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The Nostalgic Attic: Flowers in the Attic (1987)

14 October 2013

Flowers in the Attic (1987)

"Look at us mother. How could you do this to us?"

I was never allowed rent Flowers in the Attic when I was a kid. My parents had either enough sense to have heard of the source material, or figured if I wanted to rent it that badly there must have been something really awful in it. I'm not sure what it was that even appealed to me about the video box. Maybe it was the unusual title, or, the fact that it 'shocked 40 million readers'. Or maybe I thought I was gonna see something nasty happen to a bunch of kids, which was usually enough to send me running. Whatever the reason was, the film slipped out of my memory until the last few months when I stumbled across the tape. Was it worth the 25 year wait?

Life seems great for the Dollanganger family; eldest daughter Cathy (Kristy Swanson; Deadly Friend, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and brother Chris (Jeb Stuart Adams; The Goonies, Once Bitten) both have high hopes for their futures and the support of loving parents. The younger twins live for their father returning home from his trips, and mother Corrine (Victoria Tennant; Best Seller, The Handmaids Tale) seems lost without him. Sadly, nothing lasts forever, and things spiral into hell with the news that their father has been killed in an accident. Finding themselves penniless and out of their home, Corrine decides she has no choice but to take them all on a visit to her estranged parents.

Despite not having spoken with her folks since they disowned her when she married, Corrine is convinced she can win back her fathers love, and worm her way back into his will. Apparently the old man is filthy rich and dying, and she isn't beyond taking advantage of that. Things don't go according to plan, though, as they are given a somewhat cold welcome when they arrive at the family mansion. Their bulldog of a grandmother (Louise Fletcher; Invaders From Mars, Two Moon Junction, Blue Steel) wastes no time in laying down the rules; the children are all to be locked in their bedroom, and not allowed out unless she says so. Their mother convinces them it will be worth it, and to be strong for each other. All she needs to do is take several lashes of a bull whip first to settle the debt owed to her parents.

Days soon turn into weeks, and there is no sign in them being let out of the room. They are brought their meals on a tray, and their mothers visits become less frequent. Finally, Corrine tells them of a secret passage that leads to the attic; a spacious place for the younger twins to play in and let their imaginations run free. Despite this small freedom, it doesn't take long before they all start to feel sick, due to lack of sunlight and food. After an escape attempt, the meals stop coming altogether, and young Cory is so sick he is unable to leave his bed. Their mother couldn't give a damn as she becomes increasingly detached from the children, looking on them as more of a nuisance than anything. Cory becomes so ill that the other kids demand he be taken to a hospital; the next day they are told he died there of pneumonia. Throughout all of this, Chris and Cathy grow closer, and finally decide enough is enough. They are determined to get to the bottom of what is happening. Their darling mother could hardly have been slowly poisoning them, could she? The kids know that if they don't escape soon, they will be following Cory to an early grave...

Having never read the book by Virginia Andrews, I have little to compare it to, but Flowers in the Attic is a terrible film. From the very start we are treated to some truly awful acting. Every line is yelled, and the clunky dialogue doesn't help things either. There is no subtlety to the script; it's as if the lines were written broadly with the intention of replacing it all later with something more believable, but they forgot to do it at some point. Phrases like "I'm going to win back my fathers love!" pop up in nearly every scene, and turn what could have been a dark, emotional, horrific drama into a near-parody of TV movies and the hysterics that go with them.

As mentioned, the acting is uneven across the board. Kristy Swanson in particular stands out as the worst of the bunch, but Victoria Tennant as the mother doesn't fare much better. Jeb Stuart Adams doesn't embarrass himself, anyway, and Louise Fletcher just ups the ante on her Nurse Ratched and channels all the nastiness and cold-hearted horror that she can into it. Saying that, she is always worth a watch, and is easily the best thing about the film. The kids playing the young twins kinda get let off the hook as they do really look young, but I will mention how freaky they look. Village of the Damned comes to mind.

