I don’t really know that much about author “V. C. Andrews”. She (he?) wrote a series of Neo-Gothic paperback novels that sold by the millions in the 1980s. After her death, new ghostwritten books continued to come out under the V. C. Andrews name. And there’s one more thing I know about her: She was the victim of sexism. That’s right. How else to explain why there’s only been one lousy movie adapted from her books? Look at Harold Robbins. His novels have been adapted into innumerable Bad Movies (see my review of The Lonely Lady). In contrast, Andrews has only one hideous box office fiasco under her belt. Yet her work has been ignored by Hollywood ever since the release of our current subject, Flowers in the Attic.
We open on a palatial estate. Dour singers are “Ahh-Ahh”ing in the background, to make sure we don’t mistake this for an episode of The Beverly Hillbillies (I wish!). As we tour the estate’s statuary (which filmmakers always assume is spooky), the narration begins. This is not a good sign. For those just starting their Bad Movieâ„¢ vocation, this is a classic Bad Movie element. Especially when the film is a book adaptation. It generally means that the filmmakers are afraid that they’ll be unable to cram enough of the book’s contents into the movie. Thus, narration is used to jam as much expository dialog and backstory down our craw as we can stomach. The narrator is an older version of Cathy, the main character, looking back at the film’s events. So don’t be surprised if she doesn’t end up dead or anything. We segue from close-ups of craggy statues to roaming shots of a dusty, junk filled attic. We see a paper flower hanging from the ceiling. Hey. Attic. Flower. Good enough. I guess we can just end this now. No? Oh, well, I guess that was a little too much to hope for.
An “artistic segue” takes us from an obscured, dusty photo to the same photo in earlier times. Cathy’s narration explains that these are the good old days, when she and her brothers and sister worshipped their happy parents. Brother Chris, like Cathy, is somewhere around sixteen, while Corey and Carrie are twins, more like four or five. We get to watch one nauseatingly saccharine bit wherein the kids hide behind a couch to lie in wait for their returning dad. Then they all run out and yell “Yay!” and hug him and kiss him and stuff. Pity the poor diabetic who might have been one of the three or four dozen people who got caught watching this turkey during its theatrical run. I hope he had his insulin readily to hand. We learn that although Daddy loved all his adorable tykes, pretty teenager Cathy (Kristy Swanson, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) was his favorite.
As she explains this, we see Dad entering her bedroom. This is a little creepy. Particularly since Cathy is in bed, in her nightclothes, and Dad notes that he waited until everyone else was asleep before coming in. He sits on her bed and presents her with the kind of plaster ballerina music box that you might get from the Home Shopping Channel for the incredibly low price of only $19.95. It plays an annoying little tune that I fear will come to “symbolize” Cathy’s happier days, or something. Then we’ll be subjected to listening to it throughout the movie. He also gives her a ring. They hug. This is really getting uncomfortable to watch. Apparently, Mother (future Steve Martin wife/ex-wife Victoria Tennant) thinks so too. She’s peeking in the door and seems less than thrilled. By the way, “Mother” is the name of Tennant’s character in the credits, as Louise Fletcher’s is “Grandmother”. There’s also a “Father”, a “Grandfather”, a “Flower Girl”, and so on. Even the children’s names aren’t given until ten minutes after their first appearance. This adds a bizarre generic quality to the film.
We see the family getting ready for Daddy’s 36th Birthday party. They’ve hung decorations, and are engaging in “warm”, “funny” dialog over how to decorate the cake and such. A light comes through the window, and the kids hide behind that couch, ready to rush Daddy like so many Dino the Prehistoric Dogs. However, when Mom opens the door, two policemen appear. Uh, oh! It’s the Movie Police! Don’t say a word until you have conferred with your lawyers. Maybe you can blame it all on the director and screenwriter. Oh, wait, they’re just normal policemen.
In an agonizingly poor sequence, the mother is told the bad news about Daddy. The scene ends with Cathy, in extreme close-up, screaming in horror. Wait. Maybe it was me screaming in horror (after all, we’re only seven minutes into this loser). No, an instant replay indicates that it was, in fact, Cathy who was screaming. This time. The next shot shows the previously happy home now stripped of furniture. All that remains are the Ghosts of Happier Timesâ€¦pardon me if I take a minute to collect myself. OK. Anyway, having sold everything they had, they are now destitute. There’s only one place left for them to go: to Mother’s parents.
