With Lifetime's version of Petals on the Wind airing on Memorial Day (to honor our fallen heroes), now is the perfect time to freshen up on its precursor, Flowers in the Attic! And despite what you may remember from your sixth-grade dog-eared copy of the book, Flowers is about SO much more than brother-sister incest. It's also about uncle-niece incest!
So, obviously the first insane thing about Lifetime's treatment of this prepubescent mindfuck is that it stars Sally Draper as our heroine, Cathy Dollanganger. Nothing against Heather Graham, but if they had gotten January Jones to player her awful mother, Corrine, this movie would have won like nineteen Emmys. Not to mention the power of a potential Jon Hamm cameo as the ill-fated father!
The movie starts with a voiceover as the camera moves through creepy-ass vacant Foxworth Hall, and Sally Draper/Cathy tells us something about NO YELLOW FLOWERS. Because yellow symbolizes hope. And when you're trapped in an attic for long enough that you want to have sex with your brother, hope is in short supply. Or something.
Anyway! Things weren't always so glum. Back in the day (in the 1950s), Cathy and her three blonde, perfect siblings (older brother Chris and younger whiny twins Cory and Carrie, collectively known as "The Dresden Dolls" to neighborhood weirdos) waited every week for their adoring father to come home. When he does, he gives the kids some love, and then Heather Graham comes out in a silk robe. Like, it's the middle of the day! Put on some clothes!
Heather Graham (whose character name is Corrine) goes, "Did you forget about ME?" and already you can tell that she's SUCH a tool. If this were set in current times, she would almost certainly be a Real Housewife. Her tagline would be something along the lines of, "In-CEST is in STYLE!" or "I may not be mother of the year, but I'm pretty!" or "Time to make the donuts!" The dad gives her a necklace, which overjoys her, and then they start, like, frenching in front of the kids. So there's that. Corrine tries to pass off a Stop & Shop pie as home baked and Cathy promptly busts her, which is satisfying.
And then the dad dies! Suddenly! In an accident! As everyone is waiting to throw him a surprise birthday party! Subsequently, shit goes to hell. The family is way in debt, and Corrine (wearing a dowdy robe to signal distress) doesn't seem to care about the kids, or the fact that Cathy's behind in payments for her ballet class. She is, however, keenly interested in the mail, and in expounding upon how hard it is for a woman to get a job and support four kids. She says to Cathy that she's an ornament and only was ever really good at being pretty. In the book she at least pretends to go to secretarial school, though the movie makes no such pretense. And yes, I DID recently re-read this book, IN MY BOOK CLUB, because we care about LITERATURE.
At some point in this scene Cathy asks, "Doesn't everyone love their mother?" and Corrine foreshadowingly says, "Some mothers are impossible to love. They don't act like mothers at all." And, like, cycle of abuse and all, but that's no justification for locking your kids in an attic. Corrine finally gets a letter back from Foxworth Hall, and joyfully tells the kids they're going to live with their super-rich grandma in Virginia. They're like WHAT grandma? And she says, "It's complicated." Understatement! Then she drops that their last name isn't really Dollanganger…it's Foxworth. And they're leaving tonight.
Despite this load of surprises, the kids think that their new super-rich life is going to be AWESOME. They start to wonder if this impression is mistaken when the train drops them off in the middle of nowhere at 3:00 a.m. and they have a two hour walk to the house. The twins are whining throughout, and to be honest I'd at least be tempted to lock them away somewhere too. Finally they approach Foxworth Hall, which looks warm and welcoming. Kidding! It looks scary and awful. Then, to blow your mind, they are greeted by OSCAR WINNER ELLEN BURSTYN! She is their grandmother, and looks like a cross between George Washington and an army tank. She says, "Well look what the cat dragged in." And at first you think, how formidable can she be if she speaks in clichés? But trust me when I tell you that she's just saving it.
For example, when Corrine thanks her for taking them in, Grandma says, "I'm not your father, Corrine. Your groveling has always bored me." And THEN: "I see your children inherited your good looks. I just hope there's no hidden deflect or affliction. I didn't agree to run a circus here." She is reading Corrine to FILTH. Grandma freaks out when it looks like Chris and Cathy are going to share a bed, and reminds them that God sees everything, including the evil stuff. Well, nice to meet you too! She says to keep the drapes closed, and that the door to their room will be locked from outside, just like at all the fanciest hotels.