One of the major problems with the film is how tame it all feels. Ok, I understand that what happens on screen is horrific, but apparently it has all been toned down from the novel. We only get vague hints at what might have been; all the incest has been removed between Chris and Cathy, instead the two are emotionally involved with each other with hopes of survival. There is a scene early on where Corrine spies her husband giving a present to Cathy before he is killed, and the look implies that there is something unnatural about their relationship. This aspect is never explored further, and it sticks out badly as a missed opportunity. The same goes for the accusations of how Corrine and her husband got together. Once again; implications that never get explored.

It's this lack of guts in the core story that make the whole film seem like a TV movie. The acting and directing play into this, too. Directly by Jeffrey Bloom, it is unsurprising to see that majority of his work is for TV. Apart from the silly-but-entertaining Blood Beach, that is. The score by Christopher Young is quite good, though. It echoes over the one or two effective moments, such as the aftermath of Cory's death. We see the caretaker filling in the shallow grave on the grounds of the mansion, and we slowly pan past to see three more holes waiting to be filled. It's a shocking and chilling shot, one of the few in the film that works, and the score is beautiful over it. Young has had a fantastic career since he began composing for horror films in the early 80's, giving us classic soundtracks for the likes of Hellraiser and The Fly II.

Blandly shot without any flair, the film just relies on the reputation of the book to sell cinema tickets whilst playing it far too safe for the audience to gain any satisfaction. What we get is a film that ends up being ultimately laughable, and the finale doesn't help either. Apparently Wes Craven had written a script and been asked to direct, only for the studio to balk at the nastiness of his vision. One can only dream of what could have been. A missed opportunity for sure.

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At 15 October 2013 at 01:23 , Blogger joe said...

My grandmothers were nicer. And they didn't taint my cookies.

At 15 October 2013 at 02:17 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

The line of "Eat the Cookie, Mother!", had me in hysterics. As did the mothers trip over the balcony. Fun times. I really should read the book.

At 3 June 2014 at 20:37 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

I saw this because of an overwhelming crush on Kristy Swanson back in the day (and now, come to think of it.) I didn't like the movie at all either. I also haven't read the book, which I suspect is also not quite up to its own reputation. VC Andrews was also the first author I ever saw carry on writing after her death. I guess she only really wrote four or five books, but in the 80's and 90's she filled an entire shelf unit in any bookstore you went into. I remember when the 12th or 15th book came out - I knew I'd heard she had died - so I scanned one of the books in the store - fine print on the indicia page let the cat out of the bag - everything from the fifth or sixth book on was "written by a specially selected author working from notes left by VC Andrews." Later when that was no longer realistic - how many outlines could they find in her old desk? - when they were on the 30th book or so that changed to "specially selected author working in the style of of VC Andrews." I worked in and managed a chain bookstore 2001-2004 - and you'd be amazed how many dead authors keep writing long after their passing - to keep the money flowing into their estates for the benefit of their greedy families - and often with even less forthcomingness than small print on the indicia page.

At 4 June 2014 at 01:11 , Blogger JP Mulvanetti said...

Craig, that's hilarious, thanks for that! I had no idea that they were still milking her estate. I was aware of it with one or two authors (Robert Jordan and the Wheels of Time comes o mind, but hey, I guess the fans needed an end to the series there?) but I wasn't aware it was so rampant. any other examples you wanna share? I can imagine Stephen King will still be releasing books long after he has passed... though I somehow imagine he has about 40 books half finished or just unreleased, lying around. The man is a machine.

At 8 June 2014 at 19:40 , Blogger Craig Edwards said...

I don't remember ten years on who all was still writing post mortem - the manager who hired me into the store (passing it on to me eventually) used to tell me when a new book would come out "Oh, that author's been dead for years." Internet checks at the time would convirm she was right. I think Mario Puzo was one of them...and at least one of the British espionage guys...

At 1 September 2014 at 11:08 , Blogger George White said...

Wes Craven was supposed to direct, and Darren Bousman wanted to remake it, his dream project, but Lifetime TV got the rights and made a remake with Ellen Burstyn and Heather Graham.


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