On the bus ride out, Mother explains to Cathy and Chris that she had done something (ominously left vague) to piss off ol’ Granddad. He in turn disinherited her. Now, however, he’s dying. Mother intends to “win back his love”. Then she’ll inherit a “fortune beyond your imaginations”, and “through me, every dream you’ve ever had will come true.” Frankly, I see a lot of these people appearing on Sally Jesse in the future. Later, we see Cathy and Chris sitting off to the side, letting actress Kristy Swanson engage in an Oscarâ„¢ Clip Moment. This little monologue is about how Mother should have allowed the kids a pet. That way, when it inevitably died, the children would have learned about Death in a small way. This, in turn, would have proved handy in dealing with the current “Daddy” situation.
Chris looks confused, as if he doesn’t know how to reply to her outburst. Whether that represents the character reacting to his sister’s speech or the actor reacting to (an admittedly young) Swanson’s “acting” is left open to interpretation. The bus lets them off in the middle of the night. Since Granddad didn’t send a car, they must walk to the estate. (Apparently, this is before they invented “taxis”.) They finally arrive on the outskirts of the grounds. A nestling swan inspires a sense of beauty and wonder in the kids. However, these are soon overshadowed by the obligatory gothic “Sinister Portents”: Someone watching them through a window, a sudden appearance by barking dogs, etc. Somehow, the filmmakers missed the Portrait with Eyeholes that watches all. Maybe later. However, there is a Sinister Butler. Really.
In fact, John the Sinister Butler is so mean that he doesn’t even smile when Corey greets him in a “cute” fashion. Brrrr. Wow, this is just like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, except thatâ€¦.OK, it’s nothing like Rebecca. Never mind. As they enter the silent, gigantic mansion, they are met by the ominous looking Louise Fletcher, as Grandmother. She glowers even better than John the Butler. I should mention that Fletcher hasn’t been in a good movie since One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, so her appearance here is another “clue” to the film’s quality. One of the reasons for her career decline is that she kept being cast in Nurse Rachett-esque parts in inferior movies. This being one. To make we know that she’s “evil”, the camera zooms in to reveal that she’s carrying a Holy Bible (*gasp!*). This is regulation movie shorthand for “this character’s a malignant nutcase”. After all, you never see anyone in Hollywood carrying a Bible around! Grandmother greets the family coldly, and instructs Mother to bring the kids “upstairs”.
This turns out to be way upstairs, in the garret. In spite of the fact that there are about a bazillion rooms in the place, the kids are to sleep in one room, which features double beds. The girls will sleep in one bed, the boys in the other. The room is lit so as to appear cold and unfriendly. Also, Fletcher’s Bible has been placed in such a manner as to become conspicuous when the camera angle shifts. Again, we’re to recognize that the appearance of a Bible is a baleful sign.
As we might expect from the presence of the Good Book, Grandmother turns out to be a horrific martinet. The kids are not to be loud, run around, etc. (Horrors!), and will even be locked in when the adults are not in attendance (!). (Did the readers of these novels really take this stuff seriously? What’s next, the murderous, insane, unspoken-of cousin locked up in the secret dungeon?) Mother tearfully implores the kids to behave and not give Grandmother any reason to punish them, and then leaves. Grandma locks them in. Chris is trying to keep a stiff upper lip, only to discover that the windows are barred (gasp!). Why anyone would put bars on windows four stories up is left to our imaginations. But, boy, it’s, you know, ominous!
John the Sinister Butler is next seen wheeling a (no doubt evil) breakfast up to the kids. He takes a little elevator up, whilst Grandmother uses the stairs. The music eerily “Ahh-Ahh”s to let us know that this whole breakfast thing is, well, ominous somehow. Maybe climbing stairs instead of using elevators is a sign of personal malignity, like carrying a Bible (which Grandmother continues to clutch, like Bob Dole with his pen). The door is unlocked (to continuous “Ahh-Ahh” music), revealing that Grandmother’s sleeping arrangements have been followed. She wheels in the cart and begins to set up breakfast on the room’s table. Before leaving she warns them that God will be watching them always, punishing them for anything they manage to get by her. Then she starts to harangue them about their Mother’s past deeds. Cute tyke Corey mentions that he has to go to the “bathwoom”, causing Grandmother to order him to “Be silent!” (Frankly, I’m with her. Who hasn’t wanted to tell some cute but annoyingly untalented kiddie “actor” to shut up?) All this is apparently so as to make sure we “get” that Grandmother is mean and overly strict.