So, the deal is that the rich grandfather doesn't know they're there. When Corrine was 18 she did something of which her parents did not approve, and her father wrote her out of his will. But now he's 78 and dying, and she intends to win him back. In a few days, she says, things will be great and the kids can leave the room and all their dreams will come true. In the meantime, Grandma brings them a basket of food every morning and has a list of rules, including some strict modesty stipulations. They also have to be really quiet so no one knows they're there, but have access to the attic, which gives them a venue in which to run around a little bit. Because if their grandfather finds out about them, he'll punish them for even being alive!!!!!
In the attic we see names scrawled on a desk — Jonathan, age 11, 1964 and Adelaide, age 9, 1896. So, basically this family has been fucked up since eternity. To appease the whiny twins, Chris and Cathy start to spruce up the place and make it seem like a garden, and not a hotbed of toxic mold and dust mites. Cathy rightly feels that this whole situation is sketchy, though Chris is VERY full of belief in their mother, largely I think because he wants to bone her. Seriously, I am not kidding about this.
There are plenty of hilarious awkward moments. Chris tickles Cathy and they wind up in the bed together, and of course the grandma walks in the room right then. Laugh track! In response, Grandma beats Corrine with a switch and makes her show the kids, because she is a real sicko. (Understatement! Again!) Corrine is all, "Don't be cruel to my kids, or we'll leave tonight and you'll never see us again!" And Ellen Burstyn is basically like, "HA." I mean, trump card.
While Corrine reveals the switch marks, the grandma gives some context: "Eighteen lashes for every year she used her wicked charms on MY husband. Twenty more for every year she lived in sin with your father. A marriage that was an abomination in the eyes of the lord. With four children spawned by the devil. Evil, from the moment you were conceived. EVIL!" And, I mean, she's a little one-note. Also, the grandfather TOTALLY molested Corrine, right? Basically everyone in this movie has some sort of (often horrible) inappropriate sexual relationship with a family member. That's really all you need to know.
Later, Cathy is all, "WHAT did that crazy old bitch mean with the 'spawned by the devil' shit," and Corrine explains that: a) She "turned to her father for love" when she was little and Grandma was jealous; b) Their dad, Corrine's deceased husband, was ACTUALLY also her half-uncle. So OBVIOUSLY when they fell in love and eloped, everyone was totally scandalized and assumed they'd have mutant children. (Heather Graham's eyes are at Ramona Singer-bulging levels during this soliloquy, because she was COMMITTED to this role.) Cathy is appropriately horrified at this news, and I'm sure makes a silent pledge to herself that SHE will NEVER have sex with a family member. In the words of Grandma: HA. Corrine says, "Trust me, Cathy, I'm as much a captive of this place as you are." Though, I'd add, not literally.
And then, Corrine hasn't visited in a while. When she finally comes she looks great. Because she's been sailing! She reveals that her father has forgiven her on one condition — that she didn't have any incest kids. So he can never know about them. After dropping this news, she trounces off to see a movie whilst wearing a kicky head scarf. That's SO Corrine! To make matters worse, Cory locks himself in a trunk and almost dies. That kid really had it coming, I guess.
And then it's Christmas! The kids decide to make a gift for their grandmother, hoping that she'll let them out of the damn attic. It's a flowery tableau that they've worked quite hard on, and when the grandma sees it she gets a slight tear in her eye and then leaves. I mean, it WAS pretty amateur. Corrine comes in with gifts for the kids, including a fancy dress from Paris for Cathy. Cathy is all, "Where the eff am I gonna wear THIS, you stupid bitch?" A fair question, indeed!
Corrine tells the kids that her father is throwing a big party for her, and of course they want to hide somewhere and watch the festivities, just to see other humans for a change. Corrine agrees, and stashes them in a liquor cabinet with a see-through back panel. When the father is wheeled out during the party, Corrine rushes over and kisses him right on the lips. If you enjoy French kissing your immediate family members, this movie is really for you. The grandmother is NOT thrilled about this situation.
