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!


  1. Apparently, ArrowFilms (UK Based company) found a betamax of the workprint and they, on a new edition of the movie (Region B locked), include the alternate ending...apparently it's in bad shape.

    1. Thanks for the info. Hopefully we will see the alternate ending (and hopefully deleted scenes) on region 1 someday soon. Bad shape or not, it would be worth seeing. I haven't heard back from any of the companies that I contacted about a director's cut.

  2. I received this email from Arrow:

    The workprint tape was pretty heavily damaged to the point that large chunks of it were no longer retrievable. As a workprint, there would have been further differences compared to the final cut, but we felt that the alternate ending was the main priority to capture so focused our efforts on retrieving that.

  3. Wow. I hope we will still get to see what is left of the deleted scenes, even if they are not in the best shape. Jeffrey Bloom stated in the Blu-Ray liner notes that if he had access to the original negative (wonder if it's still around somewhere) he would cut the film as he intended.