Thursday, 15 December 2016

"Flowers In The Attic" (1987) : The Garden Could Still Grow

This post is deliberately timed since the 30th anniversary of this film's release is coming up next year (2017), and there is some hope that it could possibly be restored on DVD and Blu-Ray to the original cut that director Jeffrey Bloom intended. The question is, does the deleted footage still exist, can it still be used and would any company (such as the Shout! Factory) put together a new release of the director's cut if they have resources to do so? There are mixed feelings about this film adaptation of the classic V.C. Andrews novel, since studio interference caused the film to be shelved for over a year and drastic changes were made in order to get a lower rating from the MPAA. (And a spoiler warning is in order as I will be discussing plot points of the story, so here's the SPOILER ALERT).

Let me start off with sharing my own experience regarding the book and movie. My cousins had the film taped and showed it to me when I was about 11 years old. Unfamiliar with the novel, I was haunted by the film, seeing children locked away, abused, starved, and tragedy ensues, with their mother so desperate to get her inheritance from her dying father that she was willing to commit murder. The score by Christopher Young is nothing short of brilliant, haunting, wistful, consuming, tragic, and beautiful, it's hard to not think of it when I revisit the book. The atmosphere and locations is also breathtaking and adds so much to the story. Most of the acting is good, especially Louise Fletcher as the menacing, bible-thumping, vindictive grandmother. She terrified me as a kid, and she still does a pretty
good job of scaring me now. Of course, there are problems, such as Kristy Swanson and Jeb Stuart Adams being too old for their roles (at the beginning of their confinement, Cathy and Christopher are 12 and 14 years old respectively, and by the end of the book they are 15 and 17), but the reasoning behind it will start to make more sense as this post progresses. The book was set in the 1950s but the movie is clearly a product of the 1980s, which stretches the credibility of the plot; a woman in the 1980s could certainly have gone to work (and the two older kids could have gotten after school jobs), and due to time constraints (and possibly budget as well), the story is condensed to be about a year in duration, and this was another reason why the original version of the movie met with less than enthusiastic feedback.

Victoria Tennant as the mother, Corinne, at times seems detached, but that works to her advantage as her character's motives are questionable almost from the start and her attitude begins to noticeably change as well. As the youngest children, the twins Cory and Carrie, Ryan Ben Ganger and Lindsay Parker are ideally cast and are natural enough to where they are endearing and real, instead of irriatating and coyling.
 According to Kristy Swanson, when she met author V.C. Andrews, the writer told her she was exactly how she had pictured the character of Cathy; Swanson does embody the character well. She loves her mother but becomes skeptical and suspicious and begins to realize the severity of the situation before Chris does. As in the book, Christopher adores and believes in his mother until the truth stares him in the face, forcing him to come to terms with the fact that the woman he has loved and admired is not who he thought she was.

