Nobody loved a Gothic family saga so much as Virginia Andrews, the writer whose success has led to more novels being published under her name by ghost writers than she ever wrote before her death in December 1986, the most famous of them being the Dollanganger series which launched her career in 1979 with Flowers in the Attic.
A tangled web of family, deceit, death, jealousy and revenge, it spawned the sequels Petals in the Wind, If There Be Thorns, Seeds of Yesterday and the posthumously published prequel Garden of Shadows, the latter completed by Andrew Neiderman after the death of the series originator, exploring the history of the formidable Dollanger matriarch Olivia Foxworth.
Filmed in 1987 and now released on Blu-ray by Arrow films, Flowers in the Attic tells the story of the four Dollanger children, Chris, Cathy and the twins Cory and Cary, who upon the death of their beloved father John are taken by their mother Corinne to live in their ancestral family home of Foxworth Hall with her estranged parents, Olivia and Malcolm.
The children never having met their grandparents, they are forbidden from seeing their grandfather at all and told that they must obey the strict rules of the house, the most important of which that they must never raise their voices or be overheard, but it soon becomes obvious the cold and unwelcoming Olivia has no wish for them to be there at all.
Calling them Hellspawn, cursed from the day they were born, the four children are locked in the single room they share together, Corinne assuring them on her infrequent visits that the situation will improve, that she is regaining the trust of her ailing father and after his death their situation will be improved, but confined to the expansive attic area the children are starved of food and affection and begin to plan their escape.
Adapted and directed by Jeffrey Bloom, Flowers and the Attic is full of ominous foreshadowing from the outset but remains understated rather than overt, what atmosphere it has conveyed by Christopher Young’s delicate soundtrack, the themes of which are built around the ballerina musical box given to Cathy by her father before his death.
Five years before she played the role of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Kristy Swanson was still a teenager when she took the shrill role of Cathy though Jeb Stuart Adams, supposedly only two years older as Chris, was actually already in his mid-twenties at the time of filming, giving the better performance of the two, though in a film which serves as a masterclass of bad acting there is little to praise.
A multiple award winner for her role in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and well known to genre fans for her appearances in Exorcist II: The Heretic, Brainstorm, Firestarter and Star Trek Deep Space Nine, as Olivia Foxworth the great Louise Fletcher is intimidating and inflexible but the material is beneath her formidable talent, while Victoria Tennant is bland and blank faced as her scheming daughter, but the most significant misjudgement is Clare Peck’s lifeless voiceover.
For a story built around incest, inheritance and murder, Flowers in the Attic could not be further from the bloody passions of Game of Thrones, sanitised and filmed in soft focus and muted tones, the relationship between siblings Chris and Cathy of the novel excised, though it is creepy how obvious both grandfather and father make it that their daughters are the favourites of all their children.
Too tame and with a burden of ridiculous it cannot shake off, it never seems believable that Corinne would allow herself and her children to be tortured in order to live in comfort, that if life with the Foxworths were so intolerable she could simply not get a job to support her family, that if she was entirely dependent on her husband that she had no life insurance policy on him, no provision set up to to ensure she did not have to return home.
Also included in the Arrow package are interviews with cinematographer Frank Byers, production designer John Muto, actor Adams and composer Young, as well as degraded footage of the final scenes as originally shot, all that is known to exist of the radically different finale. Listed in the specification but not present on the review disc is an unproduced version of the script written by Wes Craven, rejected by Andrews as too violent and graphic.
Despite the detailed forced-perspective attic designed by Muto inspired by Harold Michelson’s work on Star Trek The Motion Picture and the grand filming location of Castle Hill in Massachusetts, also featured the same year in The Witches of Eastwick, with Bloom primarily a television director the tepid material and flat presentation never feel more than a television movie, and tellingly the entire saga has since been produced as such by the Lifetime channel, a more appropriate residence for the Dollanger clan.