Later, Corrine canoodles with her father's attorney, the inimitable Mr. Bart Winslow. He can't wait to start their new lives together…just the two of them. D'oh! While Cathy goes to bed, Chris explores the house and catches Bart Winslow begging to see Corrine's swan bed. And, I mean, at least this guy isn't related to her. That we know of. When Corrine finds out that Chris was sneaking around the house she freaks out and slaps him. Now they'll never get to leave their room! CONVENIENT. Corrine apologizes the next day (by kissing Chris on the lips OF COURSE), and says that they all can leave and give up her impending inheritance, but she clearly doesn't mean it.
Before we know it, a year has passed. Grandma continues her pattern of walking in on Chris and Cathy doing things that look questionable. When she finds Cathy wearing just a bra and Chris admiring her, she (like a freak) asks how often Cathy has allowed her brother to use her. And then she tries to force Chris to cut off all of Cathy's hair, or else none of the kids will eat for a week. He won't do it, and so the kids starve for a few days. Finally she brings the picnic basket like normal, but THEN that night Cathy wakes up to find tar in her hair. And you must be pretty tired to sleep through someone putting tar in your hair!
So, in the end, Chris has to cut off Cathy's hair anyway. While doing so he strokes her arm and tells her she's pretty, and that he wishes to God she wasn't so….close. If he had focused more on the haircut and less on his loins, perhaps Cathy wouldn't have wound up looking like a Monchichi.
Cathy and Chris finally realize that the twins LITERALLY aren't growing, and recognize the need to get outside once in a while. They learn how to scale down the side of the house via a rope, which will come in handy. Corrine's been gone over a month, and when she comes back, it's with the news that she and Bart Winslow have married. They've just had a fab European honeymoon! This is more than Chris can take, and he points out that they've been locked in an attic (well, technically a room and an attic, but still) for TWO YEARS! That's whack. And obviously Corrine hasn't told Bart about the kids. Later, the grandma arrives with powdered sugar donuts. She says, "They're from your mother. I wouldn't eat 'em if I were you. Not good for your health." So she may be an abusive horrorshow, but at LEAST she doesn't actually want to kill them.
She does, however, want to beat Chris when he eventually backtalks her. Cathy and the twins sit upstairs and listen to him getting the brunt of the switch. At least for once the twins aren't whining! Later, Cathy tends to Chris's wounds. He has no shirt on. And THEN they start to kiss. Nothing like a little familial abuse to really bring you closer. Later, Cathy says she knows what they did was wrong, but she doesn't care. "It felt good, didn't it? And romantic?"
Soon Grandma comes, finally with some justification for her paranoid sex accusations. Chris gets on his knees, grabs her hand and talks about God and the devil, and she tells him that prayer is the key to their salvation. She leaves and he laughs, because he made an imprint of the room key (in a bar of soap, I think) while grabbing her hand. I am SO SURE that would actually work. Anyway, he fashions a key out of wood, and they head out to steal money from their mom's room. They wind up taking cash from Bart Winslow's pants and Cathy, who hasn't yet mastered a sense of urgency, dresses up in her mom's negligee—a "filmy negligee," as V.C. Andrews would call it—and makeup. And then Cathy finds a book of sex pictures in her mom's drawer! That will come in handy soon.
Bad news, though! The kids realize that an electric fence is being erected around the property, and though Chris finds the switch to disable the current, it still complicates their escape plans. Also, while casing her mom's room for money, Cathy finds Bart Winslow asleep. She kisses him on the lips, because she is kind of stupid, too. Bart later tells Corrine that he dreamed of a lovely young woman who looked just like her and kissed him on the lips. He also thinks the maids are stealing money from his pants.
Chris overhears this, and yells at Cathy for being careless. She says she kissed Bart because she was curious, and he yells, "You think you're the only one frustrated?" He grabs her arms hard, hurting her, and then pants for a while. She tells him it's OK, smiles and kisses him, and then they really start making out, and THEN they have sex. And in the book he totally rapes her, which is a weird thing for this movie to omit. In their post-coital bliss, they make plans to go to Sarasota and join the circus. When she says they can pretend that they never Blue Lagoon'ed it on the bed, Chris says, "The thing is…I want to feel this way about you. I love you. I don't know if I can ever love anyone else." And honestly, I think he would have said this anyway, even if they weren't locked in an attic for years. Kid's got some problems.
