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Defense for the Damned: John Waters on "Serial Mom"

John Waters' films aren't for everyone, but "Serial Mom," a funny, biting satire of suburban repression and hypocrisy, is as close as he's yet come to making a mainstream film that retains the signature bad taste and biting anti-authoritarian streak of his early films. "Serial Mom" stars Kathleen Turner as a devoted housewife who murders anyone who threatens her family. The film, which has just received a special edition Blu-ray release by Shout! Factory, is Waters' most explicit homage to splatter king Herschell Gordon Lewis, the horror filmmaker who created the gore movie sub-genre of horror films with early gross-outs like "Blood Feast" and "Two Thousand Maniacs." "Serial Mom" is also, in Waters' words, "very PC" in the sense that it's about well-meaning characters who have all the right beliefs ... but just happen to be a little depraved. spoke with Waters recently about the death of cult cinema, his continued love of Lewis' films, and scream queens' body odor.

The influence of "Blood Feast" looms large over "Serial Mom," which gives me another opportunity to talk to you about one of my favorite subjects, Herschell Gordon Lewis. Given Kathleen Turner's initial reaction to your film's "liver scene"—which is very indebted to "Blood Feast" and its use of offal and gore—did you show your cast and crew "Blood Feast" or any other Lewis films to give them an idea of where you were coming from?

There's a scene in "Serial Mom" where they watch "Blood Feast," and Kathleen likes it. And then when she kills the guy at the flea market, it's basically the same scene. I wrote about Herschell in my book Shock Value, for which I interviewed him. We became friends; I had dinner with Herschell the last year before he died. He was elderly, but his mind was perfectly intact. I love that Herschell died in his sleep with no gore at all. It's hard enough to die without some gore, but he did.

Kathleen had never seen "Blood Feast," I promise you. And the kids were probably too young to have seen it. They've seen it by now, but all the kids I usually do films with had already seen Herschell's films because we used to go see them at drive-ins. Everybody'd honk when there was tits or gore. I still have the vomit bag they gave you when "Blood Feast" came out. I had the poster hanging in my house for years. So we all knew Herschell pretty well. I also included footage from the Joan Crawford movie "Strait-Jacket." Later, I played William Castle shooting that movie in "Feud!"

The Castle-Lewis connection is tantalizing because Lewis ripped off the tagline of "Just keep telling yourself it's only a movie ... " from "Strait-Jacket" for "Color Me Blood Red."

No, the first movie that did that was "Last House on the Left." [Editor's note: while "Last House on the Left" made the tagline famous, Castle created it, and then Lewis and Sean Cunningham for "Last House on the Left" recycled it.] Now, Hitchcock ripped off Castle. Because when "Psycho" came out, Hitchcock's career was not going great. And they had this big gimmick that people have forgotten about, where they had a big clock that said "No one will be admitted once showtime begins." That's a very William Castle-style gimmick. 

"Blood Feast" is my favorite of Lewis' films. When we shot "Serial Mom," and I showed them the infamous tongue scene, one of the female crew members said, "I hate when a guy does that." [both laugh]

The tongue scene in "Blood Feast" is especially striking. Apparently, it was rotting, and had to be sprayed with Pinesol to keep it fresh. 

It was a cow's tongue. We had the same problem with "Multiple Maniacs" when Divine had to eat kidneys. We got those from a local butcher, but they had been sitting out for a while. That's why Divine gags when he eats 'em. I always thought that if I were to do a horror movie in Odorama—like I did with "Polyester"—I would have the smell of rotting body parts from the butcher, and scream queen's BO. Because they have to run for so long under those hot movie lights. No matter how good they are—they have BO. 

Let's go back to Kathleen Turner for a moment ...

She did not have BO. And she runs in one scene in really high heels with a butcher knife flawlessly. It's hard to run in high heels. Not that I've tried. But it's hard, on anyone. 

You once said about Turner that "She just doesn't like indecision in a director. She's a movie star, and there aren't many left. She's grand, she's intimidating, and she knows she's intimidating." 

And she's a great actress. I'd say that first. When you direct a great actress ... people have told me before: "Oh, she's difficult," and blah blah blah. But what happens is, you just pay attention to them. You're with them every moment. In the beginning, if I had said "I don't know, Kathy, what do you think we should do," she would have eaten me alive. And she should! You're the director, you're supposed to tell her what to do. But at the same time, I remember when at the end of the film, when she's her own lawyer, and she's giving a summary of her defense to the jury ... I didn't want to pace up and down, that would be cliché. She said, "Let me not do that. Let me just stand in one place. It'll be better and more original." And she was right. She had great ideas.

There's that great bit in the courtroom scene where Turner's character spreads her legs and flusters the bathroom pervert witness. 

She's doing her "Basic Instinct" moment.


She worked that out, the night before we shot. On the day of, I thought "How is she doing that?" Because you can't see anything, but you're so close to seeing everything. I think she and the costumer worked that out even before we got to the set that day, to make sure that it would work the way it would work. 

That's one of the funniest gags in the movie.