Grandmother’s evil speech progresses to absurd, and eventually comical, lengths. She begins ranting that their Mother’s marriage to their father was a sin against God, an abomination, a sacrilege, generally unholy, etc. This sounds a little farfetched (as it’s meant to) until the part about how Daddy was also Mother’s uncle (ewwww!). This kind of reinforces the creepy feeling when Cathy’s Dad, uh, Great Uncle, whatever, sat on her bed and hugged her. Of course, since Grandmother’s rather strenuously against such shenanigans, it’s somewhat puzzling that she has Cathy and Chris, both ripe young teenagers, sleeping in the same locked room together. Finally, she calls the kids the Spawn of Evil or something, causing a tearful Cathy runs for the door.
In a not terribly effective “scare” moment, John the Sinister Butler appears to block her way, causing her to scream. And while this may fail to startle the audience, as intended, it perhaps succeeds in rousing them from their slumber for a bit. As a final note, Grandmother informs them that their existence is unknown to their Grandfather, and that she intends to keep it that way. Finally, she takes her leave, and little Corey sprints to the bathroom. Anyone watching this film probably feels like doing the same. Although their interaction with the Porcelain God might be a little more, uh, “face to face” than Corey’s.
We cut to John TSB carrying a leather doctor’s bag up the stairs. He hands it to Grandmother, who is inside Grandfather’s room with Mother, and leaves. Mother begins stripping in front of her tearful mute father. It’s at this point that all my moorings to sanity finally were cast off. Who the hell did they make this movie for?! Is it possible anyone thought than an audience, any audience, would find this in any way entertaining? Grandmother pulls a bullwhip from out of the bag. Thankfully, we are spared (except for a “cracking whip” sound effect) from pursuing this unpleasantness further.
Next, it’s nighttime, and we cut up to the kids’ room. They are occupying themselves in various ways. Cathy is putting her precious ballerina music box on the mantelpiece. One would think that the revelation that Cathy’s Daddy was also her Great-Uncle might cast a little cloud over this keepsake, but apparently not. And, gee, is it possible that this dear possession, this one ray of sunshine in Cathy’s life, will become a point of contention between her and Grandmother? Mom enters the room, subtly acting in such a way that we’re supposed to “get” that she’s just been whipped. One problem. The whip we saw would have cut her to bits had it been used on her. She’d be bleeding like a stuck pig, with horrible, permanent scarring, crippled if not killed. Instead she just looks a little sore.
Needless to say, the happiness of this reunion is quickly extinguished by the entrance of the evil Grandmother. In retaliation, little Carrie walks up to her and begins shrilly screaming at her. In a moment that would be appalling were the film not so tremendously inept, Grandmother grabs her little head between two hands and lifts her off the ground, squeezing tightly. That this sight made me burst out laughing instead of getting appalled (at the filmmakers, not at “Grandmother”) is a vivid testament to how poorly the film does what it’s trying to do.
Corey joins in on the action by running over and biting Grandmother’s leg. She kicks him in the head and then slaps him a good one as a bonus. The whole scene is like watching the infamous “wire hanger” sequence of Mommie Dearest as reconceptualized by splatter maven Sam Raimi. Grandmother gives another little harangue about how the kids had better learn some manners. She then orders Mother to remove her blouse so they can see the result of acting up here in Happy House. Mother threatens to take the kids and blow, but folds when Grandmother calls her bluff. So the blouse comes off, revealing some not-totally-convincing scars (although again, were they real, Mother would be dead or crippled at this point). Grandmother then gives one more evil speech and splits.
Inside the kids’ connecting bathroom, Chris and Cathy minister to Mother’s wounds. Chris swabs the torn flesh with a wet washcloth, prompting Mother to sigh, “That’s better.” Gee, too bad they didn’t have any Bactine. She’d be right as rain. Cathy asks about the whole “uncle” thing, but Mother sidesteps the issue. Now that she’s taken her licks, she can begin reclaiming Grandfather’s “love”. But she needs the kids to behave, and implores Cathy and Chris to go along for the present. Chris, who’s been putting his hands on his Mother while cleaning her wounds, leans forward and kisses her cheek. Considering the whole incest theme, these actions are rather off-putting.
I guess that, in the novel, Chris and Cathy, after being locked up for years, become, uh, involved. The filmmakers largely chicken out on this front, aside from a few oblique insinuations (I guess graphically portrayed child abuse is OK, but incest is straight out). Instead, and it almost seems as a substitute, they keep putting in these subtly disturbing interactions between the kids and their parents. And boy, nothing entertains like implied incest! As they come out of the bathroom, Mother tells the teens about a secret panel that leads to, that’s right, the attic. She asks them to turn it into a playground for the twins, to keep them occupied and out of trouble. Then she leaves, locking the door behind her.
