Monday, February 20, 2017

Thorny Family Issues

For many women among and around my generation, V.C. Andrews is something of a patron saint. Flowers In the Attic was my bridge from reading about the Babysitters Club's G-rated exploits to passing through the hall of J.R. Landsdale and Anne Rice. I spent MANY a rainy afternoon envisioning how the Dollanger series should be filmed (because obviously, Jeffrey Bloom's messy 1986 attempt just didn't count), going so far as to predict which roles would be nominated for Oscars, which sequels would be reviewed poorly (Petals On the Wind because it's insane), and what inevitable changes would have to happen onscreen.

I was, to put it mildly, a smidgen obsessed.
Though I didn't know it back then, I was also far from being alone. While I couldn't convince any of my friends to embark upon a 400+ page novel that would have have to be hidden from parents and the Internet wasn't quite the playground of common interests it has since become, the last few years have demonstrated that there were far more t(w)eenagers in the late '80s/early '90s who fell in love with the beautiful, talented, strong-willed heroines who suffered and triumphed (though usually more suffered) through the pages. Not mention the groovy keyhole book covers.

It really did seem like a gift from the gods-Emily-worshipped-when-she-was-eleven when Lifetime committed to adapting Andrews' first pretty-girl-in-peril series. Its take on Flowers In the Attic wasn't without its flaws, but it excused almost every one of them with the masterful acting lesson that is Ellen Burstyn. Petals On the Wind was as trashily over the top as anyone who read the book could have hoped for (to remind you, the book included the following: a sociopath nymphomaniac ballerina, a kind-hearted doctor who's actually miserable because he raped his frigid wife and put her in an insane asylum, a born again but suicidal little sister, our heroine seducing her mother's husband, our heroine torturing her invalid grandmother, our heroine impersonating her mother and revealing all the dark secrets at a fancy Christmas party, and much, much more).
Look kids! It's negligent-turned-homicidal mom Barbie & friends!

Flowers In the Attic and Petals On the Wind were huge ratings hits for Lifetime. For whatever stroke of idiotic logic, the network decided to release the final two chapters with little fanfare, airing the two films on the same night with hardly any marketing pushes. It took my Netflix DVD queue (yes, I still use it) to finally get my hands on the third installment and my once-favorite novel, If There Be Thorns. And since the lead character is none other than a troubled little boy, what better place to discuss it than the Doll(anger)'s House during Shortening season?

Quick Plot: For those who have not been following the tragic exploits of the Dollanger family, here's a quick recap:

Beautiful widow Corinne (beautiful void Heather Graham) locked her four children up in her parents' mansion in order to charm her way back into her dying millionaire father's will. During those four years in captivity, the teens battled adolescent hormones and a mutual attraction that got rather rapey. Eventually, the youngest died, and the remaining three--responsible wannabe doctor eldest Chris, feisty ballerina Cathy, and sad tiny remaining twin Carrie--escaped, building a new life to the best they could. Carrie eventually killed herself, while Cathy had a child named Jory with an abusive dancer (who then killed himself) and another with Bart, the husband of her estranged mother. Bart then died in a fire (not killing himself, for once) and Chris, who could never get over his first love, swooped in to marry Cathy and move her far away to raise their sons in peace and anonymity.

If There Be Thorns picks up a few years into the now Sheffields' idyllic existence. Jory is now a strapping young man who dances and has sex with his girlfriend a lot (seriously) while Bart is...different.

One day, a mysterious, wealthy "old" lady moves in to the mansion down the road along with her butler Johnamos (and I write it that way because he is only ever referred to as "Johnamos", sort of the "Anne Perkins" of his time). This fancy dame, who looks an awful lot like Heather Graham with powder dusted over her eyebrows, is, of course, none other than Corinne Foxworth/Dollanger/Winslow, murderous mother to Bart's incestuous parents. 

Corinne, like all grandmothers who once locked her children up in an attic and tried to poison them with arsenic laced sugar cookies, just wants her kids to like her again. To do this, she spoils Bart, showering him in the usual little boy gifts like pet snakes and bow and arrows. She also, rather casually, informs the already-uneasy kid that his mother and stepfather are also brother and sister. Have a cookie!

Meanwhile, Johnamos takes his own shine to Bart and begins to tutor him on the art of the deal, or whatever great grandfather Malcolm Foxworth's journal is titled. See, Elder Foxworth was something of a religious, horrible man who hated women and sin. The impressionable, newly "holy shit, my parents are siblings" destroyed Bart begins to take Malcolm's words as gospel. Before too long, he's trying to drown his newly adopted little sister and slut-shaming his once loyal older brother. 

Eventually, Cathy and Chris remember that they have children and realize something is very, very wrong.  

I often consider myself a terrible reviewer when it comes to adaptations of books that I have read because I usually find it impossible to not bring all the emotions/insider knowledge that you amass from reading the (usually) more thorough source material to my viewing experience. Thankfully, it's been well over two decades since I read alternating chapters narrated by Bart and Jory Sheffield, so while some of those long ago teen memories did indeed flow back, I think I'm also at a far safer distance to see this film on its own merits.

