Forced to live together in a confined space and depending on each other for survival, the Dollanganger siblings from 1987’s Flowers in the Attic have always reminded me of the kids from The Boxcar Children book series I grew up reading, although instead of solving mysteries on fun adventures, they were busy dealing with a scissors-wielding grandma, a murderous mother, and some intense incestual feelings—not exactly the type of material you’d find next to Gertrude Chandler Warner’s books in the library.
Published in 1979 and featuring evil parental figures, inter-family violence, and sibling incest, V.C. Andrews’ Flowers in the Attic was a sought-after page-turner for readers drawn to its controversial elements, and its viability in the bookstores paved its way to the cinemas in the mid-’80s. A story about four siblings—two brothers and two sisters—locked away in a gothic mansion’s upstairs room (and the attic above) by their grandmother (which would make for some uncomfortable conversations around the Thanksgiving dinner table), Flowers in the Attic certainly tapped into a horror vein on the printed page, leaving the door wide open for a filmmaker to push the envelope on the big screen.
In one of the great “what ifs?” of cinema history, the legendary Wes Craven even wrote a draft for his own bold take on Andrews’ story, which he intended to direct, but it was one of several scripts turned down by the producers, who ultimately decided to move forward with a screenplay by Jeffrey Bloom, giving the Blood Beach filmmaker the chance to direct as well.
The pieces eventually fell in place in front of the camera, too, with Kristy Swanson (who had just worked with Wes Craven in 1986’s Deadly Friend, in which she took part in the now-immortal “death-by-basketball” scene) and Jeb Stuart Adams cast as Cathy and Chris, the older sister and brother, respectively, while Louise Fletcher came aboard to give a generation of young viewers nightmares for life with her role as the excessively strict grandmother obsessed with catching her grandchildren “sinning” with each other behind closed doors (she also has a desire to dole out punishment, giving her own daughter 17 lashes of a bullwhip upon her arrival at the mansion—not exactly putting out the welcome mat). In perhaps the most pivotal role of them all, Victoria Tennant was cast as Corrine, aka “Mother.” Although Bloom had expressed interest in having Sharon Stone play Corrine, it was Tennant who got the part, playing it to malicious perfection in a performance that still makes my blood boil when I watch the movie.
As much as Fletcher’s chilling turn as Grandmother has always given me goosebumps, it’s Tennant’s turn as Mother that steals the show. Coming off a supporting role in John Flynn’s Best Seller, Tennant plays Corrine with poker player perfection. Her wide eyes and tightened lips at first seem to convey panic and a silent suffering in the wake of her husband’s death. She even seems to be genuinely concerned for her children when she takes them to be locked away upstairs in her parents’ massive mansion in a last-ditch effort to get back in her bedridden father’s good graces (and his will) before he passes away. It’s also hard not to feel sorry for her when she musters the strength to visit her children after being whipped 17 times (one lash for ever year that she was married to her husband, who in fact was her uncle, hence the Grandma’s disdain for the “devil spawn” of their relationship).
But then Corrine’s visits to her children come to an end, and a sense of utter abandonment sets in as Mother’s motives start to come into question. The gradual reveal of Corrine’s true self is, to me, one of the most unsettling elements in a very unsettling movie. We immediately know from her stern, steely gaze that Grandma is a monster the moment we meet her, but for the most part (minus one scene early in the movie), Corrine at first seems to be a loving mother with her kids’ best interests at heart, making her actions in the film’s second half all the more horrifying, and ultimately, infuriating.
Helping to channel this rage is Swanson, whose character acts as a conduit for our rage and growing frustrations, especially as we see the health of her siblings deteriorate, with the lack of Vitamin D (the barred windows and locked door deny them of any sun-splashed strolls) turning them into a band of pale vampires (Chris even has to feed his younger brother, Cory—played by Ben Ryan Ganger—his own blood directly from a vein to give him nutrients in one truly haunting and heartfelt scene). Swanson’s boiling anger gets the ultimate payoff in the film’s finale, when she confronts her mother at her wedding downstairs following Cory’s death by arsenic poisoning.
With Corrine on the verge of saying, “I do” to her new fiancé and indulging in her now-dead father’s inheritance, the children solemnly walk down the aisle after escaping their upstairs prison. As they approach the altar, the youngest daughter, Carrie (Lindsay Parker), quizzically looks at the flower girl, perhaps wondering why this stranger has taken her place in such a sacred family ceremony. Cathy and Chris confront her mother in front of the crowd, revealing that Corrine intended for them to never leave the attic, as any discovery of children from her previous marriage would result in her inheritance being taken away. When her kids accuse her of killing Cory by poisoning his food with arsenic (something that shocked me when I first saw the film, as I was certain that it was Grandmother adding her own special recipe to the treats), Tennant delivers perhaps the most disturbing line of the movie: “Who’s Cory?”
Just barely keeping her rising panic below the surface and maintaining her poker player coolness for just a while longer, Corrine denies she even knew her own son, let alone killed him. I still get chills watching the injustice of this scene, but I never have to wait long for justice to be served, as Cathy takes out one of the poisonous cookies and shoves it towards her mother’s face as a last-minute wedding gift (it’s better than coming to the ceremony empty-handed, right?).
And so ensues the infamous balcony scene, with Cathy urging her mother to “eat the cookie!” while Corrine stumbles in retreat and ultimately falls over the railing, her veil catching in the garden trellis and strangling her to death as her feet hover just mere inches from the floor. Karma has come to collect its payment, and Mother didn’t even have to take one bite out of the cookie. Although it was not the ending that Bloom or Tennant wanted to film (another director was brought in to re-shoot the original ending—which included Grandmother trying to carve into the kids with a butcher knife—and a stunt double played Corrine during the balcony scuffle), this brutal conclusion to a brutal story has always seemed fitting to me, even if it does deviate from the source material.
Bloom may not have been able to tell Andrews’ story the way he wanted to—he was also forced to take out the incest scenes between Cathy and Chris, but the suggestive sexual undertones of their relationship are still present (especially in the bathtub scene), even if they don’t act upon them, and I’ve always felt that there are some “more-than-family” feelings between Cathy and her father and even Chris and Corrine.
Even though Bloom had to scale back on his bold vision, he still delivers a dark fairy tale that resonates with viewers nearly 30 years after its initial release, just as Tennant’s turn as Corrine still stands out with a cold, calculating precision, calling to mind little Carrie’s foreboding (and foreshadowing) exclamation when the family first approaches the grandparents’ mansion: “Witches in there, momma, witches and monsters.” If only they had known that the biggest, baddest monster of all was walking beside them all along.
This retrospective is part of our Class of 1987 special features celebrating a wide range of genre films that were first released thirty years ago. Stay tuned to Daily Dead in the coming days for more pieces about one of the most exciting graduating classes in horror and sci-fi, and check here to read all of our Class of ’87 retrospectives.