Here, in fact, comes the film’s big “wink wink” scene. The twins are asleep in one bed, leaving Cathy and Chris with the other. Cathy and Chris begin to undress, and while Cathy’s in the bathroom, she leaves the door open. Musing as he drops his pants, Chris questions Cathy. “What do you think about all that talk. Uncles marrying nieces?”, he queries. We now get a good peek at young Cathy in her bra. Thanks for including us in on the weirdness. Then, without overmuch comment, Cathy and Chris jump into the same bed. Would it really be that hard to wake up the twins and separate them? Wouldn’t they find that a little less creepy? (I now I would!)
In the morning we see John TSB preparing a meal. This includes some oversized cookies that are having what looks to be powered sugar sprinkled on them (plot point!). Grandmother lays the food out on the table in the kids’ room. Then she removes a piece of paper from her Bible (so that we know that it’s an evil piece of paper). It’s a list of all the rules that they’re to obey while they’re there. These rules are never explicated, and are only referred to once more via the narration. In other words, they’re one more pointless, time wasting element that goes nowhere.
As soon as she’s left, the kids begin to search for the panel that leads to the attic. A hidden door in the closet reveals a long staircase. Grabbing their foodstuffs, the crew heads up. But not before Grandmother makes a quick “shock” reappearance. She reminds them that although they are allowed in the attic, they must, again, never allow themselves to be seen. Which raises the question: How would anyone “see” them in the attic of a secluded mansion? And who would see them? Their Grandfather? Isn’t he supposed to be bedridden? Of course, illogical or not, it’s still spooky, huh? (C’mon, play along, would ya?) As they ascend the stairs, the soundtrack begins “Ahh-Ahh”ing again, to let us know this is another “moment”. The attic is huge, high-ceilinged and filled with cobweb shrouded furniture and knick knacks. The camera slowly plays over especially “eerie” items, like manikins and an old hobby horse. Only here, the narration explains, and then only through the attic’s barred windows, can our protagonists even catch sight of the sun (wow!).
Everybody begins to settle in. Mother is shown playing the piano for Grandfather, apparently part of the “win back his love” agenda. Meanwhile, the kids (amazingly quickly) de-dust the massive attic, and soon are exploring the wonderland of possessions therein. In order to maintain their sanity, the older kids continue to pursue their intended vocations. Chris uses a microscope and the attic’s library to continue his science training (he wants to be a doctor). Cathy practices in front of one of those dancer’s line-of-mirrors with the training bar. She also delights in the collections of old-timey clothes stashed there. We’re told that Mother’s visits have become increasingly rare, and then stopped altogether. In lieu of parental guidance, Chris and Cathy increasingly assume the role of parents for the young twins. They create games and activities for them. And when the twins begin bitching about being trapped inside all the time, Chris assures them that the time will come when they will be reunited with their Mother.
Then it’s back to “Creepyville”. Chris and Cathy have a conversation on why they haven’t seen Mother in such a long time. They ponder whether something has happened to her. Unfortunately, they elect to have this conversation while Cathy is in the bathtub, with Chris washing her back with a washcloth. It’s not quite as gross as the “Dad washing Daughter” scene in Pia Zadora’s Butterfly (during which father Stacey Keach runs his hands over Zadora’s breasts). Still, it goes a long way towards explaining why the “Incest Movie” isn’t one of the most popular film genres. And again, while nothing “happens”, the insinuation continues, as Cathy rolls her eyes and gasps in pleasure at her brother’s ministrations. Chris confides to Cathy that he has some secret plan, and then leaves the room.
Finding the twins sleeping together in the one bed, Chris elects to let them be, leaving the other bed for him and Cathy. Needless to say, when Grandmother brings up the breakfast cart in the morning, she’s less than pleased to find the two older kids in bed together (and who can blame her). Still, considering that she has this “thing” about incest, you’d think that this incident would again cause her to reconsider the “one bedroom” setup. But no. Instead, as punishment, we get the Scene We’ve All Been Waiting For (well, not really, but you knowâ€¦). In a silly slow-motion shot, Grandmother tips over the ballerina music box, shattering it. The box’s discordant music plays over the soundtrack, symbolizing the shattered dreams of the children (wow!).
