot of goofy casting (Suzanne Somers, Traci Lords–Bess Armstrong’s in it way too little) but Whalin’s incompetent.

The supporting cast is good. Sam Waterston’s the hapless husband, (way too old for high school) Matthew Lillard is the teenage son, Ricki Lake’s the daughter with self-image problems. Lake’s performance is a tad broad, but she’s still rather likable.

Robert M. Stevens’s photography is good–he and Waters use a vibrant color scheme (Baltimore’s probably never looked so nice)–and Basil Poledouris’s score is fun.

Unfortunately, Waters’s closing gag ruins the film. He can’t seem to decide what he wants to do with it.



Written and directed by John Waters; director of photography, Robert M. Stevens; edited by Janice Hampton and Erica Huggins; music by Basil Poledouris; production designer, Vincent Peranio; produced by John Fiedler and Mark Tarlov; released by Savoy Pictures.

Starring Kathleen Turner (Beverly R. Sutphin), Sam Waterston (Eugene Sutphin, D.D.S.), Ricki Lake (Misty Sutphin), Matthew Lillard (Chip Sutphin), Scott Morgan (Detective Pike), Walt MacPherson (Detective Gracey), Justin Whalin (Scotty Barnhill), Patricia Dunnock (Birdie), Lonnie Horsey (Carl Pageant), Mink Stole (Dottie Hinkle) and Mary Jo Catlett (Rosemary Ackerman).

Grievous Bodily Harm (1988, Mark Joffe)

The intrepid reporter genre has almost entirely disappeared. These are the films–around since the 1930s, when newspapers became American cinema’s ideal breeding ground for protagonists (many screenwriters, new to talkies, were former journalists)–where the reporter is investigating a murder or series of murders, ones the police can’t quite seem to solve (the police might even disbelieve the reporter) and the reporter ends up in jeopardy. These films usually end with the reporter quitting his or her newspaper.

Grievous Bodily Harm approaches the standard a little differently. There’s the reporter emphasis, but also on the killer and on a police detective. The detective doesn’t even have much to do with the reporter’s mystery. But Grievous takes it further, with both the killer and the reporter trying to uncover a mystery. The result–especially given how the reporter is already connected both to the killer and the detective–is a complicated mess. But it’s a good complicated mess, an Australian, non-noir take on Hitchcock almost… and I stress almost. Director Mark Joffe manages to be supremely competent–and the film is paced rather well–without showing a single unique moment. The film’s personality comes from the actors.

Top-billed–as the reporter–is Colin Friels. Friels has the least flashy role in the entire film, playing a somewhat sleazy crime journalist who’s seen better days. The film’s his journey to self-realization and it works rather well. Grievous is so busy with content, each of its scenes end up having real weight. He’s best in his scenes with Joy Bell and Kerry Armstrong; when he’s around the men, the character’s got a bunch of bravado. Around women, eventually he becomes less opaque.

As the killer, John Waters gets the film’s flashiest role. Where Grievous is a little different too is how it shows an average person snap. There’s motive, but when Waters loses it, it comes as a real surprise; he manages to change the character completely–and abruptly–while making it feel completely natural. In the third act, when Bell becomes more prevalent, Waters takes a bit of a backseat. It’s like he’s got one really good scene missing from the picture.

Bruno Lawrence wraps up the triumvirate. His harried police detective has a fair amount of scenes and not much to do. Lawrence gets to make a lot of noise–again, to generate some suspense, the film keeps a potentially excellent scene off screen–and he certainly shows a lot of ability in those scenes… but it doesn’t matter. What’s important about the detective is his presence on screen, as an important character, not actually earning that screen time. Lawrence can’t compete with his function in the script.

Some of the supporting cast is weak–like Shane Briant–and Chris Neal’s score is terrible. It’s a 1980s thriller score, lots of synth; it’s annoying.

I’ve seen Grievous Bodily Harm before and it didn’t impress me as much that first time. I’m sure I didn’t appreciate its peculiar approach.



Directed by Mark Joffe; written by Warwick Hind; director of photography, Ellery Ryan; edited by Marc van Buuren; music by Chris Neal; production designer, Roger Ford; produced by Richard Brennan; released by Filmpac Distribution.

Starring Colin Friels (Tom Stewart), John Waters (Morris Martin), Bruno Lawrence (Det. Sgt. Ray Birch), Kerry Armstrong (Annie), Kim Gyngell (Mick), Gary Stalker (Derek Allen), Caz Lederman (Vivian Enderby), Shane Briant (Stephen Enderby), Sandy Gore (Barbara Helmsley), John Flaus (Neil Bradshaw), Terry Markwell (Eve Spicer), Urszula Teresa (Marjorie Klein) and Joy Bell (Claudine).

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