What many viewers don't realize is that V.C. Andrews had script approval (although the producers rejected the one that Wes Craven penned), so she must have liked director Jeffrey Bloom's script. According to sources close to the production, including Bloom himself, it was intended to be an R-rated film; one of the sub-plots of the book was the fact that Cathy and Chris, due to being locked away together for over three years during the crucial years of puberty begin to turn to each other
for both emotional and physical support, and this takes on an incestuous tone (they are products of incest themselves, as their mother married her half-uncle, which is what caused her to be cut out of her father's will), and most overt scenes dealing with this subject ended up on the cutting room floor when the studio decided that it was too much for audiences to handle. However, a few telling indications of their relationship remain; they undress within full view of one another; occasionally sleep in the same bed (although the grandmother forbids it), in one
instance, Chris scrubs Cathy's back while she's in the bathtub; a brief and subtle shot of Cathy dancing while Chris watches her with obvious interest. You could dismiss this as innocent, and in the beginning it does appear to be. However, we do see some sequences that were edited to to keep the incest out, yet if you watch closely you can see how they were tampered with. Strange edits/fadeouts seem to be confirmation of this in two
scenes in particular. There is a weird transition that cuts from the attic window to a zoomed in shot that is presumably Cathy getting into the bathtub; a few seconds later as she is in the tub, we can see that the door is slightly open and Chris asks Cathy if he can come in and talk to her. While they are doing so, there is a close up in which Chris has a rather longing expression on his face as the grandmother creeps up behind him. Enraged at
what she is witnessing, she calls them sinners, which prompts a defensive reaction from Chris. Upon reading about the film's tumultuous and troubled production, I discovered that the original sequence was longer; the shot of Cathy's stomach was in fact that of a body double; there was full-frontal nudity and Chris was actually watching Cathy get undressed and into the tub. Another obvious scene is when Chris is sitting up in the attic, crying after he
and Cathy had spied on their mother at a party with a man named Bart Winslow, Cathy approaches him, and comforts him. They embrace in an intimate way and the scene awkwardly and quite quickly fades to black. The emotional bond between the two is strong at the beginning but more like that of siblings; as soon as they are locked away they seem more like a couple. Cathy and Chris are really the only means of support for one another, and as much as they are told how wrong it is, they are victims of circumstance and it is
suggested that they are carrying on a legacy that began with their own parents. Cathy was her father's favorite; in the film it is suggested that Corinne was aware of this and jealous of the close bond that Cathy had with her dad. There is a theory that Cathy and Chris are doomed to repeat their parents' mistakes and transgressions, yet, ironically, it is their mother and grandmother who unintentionally push them together. It's not
really surprising that the lines between brother and sister became blurred; and it was not shied away from in the intended cut of the motion picture. Both Bloom and Kristy Swanson have confirmed that the relationship between the two older siblings was expanded upon, there was also an extended nude scene where Corinne is whipped by her mother in front of her invalid father; more violence, two earlier endings, and plot points that
would have made the film not only darker and more complex, but perhaps more coherent as well. The butler, John Hall (played by Alex Koba) had a larger role in the original cut but his role was reduced to where he was pretty much a background figure. The actor also commented at the time of the theatrical release that the worst ending was chosen by the studio. Many agree with that statement.

The ending that we see in the theatrical version is rightfully despised by fans of the novel; but again, this was not Jeffrey Bloom's intention; in fact, he wanted no part of what the studio insisted be inserted because he knew that the book was part of a series and he wanted to be as true to it as possible. Bloom was in fact, so angered and frustrated by all the interference and heavy editing that he refused to film the new ending; so a different director was hired to shoot it. Corinne falling to her death (using a stand in for actress
Victoria Tennant as she refused to have any part of it) after fighting with Cathy was what studio executives felt the audiences would want to see given how she had tried to murder her children (and had in fact, killed Cory by poisoning him with arsenic), that the kids should get revenge on her. The new ending was shot in Beverly Hills, California, while most of the previous location work had taken place at an estate in Ipwich, Massachusetts. Also glaringly obvious is the fact that Cathy,
Chris and Carrie don't look even remotely sick or weak, yet in the final shot (taken from one of the earlier endings), they are extremely pale, and Cathy all of a sudden is holding the ballerina music box that was given to her by her father at the beginning of the film. In fact, stills from the earlier ending often has appeared on box cover art and websites, yet next to nothing resembling it appears in the theatrical version except for the last shot.

Bloom has described the earlier endings; the first had the children leaving Foxworth Hall (the family estate in which they had been imprisoned), as Corinne's wedding to Bart Winslow (Leonard Mann) was taking place; Bloom felt that was symbolic of them reclaiming not only their freedom but the innocence of childhood that they had lost (this was probably the brief sequence that we see as the theatrical version ends). However,
 one of the producers, Charles Fries, felt that it wasn't dramatic enough so Bloom wrote and shot an alternate ending (the one the was ultimately used at the first test screening in December 1986), in which the kids expose their mother at the wedding (her father is still living, unlike the theatrical version) and while she denies it, the ghostly appearance of the children confirms their story. As they are leaving, the estate caretaker (Gus Peters) who was shown frequently throughout the film, tries to attack them but they manage to fight him off and he
falls down an elevator shaft. The danger has not passed, however, because the grandmother attempts to stab them with a knife but the butler, John Hall, comes to their rescue, and Cathy, Chris and Carrie are finally free to leave their prison. However, the test audience thought it was too horrific and disturbing. Most of the audience consisted of teenage girls, selected because the novel had a strong following in that demographic; however, the girls apparently could not handle the
incestuous relationship between Cathy and Chris, even though it had been a strong theme in the novel. Director Jeffrey Bloom was understandably annoyed by this. "I don't know whether this was conscious teen-age hypocrisy or what. Maybe young girls just don't want explicit sexual titillation. If a boy takes his shirt off, that's cool. But if it goes any further, they get uneasy." 