You worked with the new-comers at Savoy Pictures at the time for "Serial Mom" and paid a hefty sum for the rights to "Tomorrow" from "Annie." Was there a back-up song for that scene if you couldn't get the rights? 

No, there wasn't. It's on the soundtrack album, too. What happened was: they really didn't want us to use that song. Because we use it in during one of the murder scenes. So they gave us this ridiculous fee thinking that we'd say no. But once they gave us a price, they paid it. I don't remember how much ... it was something like $65,000 for one needle-drop song. And this was a long time ago, before they sampled it in Jay-Z's big hit song. I think that was later [Editor's note: It was.]

Backing up a moment: the liver scene in "Serial Mom" features a Howie scream, which is a distinctive stock scream, if there is such a thing, as opposed to the generally over-used Wilhelm scream.

A what scream??

A Howie scream! It's like a Wilhelm scream, only with more of an "Arrgh" sound.

No, no, that was the real actor, I believe. Well, it's usually a scream queen that screams in movies, so I purposefully picked a macho, lumberjack kind of guy so I could have a scream king instead of a scream queen. I could be wrong, but I think that's him screaming. 

You rehearsed scenes at your home for "Serial Mom" and rewrote throughout rehearsals. What gags didn't wind up working? Is it pretty much what we see on film?

It's usually whether I laugh or not. Actually, that usually comes later with test screenings, with the fuck-us group, or the focus group. "Serial Mom" tested really well when we finally got with the right audience. But they would go to some shopping mall in a deep, deep suburban L.A. neighborhood where they knew people would hate, and they just wanted to spend money to prove that people wouldn't like it. The movie was not a success when it came out. It got pretty good reviews, but it was not a hit at the box office. Still, it's lasted, and it's never gone away from television, especially on Mother's Day. It's one of my best movies. It was the end of my Hollywood career, and then I went back to independent films. I sort of climbed up, then slipped back down. 

You were worried about getting an NC-17 rating for "Serial Mom." What scenes were you especially worried about and did you tone any of them down? 

To be honest, the MPAA was always fair with me about violence. We got an R rating without any trouble. I don't remember them being an asshole about it, because it was obviously humorous. The only time they gave me trouble is if it was sexual in any way. Then they became the worst kind of Christian radical group, if you ask me. Liberal censors are the worst. I don't remember any trouble with "Serial Mom," or "Cecil B. Demented," or any of them. Except "Cry Baby." You could say "fuck" once in a non-sexual way, but you couldn't say it twice in a non-sexual way, or ever sexually. There's a joke in "Cry Baby" where Traci Lords says "Get me the fuck out of here" and her mother says "What's 'fuck' mean?" I wanted to put a "beep" in, but the MPAA initially wouldn't let me. I eventually won my appeal though. I think I'm the only movie that has a self-censored "beep" in it. They don't do that anymore. They don't "beep."

You mentioned that "liberal censors" being the worst, and that's indirectly what "Serial Mom" is about, that hypocritical concept of being performatively progressive but deep-down conservative. Like the way that Sam Waterston's character wants his daughter to know he's ok with her dating an older guy but is pro-death penalty, or Turner's character's hang-up about her neighbor who doesn't recycle. What then does it mean to you when you say that your films are all politically correct? 

The moral values in my movies are right. The villains in my movies are people who don't mind their own business, and they're reactionary whereas the heroes in my films can even be murderers, but they're politically correct in that they kill for the right reasons. Kathleen Turner's character is just misdirected, or over-reacting. I think everyone wishes they had a mom that would kill for them. And she gets off in the end, which would never happen in a true-crime drama today. Even O.J. [Simpson] didn't eventually get off. He got off for the big crime, but he eventually got convicted for one he shouldn't have been? You get 20 years for stealing baseball cards? And you get nothing for murder? Forget it. Imagine how tortuous it must have been for O.J. in prison to see ["O.J.: Made in America"] win the Oscar. And the Emmy for ["The People vs. O.J. Simpson"]! I'm not sure that he was even allowed to watch it.

You attend a lot of trials. Are there any other verdicts that you strongly disagree with?

Well, [John Hinckley Jr.] in a way got a bad deal. He got found not guilty [by reason of insanity], but it took him, what, 35 years to go home? If I was a lawyer, I would be a defense a lawyer for the damned. I'm always fascinated by ... oh, what's the man that did all the Boston bombings? [Dzkhokhar Tsarnaev]. They wanted life in prison without parole instead of the death penalty, and they won. These are the kind of lawyers I'm fascinated by. I'm really fascinated by their careers, and the moral dilemma that they put themselves in. There's no correct answer with something that horrible. Those are the kinds of people I want to meet. I want to meet Eminem, because he has no desire to meet me. And those lawyers.

When it comes to simulated violence, I remembered that you stopped using the phrases "kitsch" and "camp" and started using "trash."Then I graduated to "filth," but yeah, yeah. Video violence ... I could happily watch dramatized violence that newscasters puts on the air. But I certainly would never want to watch real violence. I have no problem with fake violence. I can even enjoy it. But I have absolutely no desire to see real violence. And the violence in "Serial Mom" was always comic.