Cathy and Chris are soon discussing his plan for escaping and finding Mother. This brilliant scheme involves chiseling off the bars in the attic window and repelling down the side of the mansion. Luckily, the attic comes complete with all the necessary gear, including a knotted rope and two pairs of leather gauntlets (both exactly the right size) for the climb down. That night they begin their descent. Chris has made it down and Cathy has begun when the estate’s floodlights turn on and the guard dogs make their appearance. Apparently, Chris made no allowance for this turn of events, and they hasten their butts back up the wall.
To make it extra “suspenseful”, just as Chris nears the top it suddenly begins to rain (!), slicking the rope, which also begins to fray through (!!). Also, the caretaker keeps coming closer, bearing a shotgun (!!!). Too bad the filmmakers forgot the “Pit of Lava”. Gee, will Chris make it back up at the last possible second, or fall to his death to the ravening dogs below? (“Fall to his death! Fall to his death!â€¦”) Chris does, in fact, slip, but manages to grab a hold on a ledge (dammit). Throwing the remainder of the rope back up, Cathy reties it for another try. Meanwhile, the armed caretaker continues to approach. Man, this is soâ€¦well, exciting is not the word I’m looking for. More likeâ€¦boring. Yeah, that’s it! Boring! Needless to say, Chris makes it back up.
The next morning Mother finally appears. However, she’s ticked at their escape attempt. It turns out that Gramps is on the verge of death. If the kids will just sit tight a while longer, the big payoff will come through. Chris agrees, trusting Mother, although Cathy is less pleased. Things go along. “Adorable” Corey (we know he’s adorable, because he has blonde, curly hair and pronounces his “L”s and “R”s as “W”s) catches a mouse for a pet. Mother reads the Bible to Grandfather, who has long nails like Howard Hughes. Meanwhile, Grandmother lurks in a dark corner like Dracula, an unreadable expression on her face. Up in the attic, new, stronger bars have replaced the old set.
In the bathroom, we get a nice close-up of young Cathy’s firm, downy midriff as she climbs into the bath (again, exactly what set of perverts did they make this movie for?!?). For a split second, you can just barely catch sight of the white breast cup the actress wears during the scene. The camera continues to linger over Cathy’s wet, soapy legs. Of course, since Cathy’s in the tub, it’s time for Chris to come in for a conference. Grandmother catches them, and calls them “sinners”. Chris fights back, pointing out the obvious fact that the whole “kids in one room” thing is her own idea. Grandmother flees his berating, leaving us to wonder what diabolical revenge she’ll come up with to punish this effrontery. (As if we care!)
It’s night. Corey is in the attic to feed his mouse, kept in a birdcage. From which a mouse would escape in about two seconds. The caretaker begins his rounds. Grandmother lurks in the halls. The other kids, waking and finding Corey missing, panic. Running upstairs, they find Corey asleep in a box. This scene is so pointless that you begin to wonder why the hell it’s even in the movie. Then we find out: It’s so when Cathy is the first back downstairs, Grandmother can jump out and menace her with a big pair of scissors.
As Chris futilely beats at the locked connecting door, Grandmother grabs big chunks of Cathy’s pretty blonde hair and hacks them off. Actually, the hair we see grabbed is so obviously from an off-camera wig that you just roll your eyes, not having the energy to laugh anymore. When the connecting door is finally unlocked, Chris cautiously enters. In the bathroom, he (and we) react with horror at what confronts us: a pretty, nubile teenaged girl with a bad haircut (*gasp!*). In the next shot, which looks just like one of those Vidal Sassoon commercials, Chris is trimming Cathy’s shorn locks, trying to bring order out of boredom, er, chaos. Cathy again wonders why Mother is allowing all this to happen (I mean, cutting someone’s hair! The horror!). Chris, however, still believes in her.
Life goes on (and so, unfortunately, does this movie). John TSB pushes the corpselike Grandfather to dinner with Mother and Grandmother. In the attic, Corey wonders when more food will arrive. The kids are now adorned with bad, chalky makeup, in an attempt to make them look pale from lack of sunlight. Also, Cathy’s “short” hair is surprisingly tall, as if she were really hiding her hair in a bun under a bad wig. Chris, sweetie that he is, is rebuilding Cathy’s music box. Downstairs, Grandfather presents Mother with a new dress, indicating that the plan is on schedule. Then a new character rears his boring head: a perspective young beau for Mother.
