Monday, January 20, 2014

Flowers in the Attic (Cue the Dog Productions, Front Street Pictures, MGM, Lifetime, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Our “feature” last night was the Lifetime showing of a 2014 TV-movie based on Flowers in the Attic, a 1979 Southern-gothic novel by one V. C. Andrews, who like Harry Potter author Janice Rowling signed her books with initials and thereby preserved a gender ambiguity about her identity. Andrews was born in 1923 but didn’t take up novel writing until her 50’s (before that she’d been a commercial artist), starting out with a science-fiction book called Gods of Green Mountain which wasn’t published during her lifetime but was made available in electronic form only in 2004. Her second novel was originally called The Obsessed — actually a better title — but a publisher asked her for a rewrite to “spice up” the story, and she did the revisions in one night and sent in the new version under a different title, Flowers in the Attic. The novel, published in 1979, was an instant best-seller and sparked three sequels and a prequel (a structure Andrews used for several other series as well), and though Andrews died in 1986 her publisher decided that the name “V. C. Andrews” was too valuable a property to let expire along with its original owner. So, with the approval of Andrews’ family, they hired Andrew Neiderman to keep cranking out new “V. C. Andrews” novels, some of them based on notes or partially finished manuscripts the real Andrews left behind, some of them entirely Neiderman’s work.

Flowers in the Attic was originally filmed in 1987 — with Louise Fletcher from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as the crazy grandmother at the heart of the story and Victoria Tennant as the recently widowed mother who takes her four kids to live with grandma in Virginia — and recently remade by Cue the Dog Productions and Front Street Pictures in association with MGM (the familiar “lion” logo was shown in the closing credits) for TV showing on Lifetime. I was interested in watching this partly because the previews for it on Lifetime had shown some quite appealing footage of Mason Dye, the juvenile male lead, going around shirtless — and while young blond boys with no chest hair aren’t exactly my biggest “type” he was aesthetically appealing enough I decided I wouldn’t mind sitting through the whole movie for more glimpses of his partially unclad bod — and partly because on January 18, the day Lifetime was showing this movie for the first time, Los Angeles Times TV critic Mary McNamara published a review ripping it but making it sound like it would be a good-bad camp-fest. “It should come as no surprise that Lifetime’s adaptation of Flowers in the Attic is terrible,” McNamara wrote. “Of course it’s terrible! The book was terrible! Rife with clunky dialogue, ridiculous characters, and ludicrous plot twists, it was so terrible that you could not put it down.” Though McNamara went on to say that the Lifetime adaptation had little or none of the demented appeal of the novel, her review still promised a so-bad-it’s-good camp-fest — and for the most part the film delivered. Like a lot of other Lifetime movies, this one opened with an act or two of blissful, bucolic middle-class suburban happiness that the heroine is about to be wrenched away from — about the only difference between this and most Lifetime films is that this takes place in the late 1950’s (we can tell from the vintage cars we see on the roads and Elvis Presley’s “Teddy Bear,” which the characters listen to on the radio).

Our wonderfully happy suburban family consists of father Christopher Dollanganger, Sr. (Chad Willett), mother Corinne Foxworth Dollanganger (Heather Graham) and their four kids: son Christopher, Jr. (Mason Dye), older daughter Cathy (Kiernan Shipka) and fraternal twins Carrie (Ava Telek) and Cory (Maxwell Kovach). They’re celebrating the fact that dad has just got a promotion at work and is now vice-president of sales for the entire East Coast (though we’re never told who he works for or what exactly it is they make — not that anyone seems to care; we’ve come a long way from the time when Arthur Miller got raked over the coals for never telling us, in Death of a Salesman, exactly what product Willy Loman sold) when word suddenly comes that dad has been killed in an accident. Mortgaged up to the hilt and about to lose their home due to foreclosure (a plot twist that seems all too current now), Corinne announces to the kids that as much as she hates her own mother, Olivia Foxworth (Ellen Burstyn, the one “name” actor in this film and the one person who turns in a performance of real authority and power), she sees no alternative but to move back in with Olivia — who owns an estate in Virginia with her husband, Corinne’s father. The gimmick is that Corinne will inherit the Foxworth millions as soon as her seriously ill dad croaks — but he can’t be allowed to find out she has any children because he regards them as “spawn of the devil” and would disinherit her (apparently he’s already disinherited her and she’s launching this whole campaign to get him to re-inherit her again) if he learned of their existence. So Corinne and Olivia tell the kids that they can only be in one bedroom of the house, and if they need to play they can do so in the attic. It’s hard to enjoy Flowers in the Attic without being all too aware of the sheer preposterousness of this plot device — it makes Il Trovatore seem like hard-edged realism by comparison and suggests that maybe instead of having it filmed (again) the Andrews estate should have sold it to someone like Jake Heggie or Mark-Anthony Turnage or Thomas Adès and had them turn it into an opera, in which larger-than-life medium it just might work — though it has its compensations.

