Saturday, June 21, 2014

Petals on the Wind (A+E Studios, Cue the Dog Productions, Fries Film Company, MGM, 2014)

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

The film was Petals on the Wind, based on the late Gothic novelist V. C. Andrews’ sequel to her mega-best seller Flowers in the Attic. I already posted about the Lifetime TV-movie adaptation of Flowers in the Attic, to which this is a sequel, and explained Andrews’ intriguing background as a writer: she’d originally been a commercial artist but took up writing as a hobby in her early 50’s and managed to crank out a number of cycles of interlocking stories — all structured as five-book series, including an initial volume, three sequels and a final prequel — before her death. Needless to say, her publisher decided the name “V. C. Andrews” was too valuable a property to let expire with the demise of its original owner, so they hired another writer, Andrew Neiderman, to keep writing “V. C. Andrews” novels, ostensibly based on notes the original Andrews had left behind but, not surprisingly, drawing more and more on Neiderman’s own inventions (or at least his own deployments of Gothic clichés) as the work progressed and Andrews’ own collections of notes, jottings, outlines or whatever dried up. Flowers in the Attic was first published in 1979 and was such an enormous hit it not only spawned four more books in the series about the terminally dysfunctional Dollanganger family (as I noted earlier, Andrews seems to have inherited from fellow woman Gothic author Mignon G. Eberhardt a penchant for unwittingly — at least I hope it was unwittingly — silly character names). In the backstory, Corinne Foxworth Dollanganger Winslow (Heather Graham) married her father’s half-brother and produced four children whom Corinne’s own mother Olivia (Ellen Burstyn, giving an old-pro-showing-the-young-whippersnapers-what-acting-really-is performance in both films), the only member of this family whose given name does not begin with “C,” denounced as “spawn of the devil” because of their incestuous lineage. Corrine and her half-uncle break up (either that or he dies) and she remarries, and her new husband raises the kids as his own, but at the start of Flowers in the Attic he’s killed in a car crash and Corrine, in order to win back her family inheritance, not only has to move to the old manse — Foxworth Hall, Virginia — but has to pretend that she has no children. So she and Olivia have them hide in one bedroom of the house and give them access to the attic in which to play — and the kids draw flowers on the wall to nurture the fantasy that they are outside.

Flowers is about how the kids grow up (or don’t) during this period: little brother Cory (Maxwell Kovach) dies of pneumonia, his sister Carrie (Ava Telek in Flowers, Bailey Buntain in Petals) gets developmentally stunted so she never grows up psychologically or emotionally, and the oldest kids, fraternal twins Christopher (the drop-dead gorgeous Mason Dye in Flowers and the almost as hot Wyatt Nash in Petals) and Cathy (Kiernan Shipka in Flowers, Rose McIver in Petals), end up having a hot and heavy sexual affair with each other, not surprisingly since they’re reaching sexual maturity in a hothouse environment where they literally don’t have access to anyone else their own age. In Flowers the kids first assume that mom is on their side against their Grandma from Hell, but soon they realize that Corinne wants to keep them in the attic so she can marry her current boyfriend, attorney Bart Winslow (Dylan Bruce), who thinks she’s younger than she is and doesn’t realize she has four children, two of whom are almost grown. Eventually the kids realize what they’re up against after mom tries to off them by baking them cakes laced with rat poison, and they finally escape from the attic and the grounds of Foxworth Hall itself. Flowers ends with them on a bus to heaven knows where, and Petals opens a decade later. It turns out that the three remaining Dollanganger kids were adopted by a Dr. Paul Sheffield in North Carolina, who did his best to provide them a loving and nurturing environment (and also gave them a considerably less risible last name!), and Christopher was inspired by his adoptive dad’s example to go to medical school and become a doctor himself. Only Dr. Paul Sheffield dies just before Christopher is about to graduate, and Petals opens at his funeral; Christopher is about to join the staff of the local hospital and marry the boss’s airheaded daughter, Sarah Reeves (Whitney Hoy) — though the name more often than not comes out as “Sierra” on the soundtrack — when his plans get monkey-wrenched by Cathy.

