Review: Flowers in the Attic (2014)
When the husband of Corinne Foxworth-Dollanganger (Heather Graham) suddenly dies in a car accident, leaving her to look after four kids (Teen siblings Kiernan Shipka and Mason Dye, plus two young twins), she feels she has no alternative except to plead with her estranged parents. However, to do this the kids must stay solely locked in the bedroom or up in the attic of her wealthy parents’ estate, whilst Corinne attempts to get into the good graces of her elderly father, who is unaware of the kids’ existence. Strict, domineering grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) knows very well of their existence, and for some reason seems repulsed by them and overly concerned with their closeness. Just what have these kids walked into, and why is their mother OK with them being confined to the attic and harshly mistreated by their grandmother? And why are Shipka and Dye getting funny feelings for each other in their pants all of a sudden? Eeewww.
I hear this 2014 TV movie from director Deborah Chow and writer Kayla Alpert is somewhat closer to the V.C. Andrews novel than was the 1987 version that everyone outside of my family seems to hate. Well, I’ve never read the books, and I think this adaptation is a total botch-job, either that or the original source material itself mustn’t lend itself well to film adaptation. Alpert in my opinion has botched the whole thing here by making the ‘real’ villain of the piece completely obvious from the start (almost the first scene), which means that the character of the grandmother played by a tired and wheezy Ellen Burstyn (not her finest hour) has been rendered ineffectual…and strangely butch. I was really disappointed with Burstyn’s half-hearted performance, but it’s actually not really her fault. Part of what I liked about the 1987 version, in addition to the perfectly cast Louise Fletcher, was that the grandmother was so incredibly strict, harsh, and frankly frightening (in a camp way), that the film’s true villain isn’t quite as easy to spot. I don’t know if that was the point of the Andrews text or not, but I liked it. Here we don’t get that, the grandmother is just a tired old crank, who frankly, was right all along, albeit violently misguided in approach. She needs to have her corns attended to, a nice cup of tea, and a lie down. The character has been completely diminished to the point where in the subsequent story “Petals on the Wind”, it feels rather redundant and repetitive. The whole thing plays like Alpert read “Petals on the Wind” first, and writes this adaptation with that one in mind (And yet rendering that film redundant and repetitive, as I said).
I also found it seriously irritating that the poisoning aspect of the film gets short shrift here. It’s barely even touched on, and the kids look way too healthy for way too long. Even if you don’t find problems elsewhere in the film, surely fans of the book must at least take issue with that one. Especially when cuddly ‘ol granny tells the kids the doughnuts are from their mother and don’t eat them. Fuck me. How is that not botching the whole damn thing? (She even tells them twice, because apparently these kids were dropped on their heads as babies!).
On the positive side of things, the incest angle is played up considerably over the 1987 version, and if that’s what you want to see, you’ll get as much of it as a TV movie will allow. It’s certainly a pretty important part of the story (I have family members who have read the books), and the film earns points for not shying away from it, even if like everything else in the film, they telegraph it too early. The performance by Kiernan Shipka as the eldest daughter is certainly an improvement over Kristy Swanson in the 1987 version, too. Hell, I think Heather Graham is much better as the mother than Victoria Tennant was in 1987. It’s a convincing performance, it’s not her damn fault how her character has been written. In fact, I think Graham (who is in her mid-40s, but still looks in her late 20s. Wow!) was rather well-cast. But that’s it for niceties I’m afraid.
The whole thing was rendered ineffectual and useless to me by just how completely transparently it plays out. It really is unfortunate, because the basic story is campy, creepy Gothic fun. This just isn’t good enough. It’s a nicely gloomy, ominous-looking film but you might as well just read the books instead.