 Publicity stills of Kristy Swanson and Jeb Stuart Adams that are decidedly romantic in nature is further confirmation that the original intention of the movie was to include the brother and sister getting physical and falling in love with each other, which is part of the tragedy of the story. They had no one but each other; they had to assume the parental roles for the twins.

This was undoubtedly why older actors were hired to play the roles, and they do have a believable chemistry. It was essential that the incest part of the story be included, without it, the film loses some power, although some parts are indicative that something more was going on between them. Not that the theatrical version is terrible, but it could have been a lot stronger had the producers and studio not relied so much on the reaction from the test screening. Cutting it down so that it would have a wider audience (it was given a PG-13 after the critical re-cutting was completed and received a more positive response) unfortunately left readers of the V.C. Andrews novel feeling cheated, and I can't blame them. 

I know some people have praised the 2014 Lifetime TV movie version of the story, but upon viewing it I found it lacking in atmosphere, chemistry, and the acting was atrocious (with the exception of Ellen Burstyn, who was nonetheless miscast as the grandmother), despite the inclusion of the incest storyline, it was presented in an undermining way. I can safely state that I will probably never watch the Lifetime movie again. The 1987 film is flawed, and could have been better had the studio not butchered it, but it still is better and more involving.

I still cling to hope that "Flowers In The Attic" will see a new release that will either be the original director's cut or feature deleted scenes. I think it would have made the film better and more intriguing. It is essentially a dark fairytale, with gothic overtones and the director's cut would definitely expand on that. Christopher Young's score does retain that feel, imagine having it enhanced even more if it was restored to Jeffrey Bloom's original vision!

Perhaps one day this will become a reality!

Friday, 2 October 2015

The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, And The Horror: Revisiting "Stephen King's IT"

As an 11-year-old, I managed to see this two-part miniseries in its original airing back in 1990, and the scenes featuring Pennywise, the Dancing Clown (portrayed by Tim Curry) stayed with me for years and no doubt contributed to my dislike of clowns. But I also loved the story of childhood friendships, and of teamwork to take down evil. (It helped that at the time I had a major crush on Jonathan Brandis, about whom there will be more as this post progresses). It can't be denied that there are echoes of "Stand By Me" (1986) another film based on a work by Stephen King, who is known primarily as a horror writer but he has proven that he is much more than that. The nostalgic feel of much of the first half of "IT" and about a quarter of the second is what I enjoy the most and I've come across others who have the same opinion.

First off, let's get down to the outrage of novel purists who despise the fact that so much was omitted and changed from King's original novel, but the reasoning is as follows: 1990 was quite different compared today, whereas in recent years television is much more explicit and we have channels like HBO that are able to be more blatant regarding programming, as to what can be shown or what cannot. ABC simply would not have allowed the graphic and explicit content that King wrote about at the time. Secondly, the novel is massive, approximately 1, 900 pages long, and this was only a two part miniseries, clocking in at 187 minutes, without commercial breaks. Imagine the enormous task that director Tommy Lee Wallace and Lawrence D. Cohen faced, adapting this complex work for television. It simply could not be the book, period.