And boy, what a tale it is. Directed by Nancy Savoca, If There Be Thorns, much like its predecessors, isn't shy about telling the story of, well, a family troubled by, you know, ISSUES. Cathy and Chris are a beautiful, perfect, sexually active couple...who happen to be siblings. Bart is a troubled young boy who might be developing multiple personality disorder. His grandmother is a murderer who whines about her surviving kids not getting over such a silly thing as being locked in one room for four years and, you know, poisoned. There's even an angry blackmailer in the midst!

All of this would work so much better if Heather Graham had an ounce of acting talent, but sadly, every actress who has ever been stalked or deceived or kidnapped in a Lifetime movie looks like Meryl Streep in comparison. It's a genuine shame because she really does bring the weight of If There Be Thorns down. On one hand, it almost adds to the camp value. On the other, she's just really, really terrible. 

If you've followed the series this far, that shouldn't keep you from this one. If There Be Thorns doesn't quite hit the camp notes of the insane Petals On the Wind, nor does flirt with actual goodness like the Burstyn-containing Flowers In the Attic. Still, with its odd tone and utter commitment to V.C. Andrews' tics, I pretty much got exactly what I wanted out of this movie.

High Points
While not made on a big budget, there's an honest commitment to achieving the right visual atmosphere that was so important in the novels. Mysterious fog, secret-riddled woods, and decaying mansions go a long way in situating the viewer in the right tone

Low Points
There's bad acting, and then there's Heather Graham. Boogie Nights aside, has this woman ever given a performance that made you believe she was the character she was playing? Sure, we can blame miscasting for From Hell, but this is her third go around as this character, and MY GOD, it has all of the depth as a cashier reading back your takeout order. 

Lessons Learned
Special people deserve special attention

Nothing kills a ballet career like falling off an 18" high stage in slow motion

Chicks are turned off by incest, even if they otherwise seem to want to do nothing else but have sex with you

In Case You Were Wondering...
...why Bart doesn't seem to be bothered by the infected Cronenbergian gash on his arm, allow me to say that in the novel, Bart has a super rare, super convenient condition wherein he has no sense of touch (?) and doesn't feel pain. It makes sense on the page. Some. It makes some--a little, a tad of sense in the book.

The Winning Line
Chris to Cathy: "He's 12, remember what you were doing at that age?"
There's nothing odd about this line...unless you remember that when Cathy was 12, her older brother (now husband) was raping her

Lifetime seems frustratingly stingy with the Dollanger series, so for the time being, the only ways to legally watch this one is via DVD rental or joining the Lifetime Movie Club (sorry LMN, but I'm already paying too much for cable in part so that I can always default to the LMN channel when I need a small dose of stalkers or seductive stepmothers). That being said, V.C. Andrews fans will enjoy this one as much as the rest of the series, which I'd say rates at least a few dead blond twins and swan beds.  


  1. Congenital analgesia is a real thing. :)

    1. Good to know! It seemed, at least on paper, like such a perfect book condition, so I always assumed it was fictional. Thanks!

  2. As a fellow VCA fan I was SO glad to see this series made into movies(except for Garden of Shadows--a missed opportunity to bring back Ellen Burstyn as older Olivia, what was Lifetime thinking???). Anyway, I felt like this one worked the best tonally, as it had that dark, gothic, creepy vibe that the book had. I was pleasantly surprised by this one since ITBT isn't my favorite book of the series, mainly because Bart is so insufferable in his chapters--I know, that's supposed to be the point :)

    Also: yeah, Heather Graham IS the weak link in the first 3 movies. She was pretty terrible in FITA, but I thought she improved big time in POTW (mainly because she got to play the bitchier side of Corrine), then regressed, and was just "meh" in this one. And I think that they should have carried over Rose Mc Iver and Wyatt Nash as Cathy and Chris from Petals, instead of recasting with Rachel Carpani and Jason Lewis. Jason in particular looked too damn close in age to Heather that it was distracting. I mean she's supposed to be playing HIS MOM, but I think that they are around the same age in real life, haha!

    And, word on the street is that there's a Heaven movie currently in development for Lifetime, so that's exciting. BTW, what are your thoughts on the My Sweet Audrina movie Emily? They sure took a LOT of liberties with that adaptation, but overall I enjoyed it.

    1. I was really mixed on My Sweet Audrina. I LOVED that book back when I was twelve, and while the movie had some fun, it also felt like it held back on some of the ridiculous trashiness. THe Vera character was aged up (and I mean, I get WHY, but still) and when you have the ability to have a legless former figure skater in your movie, WHY WOULD YOU NOT SEIZE IT?

      I agree that Graham was at her best in Petals. Petals was so bonkers that it was probably my favorite of the movies overall. And agreed on the casting in ITBT, which is even weirder in SEeds of Yesterday when teh characters feel mid-30s when they're supposed to be late 50s.

      Still bummed we didn't get more Burstyn. Garden of Shadows was probalby my least favorite of the Dollanger series just because it felt a little repetitive, but I'd still take a movie.

      I'm totally in for more VC adaptations. Dawn is just WAITING!