Lifetime delivers so-so reboot of V.C. Andrews' grim classic of extreme family dysfunction


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On the face of it, Lifetime's "Flowers in the Attic" should have been a slam dunk.

What doesn't V.C. Andrews' 1979 best-selling book have? It contains family strife, a wicked grandmother, plucky kids imprisoned in a mansion, whippings, a tarring, killer intentions, a greedy mom bent on getting herself written back into her wealthy father's will ... .

Also, there's that whole incest thing.

Trailer for 'Flowers in the Attic'

This is the official trailer for Lifetime's "Flowers in the Attic." (1/15/2014)

Fans of the five-book Dollanganger series -- press materials state 106 million copies have been sold in 95 countries -- hated the 1987 movie version with Louise Fletcher and Victoria Tennant for pulling its punches.

That version also added a bizarre new final act, culminating in the deadliest wedding this side of "Game of Thrones." It left no chance for a sequel, horrifying fans who wanted to see the entire saga played out on the big screen. (It's currently available on Netflix and well worth checking out, if only for the truly horrible late-'80s fashion. Ms. Tennant's turtleneck wedding ensemble is a crime against humanity).

"Flowers in the Attic" purists, rest assured, Lifetime announced last week it will begin work on "Petals on the Wind," the second book in the series.

Perhaps "Petals" will improve upon "FITA," which plays it safe and a bit boring. This is material that screams for a campy touch, but director Deborah Chow and teleplay writer Kayla Alpert tell the tale with mostly straight faces.

What a tale it is: Mom and Dad Dollanganger have the perfect marriage and four perfect children. They're all blond-haired and blue-eyed, as well as unnervingly cheerful and loving.

The producers wisely chose to set "FITA" in the 1950s, in a time before cell phones, Facebook or Instagram (Cathy's status: still stuck in attic).

So when a tragedy forces the mom, Corrine, to uproot the family and return to her childhood home of Foxworth Hall, the kids -- not having been brought up on a cynical diet of television and that dad-blasted Internet -- are trusting enough to go along with her scheme.

Seems Corrine (Heather Graham, whose wooden line readings are only slightly north of Carrie Underwood in "The Sound of Music") was banished almost 18 years ago when she married her father's half-brother. She figures the only way to save the family and make "all their dreams come true" is to sweet talk her way back into a hefty inheritance.

Her father is dying, but the idea of Corrine showing up with four little "devil's spawn" might just push him over the edge. So, into the attic they go, at least until the lawyers draw up a new will.

Corrine doesn't count on her mother Olivia's enduring disapproval. As portrayed by Ellen Burstyn, Olivia is the best thing about the movie. After Corrine thanks her for taking them in at their time of need, Olivia replies, "I'm not your father, Corrine. Your groveling has always bored me."

Grandma Olivia is big on punishment and spares no words telling the children -- teens Chris (Mason Dye) and Cathy (Kiernan Shipka) and moppet twins Cory and Carrie -- what she expects of them.

For starters, there will be none of this undressing in the same room, or brothers sharing the bed with sisters.

"Flowers in the Attic" is really Cathy's story, and Ms. Shipka mopes her way through much of it. Given the young "Mad Men" actress's track record, one presumes this was a directorial choice, as was the uncomfortably chummy way Chris interacts with their mother.

After learning the incestuous truth about his parents, Chris declares, "I don't care what you did, Mom, or do. I'll always love you!"

As Corrine seems increasingly forgetful that she stashed her kids in the attic, that oath will be put to the test.

As Worst.Mom.Ever. begins living the high life again and weeks stretch into years, the kids are growing up. Chris takes notice of Cathy practicing her ballet one day and comments on her tight leotard: "You're outgrowing a lot of things."

There are so many opportunities for Chris and Cathy to get together (hiding together in a liquor cabinet, taking a moonlight swim, Chris washing Cathy's hair), the only surprise is that it takes so long for it to happen.

Oh, brother, indeed.


Maria Sciullo: msciullo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.

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