Also, Stephen King likes to ramble. A lot. That's not to say that he isn't a good writer, but he's the kind who feels the need to explain reasons for his characters to act the way they do, including complicated and intricate backstories and subplots. "IT" remains his longest novel to date, and the shifting of narratives and timelines (from the year 1958 to the present day when it was written, 1985), makes it so while reading you really have to pay attention because it's very easy to become lost and confused. Having said that, he writes the experience of childhood and adolescence very well, and in reading you will find yourself revisiting your own, and identifying with the characters that he lovingly creates. He simply "gets" it - the day to day reality of dealing with school, pressures, bullies and parents who aren't up to the job. Trauma and pain, but also friendship, and the bonds we form with others that can help us draw strength and help us overcome the very things that terrify us.

The "Lucky Seven, aka "The Loser's Club

The adult version of "The Lucky Seven"
The miniseries, while watered down, retains these themes. Despite dealing with a low budget, and a location where the weather was often unpredictable (British Columbia doubling for the fictional town of Derry, in Maine), for the most part, particularly the first half and pretty much any of the scenes involving the younger cast members, it is very effective. We have seven adults who made a promise to return to their hometown should the malevolent force they battled as kids return to wreck havoc as it did in the past, every 30 years or so (the novel explains it in much more detail). When Mike Hanlon (Tim Reid), the lone member of the group who stayed in Derry, suspects that a string of child murders and disappearances is linked to the horror he and his friends endured as kids, he calls them up one by one and informs them that they need to keep their promise. Bill Denbourgh (Richard Thomas) is a novelist residing in England with his wife Audra (Olivia Hussey), and he flashes back to the year 1960 (the timeline was slightly altered to fit the present day of the production) to the day his little brother Georgie (Tony Dakota) was brutally and mysteriously murdered. Young Bill (the ill-fated Jonathan Brandis) blames himself for not going with Georgie that day, and sees something disturbing in his brother's room that his parents seem oblivious to. The next call is to Ben Hanscom (the late John Ritter), an architect who remembers as a rather overweight youngster (played by Brandon Crane), being tormented by the school bully, Henry Bowers (Jarred Blacard) and his gang. Ben also recalls his own encounter with IT, but decides to return to Derry. Then Beverly Marsh (Annette O'Toole), who runs a clothing design company, finds her evening with her abusive business partner and lover interrupted, but drops everything to keep her promise, despite the threats of a man who clearly has the same brutal and controlling patterns of her father (of course we are treated to a flashback to illustrate this, with Emily Perkins portraying the young Beverly). Eddie Kaspbrack (Dennis Christopher, looking uncannily like his good friend, Anthony Perkins), leaves his home despite the protestations of his overbearing mother (whom you just want to punch in the face). He recalls his own nightmare (played in youth by Adam Farazil) and seems terrified at the prospect of facing it again. Stand-up comedian Richie Tozier (Harry Anderson) is also hesitant to take on the entity that frightened him as a kid (in the person of Seth Green), but conceals his fear behind a humorous facade. Last but not least, business man Stan Uris (Richard Masur), is unwilling to face the horror and cannot bear the thought of reliving it all over again. He had been the last one to accept the truth, and his younger self (Ben Heller) had been the most terrified because of the logical workings of his mind.

Henry Bowers (Jarred Blacard) and his gang

Tim Curry as Pennywise
Young Beverly's father can't see the blood . . . .. 
. . . . but she and her friends do!

The first half goes back and forth between present day and flashback, and is extremely well-handled. The soundtrack inserts a couple of oldies that will take you back (even if, like myself, you weren't around in those times), and the score by Richard Bellis demonstrates the innocence, terror, humor and emotion. Each member of the group recalls how they came together in their youth and how their determination to overcome the fear made them stronger as a team. When young Mike (Marlon Taylor) joins them they become "Lucky Seven" and jokingly "The Loser's Club" as they are all outcasts at school and the target of the sadistic Henry Bowers, and when they all realize they've encountered the same evil entity that is killing the town's children, they decide they must stop it. The battle in the sewer is very well done and very interesting. You believe that they are working together to conquer this evil being, that often takes the form of Pennywise, The Dancing Clown, but is able to take the form of your greatest fear. The adults around don't see it, because as Bill says, "When you grow up, you stop believing". While this could be chalked up to small town mentality of looking the other way, in Derry it has a whole new meaning. Literally, the grown ups don't see what the children do - because, kids are far more sensitive, imaginative and psychic, something that we tend to lose as we get older. The power that the youngsters have in this situation sends a very positive message. If you believe, and you work together, you can triumph over evil.

