Gothic horror is usually thought of as a period subgenre, with lavish costumes and grand sets. Gothic horror movies are also generally considered to be older classics, like Nosferatu or Frankenstein. Even modern gothic horror movies are either set in past centuries, like Crimson Peak or The Woman in Black, or deal with the making of those older classics, such as Shadow of the Vampire or the appropriately entitled Gothic. But every once in a while, there comes a modern gothic horror movie set in its actual time. Flowers in the Attic fits into this mold.
Flowers in the Attic is about the Dollangangers, a family that finds itself in financial trouble after the death of its patriarch. The mother, Corrine Dollanganger (Victoria Tennant from Horror Planet), takes the four children, including oldest son Chris (Jeb Stuart Adams, best known from bit parts in They Live, Once Bitten, and The Goonies), daughter Cathy (Kristy Swanson from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Deadly Friend), and twins Cory and Carrie (Bert Rigby, You’re a Fool’s Ben Granger and Critters 2’s Lindsay Parker, respectively), to live with their grandparents, whom they’ve never met.
Upon arrival, the kids find discover why they’ve never met their grandparents; the cruel couple did not approve of Corrine’s marriage to their father and thus disowned her. Their grandfather (Nathan Davis, who was Reverend Kane in Poltergeist III) is close to death now, however, and their grandmother (Louise Fletcher from Brainstorm and Strange Behavior) agrees to hide the children, keeping them locked up in an attic room, until Corrine can get back into his good graces before he dies. Grandmother is a strict disciplinarian, never letting the kids out of the room and feeding them only sporadically. As the kids bide their time waiting for their grandfather to die so that they can live a normal life outside of the attic, they start to realize that their mother and grandmother may have different plans for them.
Flowers in the Attic was based upon the bestselling novel of the same title by the legendarily prolific author V.C. Andrews. Andrews herself had final approval of the script, and the project went through several incarnations, including one pitched by the late Wes Craven, before Andrews finally settled on a treatment of the story by writer/director Jeffrey Bloom (Blood Beach, Nightmares). Andrews’ original book was a racy affair, full of torture and incest, but Andrews and her producers wanted Flowers in the Attic to fetch a PG-13 rating in order to attract a younger audience. Bloom’s adaptation accentuated the psychological horror aspects of the story, which suited that angle just fine, and Flowers in the Attic became a timeless modern gothic classic.
The movie’s production was not without conflict, though. After test screenings found that audiences were made uncomfortable by the implied incest, those scenes were excised from the film. The film’s ending also tested poorly, so a new, more dramatic and emotionally satisfying one was tacked on. This infuriated Bloom, who refused to shoot the new ending, so producers hired an anonymous director to do it. Victoria Tennant also hated the new ending, and walked off the set, so her stunt double was used to portray Corinne for the sequence. As a result, Bloom had no say over the final edit of the movie. It’s unclear as to whether or not a director’s cut of Flowers in the Attic exists, but if it does, it’s being kept tightly under wraps.
Ever since her Oscar-winning portrayal of the wretched Nurse Ratched in 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Louise Fletcher has been typecast as a villain, and that’s a role that she plays to perfection in Flowers in the Attic. Grandmother inflicts all kinds of abuse, both physical and mental, on the children, and Fletcher plays the role with absolute stoicism and cruelty. Reportedly, Fletcher took a method approach the part, never breaking character, even when the cameras weren’t rolling. This made the actors who were playing the children actually fear her, allowing for more organic and genuine reactions to her character onscreen. Whatever Fletcher did, it worked, as the grandmother in Flowers in the Attic is one of the more underrated horror villains of all time, and it’s entirely due to her terrifying performance.
Although it’s set in modern times (well, modern for the time – 1987), the production design and set building in Flowers in the Attic help it earn its gothic horror categorization. The grandparents’ house is a huge mansion, with high arches and steep angles, so it appears as if it stepped right out of a British Hammer production. The attic room where the kids are sequestered looks like a sterile and unemotional guest room, but when the children discover a hidden staircase that leads to the attic, their world doubles in size and they are treated to a room full of treasures, albeit dusty and cobwebby ones. The grandparents’ house is not exactly Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, but it’s a vast and shadowy space that makes a great setting for a gothic horror film, no matter when it’s set.
The musical score for Flowers in the Attic was composed by Christopher Young (Trick or Treat, The Dark Half, Sinister). Young’s score is mostly mood-setting material, full of orchestral fluff, spooky piano, and dramatic percussion. There’s very little along the lines of memorable melodies in the music, but it all serves its purpose, which is to help the audience feel for the characters. It’s hard to imagine a different score to the movie, though, as the movie’s music doesn’t take center stage anyway. It’s just a good background score.
About twenty-five years later, the Lifetime Network would reboot Flowers in the Attic as a television movie starring Heather Graham and Ellen Burstyn (and a young Kiernan Shipka from The Blackcoat’s Daughter). That version follows the original book more closely, incest and all (which is surprising for a TV movie), and even launched three sequels, bringing to the screen four of the five original V.C. Andrews Dollanganger novels. For a Lifetime movie, it works, but for horror fans, the original 1987 version of Flowers in the Attic is the one to track down.