I first became aware of VC Andrews in elementary school. It seemed like all at once, every one of the smarter girls in my class was clutching a paperback adorned with vines twining around a circular portrait of a sad blonde. I got vague descriptions of the plot from my friends (I suspect some of the vagueness was due to embarrassment over the racier elements in the story) and at the time, I couldn’t understand how anyone would be interested in reading a story like that. Granted, at the time I couldn’t understand how anyone would want to read a story that didn’t have galactic wars, cannibal clowns, or sword murder either, so maybe I wasn’t the best judge. I haven’t read any of Andrews’s books, but when an adaptation of her signature work Flowers in the Attic appeared as a Lifetime movie starring Heather Graham, Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka, and Ellen Fucking Burstyn, you know I recorded that bad boy.
Flowers in the Attic is a southern gothic potboiler about innovative childcare, recessive genes, and the importance of using birth control during bouts of incest. The Dollangangers are the perfect family. That name instantly sounded made up to me, and to the movie’s (and I later learned the book’s) credit, that turned out to be the case. These people are so goddamn Aryan Hitler pops wood from beyond the grave at the sight of them. There’s dad Chris, mom Corrine (Graham), son Chris Jr., daughter Cathy (Shipka), and fraternal twins Cory and Carrie. Isn’t that cute? Chris Sr. gets killed in a car accident, and fragile Corrine decides she has no way to support her kids and instead of getting a job, reveals that her family is spectacularly wealthy. They’re all going to live with the grandparents in a giant haunted house in Virginia.
Shit gets weird pretty much as soon as they arrive at stately Foxworth Hall. Grandma (Burstyn) locks the kids up in a bedroom (that features a staircase into the titular attic), and the children are expected to be quiet, hide, and never reveal to anyone that they’re living there. Meanwhile, Corrine will try to get in good with her dying father and thus be written back into the will. The reason she was written out, and why grandma both hates the kids and seems to have an unhealthy fixation on incest, is a secret that another movie might have held onto for a crucial third act twist. Flowers in the Attic spills its juiciest, pulpiest secret on the first night: Corrine and Chris Sr. were blood relatives, with Chris a young half-brother to Corrine’s father. All four children are the product of incest, and grandma is damn sure that shit is genetic. She turns out to be kinda right.
What was supposed to be a week stretches into several long years of imprisonment. Corrine’s visits to the attic grow more and more infrequent, and in one of the funnier scenes casually mentions she got remarried and the reason she hasn’t been around was that she was honeymooning in Paris. Chris and Cathy undergo puberty, and Chris starts walking around with what I can only describe as the “please-don’t-let-me-fuck-my-sister face.” It’s not enough, and eventually, he does in fact fuck his sister. Corrine, now fully over the motherhood thing, tries to poison the kids (succeeding only in killing Cory and Cory’s adorable pet mouse). This is a bridge too far for the surviving children, and using a key made out of wood (no, really), they break out, steal a bunch of shit, and escape on a train to Florida. Chances are because only Florida is insane enough to believe what just happened to them.
After watching this, I read the synopses of not only the book, but also the series that followed. I came to a simple conclusion: Holy shit, you guys, this stuff is bananas. Flowers in the Attic seems like it belongs in the operatic hyper-reality of any pulpy southern gothic, but beginning with its follow-up Petals in the Wind the brake lines of this particular plot train are severed, and it goes careening hilariously off the rails. I understand why they’re so popular, especially amongst girls: they’re scandalous enough to make younger readers feel grown up and the plot is crazy in a way that will only trip the critical circuits of adults. Plus, I have it on good authority, that they’re reasonably well-written. The plot for the Lifetime adaptation is slimmed down of necessity, there was a single change that leapt out at me, and that was the rape scene.
See, Flowers in the Attic came out in 1979, and our understanding of rape was a great deal more barbaric back then. Hell, every time a Republican politician opens his ignorant cakehole about the subject (almost always unprompted), he reveals that attitudes are not much better, so maybe I should cool it on the temporal superiority. In the book, Chris rapes Cathy, though Andrews tries to justify it with the non-logic “she could have stopped it had she wanted to.” In the one good decision the Lifetime network made, they decided to make the sex consensual. It’s still brother/sister, who are probably also something else due to being the offspring of half-uncle/half-niece, but since my family tree branches, I’m not used to doing this kind of math.
I might be giving the impression that I enjoyed this movie, and that’s not quite right. While the insanity of the plot was admirable, the execution was, well, Lifetime. Director Deborah Chow has done a Zach Braff movie I will never see and an episode of Copper, otherwise known as That Show We Wished Were Better Until Ripper Street Came Out And Now We Don’t Care. Both Burstyn and Shipka are excellent actors normally, the former a deserving Oscar winner, and the latter providing some of the best moments on one of the best shows currently on television. Heather Graham can be at least decent, assuming she’s cast and directed well, though for every Boogie Nights on her CV, there’s a From Hell. Chow doesn’t manage to get much out of any of them, only managing a few woodenly campy exchanges.
And that’s the problem, right there. Flowers in the Attic is a melodrama. This kind of thing works well on the page, as, if the prose is decent, we will automatically read it in the most charitable manner possible. We make the madness work in our minds. But on screen, the director has a choice to make. She either has to play it straight or play to the rafters. The latter is the correct choice, as if you succeed you have Oscar bait, and if you fail, you have high camp. Either way, you’ve got yourself a ballgame. Unfortunately, Chow chose the former, playing this like it’s even slightly normal, the performances pitched too low to support the gonzo dialogue. Melodrama has a simple rule: go big, or go home. Preferably to an attic. To make paper flowers.
So what did we learn? Incest runs in the family. Chris Sr. and Corrine had sex, so their kids were condemned to repeat that sin. Also, if you don’t want two kids to fuck each other, maybe let them out of the house while they’re pubing it up. It’s a bad scene. The weird part about Flowers in the Attic other than its occasionally sunny attitude about incest, is the way it implies more possible relationships that never get consummated. Chris certainly has a strange attachment to his mom (who, in his defense, is Heather Graham, keeping it tight), but the weirdest was an earlier moment with Cathy and Chris Sr. It’s framed as a romantic scene, in which a father gives his daughter what is explicitly described as a Promise Ring. I remember Promise Rings. That Promise was that eventually the genitalia of the two people exchanging the ring would unite in some form of flesh-Voltron (I don’t understand sex). While the movie wants us to believe that the incest was the result of a self-fulfilling prophecy by a crazy old woman, it implies that there might have been even worse evil in store for the Dollanganger kids if dad hadn’t been killed in that car crash.