Upstairs, the pancake makeup is getting applied with a trowel. Starved (we’re told) of both food and sunlight, the kids are now hilariously “pale”. I’d say they’ve now officially entered “Lily Munster” territory. This is all supposed to be gutwrenching (and it is, although perhaps not in the way they meant), but since the makeup looks exactly like, well, makeup, it’s frankly just comical. The “Ahh-Ahh”ing music isn’t helping either. Corey is the sickest (well, palest), prompting a classic “Oh come on!” moment. Pre-med Christ sterilizes a razor blade, makes a tourniquet out of his belt, and bleeds himself to provide little Corey with nourishment! Really! I swear! Little Corey just starts suckling up. Yep, this movie just gets more believable (and tasteful!) by the minute. Hey, when do the children push the evil Grandmother into the big oven?
Chris now reveals his latest escape plan. Using a screwdriver and hammer, he pops out the hinges on the locked door (It’s now official. Everything about this movie is unhinged.) He and Chris slip down the stairs. Skulking around, they find a gigantic and ornate bedroom. The jewelry proves it to be Mother’s room. Cathy is enraged and Chris bewildered about the opulence with which she’s living while they’re stuck starving in the attic. Leaving, they wander further, eventually finding Grandfather’s room (why aren’t these “starving” characters downstairs looking for the kitchen?). Thinking that the old man is dead, they approach him.
Suddenly, however, he comes around and grabs them. (Gee. Shock.) Thinking that Cathy is his daughter, he says something inscrutable to her. Well, not so much inscrutable, really, asâ€¦inaudible. Yes, that’s it. Inaudible, because the soundtrack is muffled (I know, I tried four times to catch what he was saying, then gave up). Screaming, the kids run from the room, right into John TSB. Chased back into their room, they settle down in (yes) the bathroom. At this point, it’s time for the next chapter of The Great Debate. Cathy argues for the “screw Mom, let’s book out of here” position. Chris stolidly sticks with the “we’ve got to trust Mom” line. Suddenly, Corey appears in the doorway. He represents the audience’s position, stating: “I have to thwow up, Cathy!”
Downstairs, we see more cookies being dusted with powered sugar (or is it?!). That night, Corey awakens to find Mother standing over him, wearing a black hood. Then, after a burst of lightning, it’s Grandmother under the hood. This turns out to have been Cathy dreaming (?!). Waking up, she finds a cartload of food in the room, including the cookies. Up in the attic, Carrie (who really hasn’t had much to do in the movie) is removing her paper flowers. She says this is because winter is coming. This beggars the question: exactly how long have these kids been locked up here?
I would assume that in the book, it would have been a matter of some years. However, none of the characters here have visibly aged at all. Even stunted by lack of sunlight and food, five year olds like the twins would grow significantly in, say, a year. Cathy’s hair hasn’t even grown back any. So it seems likely that they’ve been imprisoned maybe half a year tops. However, this stretch of time doesn’t seems to jibe with Cathy’s complaints. This is just one more area where the movie fails to adequately convey what’s going on.
“Doc” Chris checks out little Corey’s symptoms, running him through a series of questions. Suddenly, Mother makes an appearance. She chippers on, complimenting Cathy on her new hairdo (!), but finally noticing that the kids aren’t quite as pleased to see her as in the past. Mother jabbers on happily about how she’s reclaimed her father’s love. In a not totally tactful moment, she glowingly reports on how he’s throwing her a huge party tomorrow. She also notes that Winslow, Grandfather’s lawyer (and the rich stud we saw earlier), is coming by to revise his will.
Mother’s thrown when the kids fail to appreciate her efforts. Even Chris complains about their “prison”. “Have you stopped loving me?”, Mother plaintively asks (one is starting to get the impression that Mother is a wee bit self-fixated, if you catch my drift). Cathy angrily points out the twins’ less than rosy physical condition, prompting Mother to explode into a petulant fit. “You have no right to talk to me like that!”, she yells. “To tell me I’ve had pleasure while my children have been in pain! You are heartless!” One gets the idea that Mother still isn’t quite “getting it.” “When you are ready to treat me with love,” she continues, “I’ll be back.” With that, she stalks off.
That night, Chris and Cathy break out in order to observe Mother’s party. This turns out to be a glamorous society affair, with Mother dancing the night away with studly lawyer Winslow. The sumptuous affair is marked by smartly dressed upper-class types, and contrasts rather starkly with the recent living arrangements of the children. A camera zoom reveals that our protagonists are watching the party from inside an ornate air vent (?). They are understandably dismayed to see Mom capering around with Mr. Not-Our-Father. Winslow even appears to be presenting her with a ring. (After knowing her for how long? There’s still a lack of any indicator as to how long this whole scenario has been running. This makes it seem like Winslow has known Mother for maybe two weeks, tops.) Back in the attic, a tearful Chris finds comfort in another borderline gross embrace with his nightgowned sister.