Hoo boy, and then Cory gets REALLY sick. When Grandma and Corrine come up, Chris says that Cory needs to go to the hospital. Grandma looks troubled, but Corrine just kind of nervously works her hands and Carrie wonders why she's just standing there. And then Corrine whacks her across the face! And Cathy whacks her back! It's like a preteen reimagining of Dynasty in its heyday. Cathy points out that Bart won't think so highly of Corrine when he learns that she's kept her kids locked in an attic for YEARS. Ditto for the grandfather, who will likely yank the money again. Because it's one thing to have incest kids, and another to actually be a monster. Eventually Grandma shows good judgment and says that Cory indeed should go to the hospital. Corrine finally picks up him and carries him out of the room.
Later, Corrine comes to tell the kids that Cory had pneumonia, and is now dead. A tear runs down her cheek as she says she's sorry, and that he's already been buried. The kids look at her, and she leaves. This redoubles Cathy and Chris's resolve to escape, and they plan to go tonight. They're going to case their mom's room one last time, but when they get there, they find it vacant! She's gone and taken all of her things, except for a photo of their dad, the necklace he gave her, and her wedding ring. And that is for certain a true bitch move.
Chris, who also has developed a troubling cough, winds up in his grandfather's den. Servants come in, wondering if the scuttling they heard was the same mice that seem to have overtaken the attic. As Chris hides, he hears the butler saying, "Mrs. Foxworth carries enough poison up there to kill a German army of them." And then the maid drops that it's been seven months since old Mr. Foxworth died. YES, BELIEVE IT! Chris also sees Grandma in her room, brushing out her wig. Turns out she's bald except for a few scraggles of white hair, and in fact looks a bit like the Cryptkeeper. He coughs, and she totally hears him.
Upstairs, Carrie doesn't feel so great. She's tending to their pet mouse, Mickey, and gives him a little bit of donut. And then he dies! Obviously because he ate the arsenic-powder donut! The kids put donut and donut together and figure that Grandma has been trying to poison them. BUT recall that she warned them AGAINST eating the donuts! (I mean, she still brought them every day, though.)
Grandma arrives with her switch, and wants Chris to give her the key that he made. But he won't! He grabs her arm and the switch falls, and while he coughs Carrie grabs it. Grandma blocks the door and tries to goad Carrie into whipping her. She laughs and says, "Beautiful, prideful and weak. Just like your mother. You were never meant to be born. You're a stain on the Foxworth name." Like the Foxworth name was SO great to begin with.
Cathy takes the key and heads to the attic. The grandma follows, but Chris is right behind her. He shuts the door, and she freaks out, because she's claustrophobic! If only they had known it was that easy. As she begs for help, Chris walks past her and says, "Like you said, God sees everything. He'll punish you for what you did to us. To Cory." Grandma calls up that it wasn't her, it was Corrine who poisoned them. Chris is stunned, but Cathy tells him it doesn't matter anymore. They continue upstairs to the attic as Grandma yells for help. And, like, why doesn't she just open up that door?
Before they all scale the side of the house, Cathy scrawls "Cathy was here" next to their makeshift calendar of Xs on the wall. Once down, they run into the butler guy who nearly shoots them before Cathy says that they're Corrine's children. He's completely freaked out, and tells them to go and he'll cut the power on the fence. And then they're on the train to Florida! Make no mistake, though: Cathy is plotting. She voices over, "And for the first time in a long time we felt alive. Free. We had everything ahead of us. But some day we'd see mom again. And we'd look her straight in the eye. The children she once loved. And all our shame and hopelessness would become hers." Not to be dramatic or anything.
Before we leave, we see the grandma at the attic window, looking out and then slowly walking away. I think she is mentally preparing herself for Petals on the Wind, which I assure you is exactly six million times more bonkers than Flowers. I can't wait!