Olivia is shown as a black-hearted villain, setting an insane series of rules a concentration-camp commandant might have regarded as too strict and whipping the kids (or threatening to) whenever they step out of line — though the scene in which she whips Christopher made me wonder why he didn’t just grab the belt out of her hand and strangle her with it (he certainly looked physically robust enough to have done it) — but also capable of little kindnesses; and the one hint of any sort of dramatic complexity in this story comes from the character of Corinne, who’s drawn at first as the sympathetic, loving mother but later, under the influence of her own greed, becomes as vicious and nasty to the kids as her own mom — more so at the end, when she’s married her dad’s lawyer (Dylan Bruce), who’s under the impression that their relationship will be “just the two of us” and won’t include four kids, two of them almost grown, and in order to get rid of the inconvenient offspring feeds them doughnuts laced with poison. In the meantime the kids have spent over two years in that damned attic, painting pictures of flowers to make it look more like a real garden (hence the title), and it’s revealed that they’re the product of an incestuous relationship: Corinne’s (first) husband was her father’s half-brother. That’s the explanation for why Corinne’s parents regard them as “spawn of the devil” and why Corinne and Olivia are going to such great lengths to conceal the fact of their existence from their grandfather (Beau Daniels). Flowers in the Attic actually features two incestuous relationships (the same number as in Wagner’s Ring) as Christopher and Cathy start screwing each other for no apparent reason other than sheer proximity — they’re burgeoning into sexual maturity in this absurd environment where they’re literally prevented from meeting anyone else their own age. In the end Cory dies of pneumonia and the other three Dollanganger offspring (that preposterous family name couldn’t help but remind me of British mystery writer Mignon G. Eberhardt, another woman author who adorned her characters with ridiculous names like Kingery and Keate) escape on a train, looking for all the world like a young mom, dad and daughter.

The Wikipedia page for V. C. Andrews tells more about their story, if you’re interested; “Petals on the Wind picks up the story directly after their escape from the attic without one of their siblings. If There Be Thorns and Seeds of Yesterday continue to tell their story, but the focus shifts to Cathy's children Jory and Bart after a mysterious woman and her butler move in next door and start inviting Bart over, turning him into a monster. Garden of Shadows is a prequel that tells the story of the grandparents, Olivia and Malcolm Foxworth.” The Lifetime version of Flowers in the Attic isn’t exactly alive even to the meager possibilities in this story; save for a marvelous sequence when mom and the kids arrive at the Foxworth mansion at 3 a.m., having had to walk from the train station since the promised car to meet them didn’t show up (I joked that they would be met by a carriage driven by remote control by a bat flying alongside it, and Charles caught the hint and started dropping Bela Lugosi impressions), director Deborah Chow supplies almost none of the Gothic atmosphere the story seems to cry out for, and screenwriter Kayla Alpert seems to have spent her entire writing stint looking at Andrews’ novel and holding her nose at the preposterous trash she was being forced to regurgitate. Ellen Burstyn dominates the cast, managing to make Olivia formidably evil without yielding to the omnipresent temptation to chew the scenery, and the actors playing the kids turn in competent victim performances but do little more with the material — still, the half-clad Mason Dye was a lot of fun to look at!