The kids prepare to battle it out with IT
Things don't go as planned
But they fight and win!

The adults in the sewer
Unfortunately, Part 2 doesn't really have the same power, due to far too much focus on the adults and poor use of flashbacks, and the low budget rearing its ugly head during the final battle, which pales in comparison to what we saw at the end of Part 1. The adult cast just were not as compelling to watch, and their rapport was just not as believable. It didn't help that several of them looked nothing like the actors who portrayed them as kids (Richard Masur, who does a good job in his brief screen time, well, he just doesn't conjure up the image of the cherubic lad who portrayed the young Stan), or that the adult Richie came across as more obnoxious than funny. They have some good moments (particularly in the first 20 minutes of the second installment) but it pales in comparison to the performances that we see even in the all too brief flashback sequences in Part 2. Even Tommy Lee Wallace stated that the kids were far easier to become invested in than the adults. Part 1 made it easier to watch the grown members of the Lucky Seven because it was balanced so well by their backstories, and how their friendship began. The second half is ultimately a disappointment in comparison, but still worth watching. Just don't expect anything spectacular.

To be fair, this isn't the only television or film project to fall victim to this result of story structure. The Canadian miniseries "The Boys Of St. Vincent" (1992), as well as the feature films "Now And Then" (1995) and "Sleepers" (1996) had similar issues. The actors playing the adult characters, regardless of talent, were unable to capture the essence and dynamic of their child counterparts. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons why "Stand By Me" (1986) doesn't suffer the same fate is due to the fact that almost the entire film takes place in flashback and the adult Gordie (Richard Dreyfuss),  while serving as narrator, only appears onscreen for a few minutes, sparing him the difficult task of having to live up to the younger incarnation of Gordie (Wil Wheaton).

Re-watching this miniseries as an adult, what scared me when I was 11 doesn't have quite the same impact today, but some scenes still pack a pretty good wallop. In Part 1, Tim Curry's portrayal of Pennywise is terrifying and fascinating at the same time. Although Curry was hesitant to take the role because of the heavy make-up he was required to wear, he obviously had a ball and it shows. Although in Part 2 he comes across as comical rather than scary (and he was not used to his full potential in the final installment), he is incredible and I can't imagine "IT" without him.

As I said, the child performers were wonderful and utterly believable. I really think a TV series could have been built around them alone. Some went on to have successful careers (Seth Green, Emily Perkins), but Jonathan Brandis tragically took his own life in 2003, leaving behind many questions and an interesting body of work. It is bittersweet to watch this now, knowing the tragic turn his life would take (as with John Ritter).

This remains the only credit for Ben Heller, which is hard to believe because he was so good. His scenes in the sewer and when young Stan had his own encounter with IT were very compelling. He conveyed so much through facial expressions. Although Stan is the skeptic of the group, when he finally forces himself to accept the terrifying being, it becomes clear that it is far more difficult and scary for him than the others. Jarred Blancard as Henry Bowers didn't fare quite as well, but he was entertaining to watch nonetheless.

I do think "IT" is worth watching, but of course I also recommend the book. Regarding some criticism of the latter I will admit there is far too much profanity during the 1958 chapters, but that was also something that was noted in the novella "The Body" which was the basis for "Stand By Me" (1986).

I will close with this excerpt from the book, as the adults realize they are going to forget everything, once they have left Derry, as we all  tend to forget experiences that are traumatic, but also as adults we let go of the past that shaped us, but part of it still remains, even if we don't consciously recall it.

"You don't have to look back to see those children; part of your mind will see them forever, live with them forever,  love with them forever. They are not necessarily the best part of you, but they were once the repository of all you could become.

Children, I love you. I love you so much."