Flowers in the Attic (1987) Blu-ray Review: I Think They Wilted

The best-selling novel gets a neutered adaptation but an excellent release by Arrow Video.
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I have this memory in which my mother gives me a copy of V.C. Andrews’ 1979 novel Flowers in the Attic.  I was in my early 20s at the time and my mother gave the book great praise.  For some reason, I thought the book was about the Holocaust, that it was a story similar to Anne Frank’s, where a group of young siblings were hiding from the Nazis in an attic of an old mansion.  For anyone who has read the book, you know how far my idea is from the truth.  The actual novel is about a group of siblings who are imprisoned in the attic of their grandmother’s mansion while their destitute mother tries to get back into the good graces of her father.  It features torturous violence and explicit scenes of incest and rape.  

Or so I’m told, I still haven’t read it.  None of this seems like something my mother would approve of and hardly recommend.  I now wonder if she gave me the book at all.  Maybe it was some other book.  Maybe that one was about the Holocaust.  I’ve long since lost that book so I guess I’ll never know.

I just watched the 1987 movie adaptation, and based on it, I can’t say I ever want to read the book. It was written and directed by Jeffrey Bloom, who is probably best known for Blood Beach, an ‘80s horror film about a killer beach, like the beach itself kills people, and several made-for-TV Columbo movies. Wes Craven originally wrote a screenplay for it but it was considered too risqué for what the producers were hoping to be a mainstream movie and it was scrapped. That movie would surely have been more interesting than the one we got.

According to the Blu-ray extras, Bloom’s version of the film was ultimately considered too out there for the mainstream and various cuts were forced upon him.  After a poor screening, a new ending was demanded by the producers which Bloom refused to shoot, they hired another director to shoot those scenes and this was released into theaters.

When their father dies in a tragic accident, four children are whisked away by their mother (Victoria Tennant) to their grandparent's old mansion.  Having no usable skills and apparently unable to get any kind of job (the book is set in the 1950s, a time in which it is at least believable that a single mother couldn’t get a job anywhere, whereas the movie is set in the 1980s, making this particular plot point rather stupid), dear old Mom declares she must get back into the good graces of Grandfather (Nathan Davis), who is dying, in order to get back into his will.

It seems the grandparents kicked Mom to the curb once she started shacking up with, and eventually married Dad who was, in fact, her own uncle.  One of the many strange ideas concocted by the film (and presumably the book) is that this frowning upon by the grandparents on what is a rather morally repugnant act is seen as a negative, rather than the actual incestuous relationship.  But maybe that’s just the point of view of Cathy (Kristy Swanson), the eldest daughter whose perspective we see most of the film.

Grandfather doesn’t actually know that the children - Cathy, Chris (Jeb Stuart Adams), and the five-year-old twins - exist, which is why they are locked into an upstairs room with a staircase that leads to the titular attic where the children spend most of their time.  If he finds out about them, he will not only keep them out of the will but kick everyone to the curb.

Luckily, Grandfather is too ill to climb any stairs or do much more than lie on his bed and get wheel-chaired into the dining room.  It is the Grandmother (Louis Fletcher) they must worry about.  She is deeply religious and considers the children abominations and thus treats them with utter contempt.  She doesn’t treat the mother much better constantly berating her and at one point, forcing her to strip down in front of the Grandfather so he can watch her get literally whipped.

Worry not, sensitive minds, that scene is cut in such a way as to not show any flesh revealing nor any actual whipping.  The whole film, scandalizing as the plot synopsis may seem, is rather tame.  The violence is almost entirely off-screen and the incest between brother and sister is barely hinted at.  Even Louise Fletcher, who was so menacing as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, has been muted to a dull roar.  I hate to be the kind of guy who wants more hardcore violence and incest in my movies, but this one needed something to make it interesting.  As it is, it feels like a film so overly censored as to be completely neutered.  Which I guess it kind of was.

The mother slowly conforms to her parents' wishes while the children rot away in the attic.  The lack of sunshine gives them vitamin-D deficiency and there are long periods of time when they are hardly fed at all.  The film concentrates on Cathy’s increasing hatred of her mother and Chris’ faith in the same.  It is believable that these two kids, coming of age in such a situation would turn to each other for comfort and more, but their relationship is so muted by the producers as to make it utterly bland.  The two twins are given very little to do other than look increasingly unhealthy.

It is a gorgeously shot film.  The lighting is exquisite, and the attic dressed to look both decrepit and like a children’s wonderland.  The score is likewise well suited to the film and quite haunting.  It's just a shame that both these things are in service to such a godawful film.

Arrow Video presents Flowers in the Attic with a 1080p transfer and a 1.85:1 aspect ratio and the original 2.0 lossless stereo audio.   Extras include a new audio commentary by Kat Ellinger, new interviews with cinematographer Frank Byers, production designer John Muto, Jeb Stuart Adams, and composer Christopher Young.  There is a production gallery with behind-the-scenes images, illustrations, storyboards, and the original studio-vetoed ending (though I could only play it with an audio commentary track, it would have been nice to see it without that).  Plus there are two versions of the shooting script (including the Wes Craven one) available as BD-ROM content and the usual booklet with an essay about the film.

Flowers in the Attic was not a hit upon its release.  Critics panned it, fans of the book were angered by the many changes made, and most people just stayed home.  Having never read the book, I can’t complain about the changes but the story seems like one that would make for a great salacious horror film.  Sadly, whether through poor directing choices or fiddling by producers, the end result is something not at all interesting.  If you are a fan, then this Arrow Video release is full of great stuff, but if you are on the fence, I think I’d stay out of this particular attic.

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