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I've always liked John Waters' movies without ever thinking he was a particularly good director. Which is fine---the amiable amateurism of his films is much of their appeal. But after massively enjoying Serial Mom, I'm starting to think that Waters, like Wagner, is better than he looks.
Because the thing is, Serial Mom is funny as hell---guffaw-out-loud-in-an-empty-living-room funny. But aside from a handful of quotable lines, the script isn't all that striking. Which has weirdly little impact on the movie's immense hilariousness. Most of the scenes have flatly functional dialogue---"Officer, we don't allow gum in this house." "Sorry, ma'am." ---- but through some strange alchemy, it plays like gangbusters.
That flat functionality is maybe the most defining characteristic of Waters as a filmmaker. Much of the fun of the Waters/Divine pairing was always the discordance of this loud, ferocious creature and the weirdly narcotized world that contained her. From his early films to the present, his compositions have a theatrical, frontal quality. Even at climactic moments, when the screen gets more angled and kinetic, the camera hangs back, arresting momentum.
This is, of course, exactly the opposite of what a director is supposed to do---"keep the audience immersed" is pretty much the filmmaker's first commandment. Serial Mom pays extensive tribute to goremeister Herschell Gordon Lewis, not least in its combination of luridly violent subject matter and bizarrely uninflected visual style. In Lewis, that was just the result of his mild-at-best technical competence---where a great (hell, good) director might have a villain terrify you through commanding movement of the frame, Lewis' baddies just lean into the lens and leer. But Waters has always idolized the accidental Brechtianism of crappy exploitation movies of the 50s and 60s, before ubiquitous film school degrees made even low-budget sleazefests blandly mediocre.
The damned thing is that in Waters' films, it works. The air of campy quotation turns every piece of set dressing into a giggle, and the foursquare framing makes a guy spitting out gum into a weird little gag that isn't really funny, except that it is. His proscenium-oriented direction is definitely distinctive; his auteurist cred is certainly triple-A. But more important, his storytelling voice is incredibly effective at his project of making the whole world look sublimely freaky, turning even the most normal behavior into a too-tight Halloween mask.