It’s not quite certain who seduces whom, but they get their incestuous goings-on back together again even with alternative partners in their lives — Sarah in his and New York ballet dancer Julian Marquet (Will Kemp) in hers. It seems that Cathy has been taking ballet classes and Julian saw her, immediately fell in lust with her, and determined to get her to run away with him, join his ballet company (he’s the star dancer and he boasts that the company director is “in love with me,” which suggests that they’re Gay partners and he’s cheating on the director with women) and become an instant star. Only he turns out to be a thoroughly nasty piece of sexually exploitative trash, deliberately costing her a big role by dropping her during a rehearsal — and she blackmails him into putting ground glass into the ballet slippers of her rival, thereby getting the role back. Alas, things go sour when Christopher and Carrie come to New York for her opening, Cathy catches Julian putting the moves on Carrie, there’s a big freak-out and it ends up in a car accident in which Julian is killed and Cathy almost dies too — but she’s saved and so is Jory (Alex Salomon), the son she and Julian conceived before he croaked but who hadn’t been born yet when his dad died. The three return to North Carolina and Carrie resumes her education at a sort of finishing school in which she’s being unmercifully teased as a “freak” by two fellow students, who make fun of her for still carrying a doll (the only souvenir she still has of her mother, she explains); they grab the doll, hang it from a mock noose in the school’s third-floor storage room and lock her in — thereby, of course, flashing her straight back to that attic where she spent most of her childhood. Eventually Carrie meets a minister, Alex Conroy (Ross Phillips), and though he’s supposed to be seriously in love with her (even though he’s more than twice her age) director Karen Moncrieff (replacing Flowers director Deborah Chow — neither of these movies is going to advance the cause of equality for women directors in Hollywood) is unable to shoot the scene without making Alex look like yet another scumbag licking his lips in anticipation of molesting and deflowering Carrie.

They get formally engaged and Carrie seeks out their mom, who’s still living in Foxworth Hall with her attorney husband and having the place obsessively remodeled again and again to remove the “damned spots” the way Lady Macbeth kept washing her hands. Carrie has regularly written mom, only to have the letters come back marked “Return to Sender,” and when she gives mom the invitation to her wedding mom coldly brushes her off and says, “You must be mistaken. I don’t have a daughter.” Crushed by this final rejection, Carrie makes a batch of cakes laced with rat poison, and instead of delivering them to mom and killing her with them — which is naturally where I thought this was going — she uses them to commit suicide. Cathy decides to avenge herself against her mom for his sister’s death, and the way she decides to go about this is to seduce her stepfather Bart, then go to the big Christmas party at Foxworth Hall, “out” herself as the offspring of Corinne and ultimately burn the place down with her grandmother Olivia (ya remember Olivia?) in it. (Needless to say, the fire is staged in a way that shows Moncrieff saw Rebecca at least once in her life.) Cathy also gets it on with Christopher again and the two are caught by Sarah, which ends both Christopher’s engagement and his hopes for a medical career in North Carolina, so Petals end with the incestuous pair living in California with Cathy’s two kids, Jory and Bart (her stepdad impregnated her and she named their son after him), posing as husband and wife and passing themselves off as a perfectly normal suburban family; while the final scene shows mother Corinne in the main room of an old-style snake-pit mental hospital, wearing a blue hospital gown and babbling incoherently about her kids. I’ve gone into such detail about what actually happens in Petals on the Wind because whatever entertainment value it has is dependent on the piling on of ridiculously improbable event on top of ridiculously improbable event — next to this insane sequel, Flowers in the Attic looks like a masterpiece of hard-edged realism by comparison. There are other defects — like Heather Graham barely looking any older than her on-screen daughter Rose McIver —but those are the stuff of normal moviemaking.

Petals on the Wind is the product of the seriously warped mind of V. C. Andrews — though whether she was really as crazy as this story makes her sound or was a keen manipulator who had an excellent sense of what her audience wanted and a willingness to give it to them, whether or not it made sense, is a pretty open question — and what appeal it has is due to the sheer bizarreness of it and the ability of its actors to keep straight faces while enacting all this garbage. Aside from Burstyn’s three scenes as the old woman, bald and trapped in her bed in the upstairs bedroom of Foxworth Hall (where she had the children locked up lo those many years ago) and dependent on her daughter, who sends away the visiting nurse (an African-American who’s just about the only rational character in the entire film), says she’ll take care of her mom herself, and of course sadistically neglects her instead, the acting here is coolly competent rather than inspired, though at least there’s a lot of soft-core porn and Wyatt Nash, though hardly as hot as Mason Dye (who played his role in the earlier film), is at least good-looking enough it’s a delight to see him screw his “sister” on screen in some pretty explicit scenes for a mainstream cable-TV movie! Incidentally I should also mention that there’s a brief reference to the child Christopher and Cathy conceived themselves in the attic — there’s a tossed-off line about how she thinks it’s just as well she miscarried that pregnancy, and I wanted him to say, “Just think — if that baby had been born he could have grown up to be a great hero, killed a dragon, got the one ring of power, crossed through the magic fire to get to his girlfriend — who, by the way, was also his aunt — and ultimately got killed by his foster-father’s nephew, which would have triggered the end of the world — oops, wrong story.”