When Grandmother next appears, Corey is quite obviously (and I mean, quite obviously) sick. Chris and Cathy demand a doctor. Instead, Grandmother brings Mother back up to check out the situation. Mother seems rather disinclined to take swift action on the matter. Cathy curses her for selfishness, threatening to get back at her should Corey kick the bucket. Mother slaps her for her impertinence. Cathy slaps Mother back, but oddly (given the rest of the film), the situation fails to escalate into a hair-pulling, clothes rending cat-fight. Instead, Grandmother orders John TSB to collect Corey, noting that Mother will be taking him to a hospital. In a “touching” moment, Carrie goes over to comfort Fred the Mouse, Corey’s pet. However, since the next shot is of the caretaker digging a hole outside in the woods, I wouldn’t say the prognosis is good. (What, we don’t even get to see the little brat kick off?)
Upstairs, the other kids pace around, awaiting news. (For some reason, the camera at one point zooms in on a statue of two people kissing [?!]) Mother comes back, and reports that Corey had pneumonia, and passed away. There’ll not be a funeral, she notes, as he’s already been buried. Then we cut back to the caretaker, who has just started refilling the hole. Again, what’s the timeframe here? When mother comes back in, she’s still wearing the same outfit as when she took Corey out. Is this sequence really supposed to have covered a couple of hours, as seems to be indicated? And she expects them not to find the “body is already buried” bit sort of odd? Mother leaves. Outside with the caretaker, the camera pans to the side, and we now see that there are in fact four open graves waiting (get it?). For those keeping track, this represents exactly four more “plots” than the film itself has.
In the attic, Carrie brings over Fred the Mouse’s cage for Chris and Cathy to examine. It turns out that Fred, like his owner, has passed on. In the bottom of the cage, Chris finds a hunk of one of those powered sugar cookies. Chris and Cathy exchange a “does this mean what I think it means?” look. When next we see Chris, his examination of the baked good is complete. Chris tells Cathy that the powdered sugar on the cookie contains traces of cyanide. The kids are being slowly poisoned with minute but regular servings of the stuff. I couldn’t help but notice that next to Chris is his microscope. Are we to believe that he somehow found the cyanide with his microscope? How would that work? In fact, how did he find the cyanide in any case? Wouldn’t that require some kind of chemical test? Or a clinical test of feeding the cookie to small animals, to see if they all then died (although that wouldn’t narrow it down to cyanide). Chris tells Cathy that they’re going to bust out, grab what money or valuables they can, and go on the lam.
That night, Chris skulks around the house, seeking cash. In a “scary” moment, Grandmother walks by. Whew! She didn’t see him. That’s a relief, huh. Next he’s eavesdropping on his mother and Winslow. Winslow is trying to conjole Mother into having sex, but she’s adamant on waiting until the next nightâ€¦after the wedding! (bum bum bum!) Cathy finds Chris raging in the attic, and he tells her the news. However, this is also their chance to escape. The presence of wedding guests will require the house’s main doors to remain unlocked. The next morning we see more cookies being powdered. However, this time the camera pulls back, and we see that it was Mother poisoning the food the whole time (duh). This is supposed to be a “twist”. Instead, it’s a “bore”. When Grandmother enters the kids’ room with the food, they ambush her, knocking her out. Chris almost beats her brains in, but is stopped by Cathy. Instead, he hurls his club into the window, where in slow motion it smashes a couple of panes of candy glass.
The guests are assembling downstairs. The kids are free, but Cathy insists on revealing the truth to Grandfather, so that Mother won’t get the money. When they get to his room, however, they find it empty. He’s already dead. This is the final proof they needed that Mother was behind the whole thing. Otherwise she would have gotten them when he passed away, as she had promised from the start. Apparently, though, the filmmakers felt we needed more evidence that Mother is a bitch. So we see her ordering the minister to begin the ceremony, even though Grandmother has failed to make an appearance. Meanwhile, Chris has found a copy of Grandfather’s will. In a hilariously convenient plot device, the will (which just happened to be laying there waiting to be found) contains a special clause. If evidence ever arises that Mother had produced children during her first wedding, she would be disinherited (!). This “explains” why Mother is secretly poisoning the kids. Get it?
