Few authors reach a level of success so great that their estate continues to both commission and publish new novels in their name three decades after the author’s death. Such was and is the case for the unrivaled queen of American gothic, V.C. Andrews, whose money making moniker continues to adorn book shop shelves the world over. Andrews’ most acclaimed novels detail the trials, tribulations and torrid romances of the Dollanganger family over several generations. Of these novels (Petals on the Wind, If There Be Thorns, Seeds of Yesterday and Garden of Shadows respectively), Andrews’ first book, Flowers in the Attic remains her most renown. And before being adapted into a series of Lifetime network teledramas, director Jeffery Bloom (Nightmares, Dogpound Shuffle) adapted Flowers in the Attic into the 1987 motion picture of the same name.
After the untimely death of her father (uncle?), Cathy Dollanganger (Deadly Friend’s Kristy Swanson), her siblings (cousins?) Chris, Cory and Carrie as well as her mother (aunt?) Corrine escape to Foxworth, the palatial mansion estate of Cathy’s estranged grandparents. Left destitute, Cathy’s mother Corrine (Victoria Tennant from Winds of War, All of Me) hopes to curry favor with her rich family and be written back into her ailing father’s will. Sadly however Olivia Foxworth, Cathy’s fanatically religious grandmother (played to perfection by Louise Fletcher, Nurse Ratched of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), has certain strict stipulations. The quartet of Dollanganger children whom (if you haven’t guessed from my above introductions) were the products of incest, must remain confined to a single upstairs bedroom with closet access to a dark and decrepit attic. Fearing the children’s mere existence may result in insult toward the aging family patriarch and bar her from the family will, Corrine reluctantly agrees to the imprisonment and inevitable neglect of her children. Or is Corrine as reluctant as she seems? As days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months (as the Dollanganger brood grow weaker and weaker), it becomes all the more clear how complacent Corrine is with regard to her children’s suffering, how motivated Corrine becomes by her own greed.
Upon the film’s release, Flowers was a bit of a critical pariah. On one hand you had fans decrying the omission of sordid subject matter found in the novel, on the other hand you had general audiences (audiences not familiar with the book) who found the taboo topics that did manage to make the film’s final cut distasteful. While this motley motion picture has today garnered a growing cult following, it’s still oft listed as a so-bad-it’s-good piece. This interpretation of the film seems to stem from people’s perception of individual components within the film’s production rather than the film itself. For instance, the film’s distribution by New World Pictures, founded by the infamous B-movie boss Roger Corman, or the casting of Kristy Swanson, an actress who (for some) has trouble shaking her valley girl persona rooted in roles such as the Charlie Sheen vehicle The Chase and her performance as a bubble-headed Buffy of the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Whilst Swanson’s Slayer was later overshadowed by Sarah Michelle Gellar’s television rendition of the eponymous heroine, Swanson’s stint in the original film was not without its merits (namely its stellar cast consisting of Donald Sutherland, Rutger Hauer and Paul Reubens to name a few). Likewise, Flowers features a bevy of benefits for willing participants. Tennant and Fletcher deliver deviously antagonistic turns as wicked mother and grandmother respectively and Hellraiser composer Christopher Young contributes to the film’s eerie atmosphere with a surrealist score that surpasses other suspense films of its time. Whilst not quite of the same caliber, much of Flowers’ mansion bound madness echoes such features as Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.
As far as Swanson’s concerned, I personally have always seen her as something of a genre darling, effortlessly weaving between comedic cameos in Ferris Bueller and Big Daddy as well as B-horror in Highway to Hell and Deadly Friend (her turn in Buffy being something of an amalgam between the two). Within the loft-like confines of Flowers, Swanson is saddled with raging against her matrilineal minders, all the while conveying blossoming romantic inclinations toward her own brother. This is no easy task and (for my money) Swanson swimmingly pulls through. Ultimately, Swanson as well as the film version of Flowers in the Attic in which she stars, have both been woefully underrated throughout the years. Arrow Video’s recent re-release of the feature offers discerning viewers a much needed reappraisal of this oft maligned melodrama.