Right, as in the first violent scene in the film where Turner mows down someone with her car, and there's blood on the windshield. But when it comes to gore, is all simulated violence equal? Like are you equally interested in the Italian cannibal flicks, "Friday the 13th" sequels, "Faces of Death?"

"Faces of Death" I hated because that was real violence. It was a documentary about violence. Stuff like "The Killing of America" ... I don't want to see that. But I don't have any problem with torture porn movies, even though I'm not a big fan of them. They're perfectly fine. I still think "The Texas Chain Saw Massacre" is the best of all of them. And "Night of the Living Dead." And "Raw" is pretty good, that new movie "Raw."

The year 1963 looms large over your filmography, between the Zapruder film, "Blood Feast," and "Mondo Cane." But I guess the "mondo" movies, like "Killing of America," don't hold as much interest for you, do they?

Oh, they do. Why do you think I made a movie called "Mondo Trasho?" Of course they influenced me. I remember having that album of the "Mondo Cane" soundtrack with all the dogs barking at the beginning of it. I used to play that over and over. But that's where I stopped with real violence. They invented a genre. "Mondo Trasho" was a joke on that type of film, in a way. Just the word "mondo" has become something else. In 1963, I was a junior in high school. I took LSD for the first time. A lot of those things were informative for a teenager. [laughs] I would go see [Ingmar Bergman] movies on acid. Not many people did. 

If you could recommend any gore movies to our readers that they haven't seen, what would it be?

Hm. A gore movie they haven't seen? Maybe Herschell's "The Gore-Gore Girls." Actually, Herschell's "Two Thousand Maniacs" is actually a better film than his "Blood Feast." There's also "Maniac." I remember the ad campaigns way more than the movies. "I Spit On Your Grave" is one I remember being really horrible. And "Fight for Your Life" is one of the most anti-right blaxploitation movie ever. Some of them are pretty extreme. You can't imagine how extreme they are. And they're not revived that much for that reason. 

In 1994, you also said that "They don't have cult movies anymore. There's no such thing as midnight movies. It would be foolish to try to make a cult movie-where would it play? What movie has caused a sensation on video, except 'Faces of Death'?" That sentiment certainly holds true today when theater chains like Landmark show "The Goonies," "Jurassic Park," and "The Breakfast Club" at midnight. 

"The Breakfast Club" is what the new generation wants to see at midnight. They didn't see these other movies, so they don't care about 'em. "Blood Feast" didn't change their lives. They want to see "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," stuff that we didn't see. But the smart programmers will always find out what is the least seen from this generation that they secretly love, that everybody else hates. But you're right, midnight movies ended the day video came out. Because why would you have to go to a movie theater. You can smoke pot, and screen it in your own house. The only cult movie that has been made lately is ... oh, what's the one with ass-to-mouth?

"The Human Centipede"!

Yes. That is a movie that made its reputation as a midnight movie. But I can't think of another one. You're right. "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" is still showing, but is how transgressive is that anymore? It's a little old hat. And if you're a young rebel, aren't you at home being a hacker? Do you really need the characters from "Rocky Horror?" So I don't know if any movies today can cause a sensation at midnight. Even my movies today do better if they don't play at midnight. 

A lot of Blu-ray and DVD companies are now in the preservation game. They're making sure that people can not just see the film—access, in other words—but now they get supplementary materials that gives people context about the movies. There are several labels that are basically the Criterion Collection of genre films.

[Criterion] just released "Multiple Maniacs." And they restored it incredibly beautifully.

DVD labels like “Something Weird” came to mind when I rewatched "Serial Mom" because there's that scene where Turner's teenage son is masturbating to a Chesty Morgan flick. Was there a fire sale at Something Weird?

I used a lot of footage from "Something Weird" [the Herschell Gordon Lewis film that the DVD label takes its name from] in my film "A Dirty Shame." Every time the heroine in my film gets hit in the head, there'd be a montage of her turning into a sex addict. So I'd use stuff from "Something Weird" there. But I believe Jimmy Maslon was the one who owned "Blood Feast" and all those films at the time. So I bought those rights through him. If it weren't for Something Weird, none of these films would have been saved. They looked everywhere for those films, and they now have an incredible library. They found negatives in old theater basements, and shit. Nobody wanted these films. [Sexploitation pioneer] Doris Wishman, at the end of her life, traveled around with these films. I saw her present some of her films; she looked like Godard in drag. Herschell came to the Maryland Film Festival, and spoke at the drive-in. These people did have a second career, and the original people who made those films hits didn't think they were worth money. But the audiences that originally made those films successful did not think they were ironic in any way.

When "Blood Feast" originally screened as a midnight movie in New York in the '60s, it was billed as the worst movie in the world. And it completely bombed. They tried to make it a midnight movie.

They tried to do that with "Mommie Dearest" after it bombed initially. They sent drag queens to the theaters with wire hangers, but it didn't catch on. You can't make a cult film happen. It doesn't. They can smell the deceit.

To buy your copy of "Serial Mom" on Shout! Factory Blu-ray, click here.

Simon Abrams

Simon Abrams is a native New Yorker and freelance film critic whose work has been featured in The New York TimesVanity FairThe Village Voice, and elsewhere.

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