The ceremony begins. Mother evilly smirks as all her plans come to fruition. As the wedding proceeds, we see the children enter, accompanied by what I hope is the last of the “Ahh-Ahh” music. The kids walk down the aisle, causing a stir as they approach their Mother. They arrive at the altar just as the minister makes an “ironic” prayer that God grant the happy couple children to enrich their lives (wow!). Cathy then loudly calls out “Mother!”, to the gasps of the assembled (and the yawns of the audience). Mother tries to bluff not knowing them, but is so overwrought that she visibly begins to come apart at the seams. When Mother demands evidence of their story, Cathy pulls out a hunk of poisoned cookie.
This leads to perhaps the single greatest Bad Climatic Line in motion picture history. Flourishing the cookie, Cathy advances upon her mother, shouting, “Eat it! Eat the cookie!” Mother backs away from the cookie like a vampire avoiding the cross. Here’s my problem, though: since Mother was slowly poisoning the kids, she easily could have eaten a portion of one cookie with no side effects. There couldn’t possibly have been enough poison on it to do more than give her a stomachache. So she should have just grabbed the cookie and eaten it.
The tussle ends up with Mother and Cathy out on a balcony. Seeking to avoid the cookie, Mother backs up and (via some extremely clumsy and phony looking stunt work) tumbles over the edge. Smashing through a trellis, she ends up hanging from her bridal train, her neck broken. Hmmm, the symbol of her ultimate triumph proved to be the instrument of her death. How ironic! (Well, maybe not so much “i”-ronic as “mo”-ronicâ€¦) I couldn’t help noticing that this death scene in an exact replication of the ending of the old Lon Chaney, Jr. potboiler Weird Woman. Looking over the edge, the kids look mildly perturbed at the sight of their Mother’s swinging corpse.
And so, with no signs of any police involvement or anything, the remaining kids leave the house, free to continue their lives. The narration of the older Cathy explains that she got a job and put Chris through medical school. Cathy herself even succeeded in taking up dancing again (You go, girl!). All that’s left of their ordeal is the memories. Which is more than the audience’s ordeal resulted in. Five minutes after this is over you can’t remember a thing about it. God can indeed be kind.
P.S. For those who care. A friend of mine read the first couple books in this series (I think there’s like five). She reports that in the second novel Chris and Cathy (who in the printed pages pursued a more frankly incestuous relationship) in fact got married (!) and had kids of their own (!!). Apparently the filmmakers decided to forgo this avenue, perhaps suspecting that the incest angle would make their lead characters somewhat less attractive to the audience. Considering the final outcome, however, they might as well have gone for it. They hardly could have alienated an audience any more than they did anyway. Still, danger persists. For as this movie becomes older and ever more forgotten, there exists the possibility that a film producer might someday say, “Hey, why hasn’t anyone done anything with these V. C. Andrews books. They’re really popular.” Like Grandmother, looking out of the window at the end of the movie, this possibility lurks as an ominous threat in the future.
Yes, I had much the same reaction when I sat down to watch this movie again, and remembered the first time I rented this accursed video, lo those many years ago:
Opening Narration, describing Grandmother’s house: “Though it’s been many years since I last saw it, I’ll always remember that even my first impression was one of fear and wonder. My childhood was soon to be lost, my innocence shattered, and all our dreams destroyed by what we would find within.”
Nothing makes a film work like sharply and slyly drawn characters. Here, in Louise Fletcher’s big Oscarâ„¢ Clip moment, Grandmother gives the kids a welcoming speech that subtly indicates that Grandmama might not be the sweet old lady we took her for:
“Your mother has come home after seventeen years to repent for her sins and for her crime. Not only against you Grandfather and me, but against God! Your mother’s marriage was unholy!! A sacrilege!! An abomination in the eyes of the Lord!! She did not fall from Grace!! She leapt!! Into the arms of a man who’s veins pulsed with the same blood as hers!! Not a stranger, but her own uncle!! And you, the children, are the devil’s spawn!! Evil from the moment of conception!!”
Hard-hitting dialog implies that Cathy and Chris have begun to feel the effect of their imprisonment, becoming little better than animals themselves:
Cathy, as they prepare for bed: “Do you need to use the bathroom?”
Cathy, surprised: “Not even to brush your teeth?”
Chris: “I don’t feel like it tonight.”
Chris finally stands up to Grandmother, expressing what the audience has been thinking for the last fifty minutes:
Chris: “Look at you in your black dress. Your fancy jewels. Your pinched face. We’re not afraid of you! We laugh at you! Do you hear that? We laugh!”