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Our review of Flowers in the Attic (1987), published May 18th, 2001, is also available.
Based on the best-selling book by V.C. Andrews.
Flowers in the Attic (and at least a few of its sequels) was a constant feature of my childhood—the paperback was a common feature amongst the women who work at the daycare I attended, and into my teenage years I could see numerous V.C. Andrews books taking up shelves (and it was always more than one) at the only used book store in my small town. Though that paperback cover always gave me the willies, Flowers in the Attic largely disappeared from my life for over a decade, and it seemed that despite the prolificacy of V.C. Andrews (with the name taken over secretly by another author after her death), her work wasn't in the national consciousness. Then Lifetime decided to remake the story for a new generation, corralling a great cast for a juicy tale of melodrama and madness. It's not for everyone, but those looking for the guilty pleasures of the book will find plenty to love.
Facts of the Case
When Corine's (Heather Graham, Boogie Nights) husband dies, leaving her and her children in dire straits, her only recourse is to appeal to her estranged mother (Ellen Burstyn, Requiem for a Dream). Corine's four children—the teenagers Chris (Mason Dye, Secret Diary of an American Cheerleader) and Cathy (Kiernan Shipka, Carriers) along with five-year-old twins Cory (Maxwell Kovach, Arson Mom) and Carrie (Ava Talek, Super Buddies)—are confined to a closed-off section of the wealthy grandmother's house, with the attic the only place they have any freedom. As their abuse increases, the quartet finds solace in each other.
It's not a huge shock that Lifetime would want to resurrect Flowers in the Attic from its pop-culture grave. The original series has all the content we've come to expect from the channel's "original programming." We've got strong female characters, severe psychological and physical abuse, and just enough romantic/sexual content to be appealing without being porn. Taken on these merits, as an example of a contemporary melodrama—the kind of movie where everything is heightened, especially emotions—Flowers in the Attic delivers on the guilty pleasures it promises.
While not entirely preposterous, the basic plot of Flowers in the Attic immediately places it in the realm of the not-quite-real. The whole idea of trapping these four kids in the attic of an old mansion is to create a kind of pressure cooker where everything is heightened. Emotions run high, violence runs high, voices run high, and the whole situation is intended to push sensation to the limit.
Which is another way of saying that the film is over-the-top from opening shot to last. The basic story is already in the realm of the weird, and as narrative hit after narrative hit arrives we're increasingly placed in the land of "Did I just see that?" Which is also another way of saying that the film doesn't try to be "good" in the traditional sense, but offer an experience that more pulp, and more strangeness.
What keeps all this insanity grounded is the performances. Ellen Burstyn gets to be the cruel grandmother, and she approaches it almost like she's the cruel grandmother in a fairy tale, all sharp looks and acid tongue. Heather Graham gets to slowly go insane from the pressure of having to grovel to her estranged mother, and she doesn't usually get to play these kinds of roles. It's a welcome turn for an actress who is usually so sunny. Kiernan Shipka and Mason Dye make their relationship surprisingly believable; there is plenty of room for awkwardness or wooden characterization but they deliver. The young twins are surprisingly creepy, though as the victims hit hardest by the abuse they're also very sympathetic.
The DVD is also pretty strong as well. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is generally clean and bright throughout. The darker attic scenes are well-rendered, with decent black levels. Colors are also well-saturated, and compression artifacts aren't a problem. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is similarly strong. Dialogue is clean and clear from the front, while the surrounds get a bit of usage establishing atmosphere in the cramped house. It's not the most dynamic track, but it gets the job done.
The set's lone extra is a collection of cast and crew interviews in a behind-the-scenes setting. I know it's a bit much to hope for a special edition of a made-for-TV movie, but it would be really nice to have a documentary that focused more on the V.C. Andrews phenomenon.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Taken out of context, Flowers in the Attic looks like just another subpar made-for-TV movie, where even otherwise excellent actresses give ridiculous performances. The production values are a bit higher than the average TV movie, but it still doesn't look like typical Hollywood fare.
Viewers should also know that Flowers in the Attic touches on some seriously mature themes. We're somewhat used to seeing abuse of children on television today in a way that wasn't true of 1979 (the year of the book's publication). However, even Game of Thrones couches its incestuous storyline in a fantasy world. Flowers in the Attic gives us an incest storyline that's emphatically present day. Moreover it's a relationship the film largely supports as a positive response to an horrific situation. If abuse or incest are themes that disturb you, then Flowers in the Attic probably isn't for you. On the other hand, the film wants to heat things up to a boil, but the made-for-TV constraints keep it from every really getting as crazy as the premise seems to demand.
Flowers in the Attic is a fine example of twenty-first century melodrama. Offering a crazy story of familial trauma told via excellent actors giving heated performances, the film is sure to be a guilty pleasure favorite for years to come, at least among those who like the actors involved. This DVD could use a few more special features, but overall it's a fine presentation and worth at least a rental to those interested in the film.
Overheated, but not guilty.
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