updated 01/17/2014 AT 1:00 PM ET
•originally published 01/18/2014 AT 12:35 PM ET
Flowers in the Attic is the rare Lifetime movie (it airs Saturday at 8 p.m. ET/PT) that can’t simply be written off as a Lifetime movie. It’s so pure and perverse an example of American Gothic, I felt compelled to read the original VC Andrews novel to try and comprehend what sort of imagination could hatch such a nutty story – a fairy tale, really, that somehow combines Hansel and Gretel and The Blue Lagoon. In Virginia horse country.
Flowers, both the book and the new movie, is completely absurd – if you want to gauge the absurdity, just know that one of the darkest secrets in the narrative involves a doughnut – but somehow also psychologically coherent. It has a grip.
So, props to VC Andrews, who died in 1986, even if I’m not going to go anywhere near the book’s sequels. And also to director Deborah Chow, who keeps this adaptation at a seductive, dreamy remove from anything that might be mistaken for reality. (I haven’t seen the 1987 movie, a cult flop that features the signature line, “Eat the cookie!!!”)
The story is narrated by young Cathy Dollanganger (Mad Men’s Kiernan Shipka). Once upon a time, she and her brother, Christopher (Mason Dye), and their younger twin siblings, Cory and Carrie, lived a life of suburban enchantment with their beautiful mother, Corrine (Heather Graham), and their handsome father, Christopher Sr.
After Papa dies in a car accident, everyone’s life seems to fall under an evil spell. There is no money (their lifestyle was furnished on the installment plan), only a surfeit of names starting with “C.” Corrine, who is as flawlessly brittle as a Lladro figurine, doesn’t have any skills to bring in money.
Estranged from her own family for undisclosed reasons, Corrine finally prevails upon her mother, Olivia Foxworth, to allow the remaining Dollangangers to move down to Virginia and live in the Foxworth mansion.
The four little Dollengangers are instantly made to understand that they have not landed in some kindly spinoff of Parenthood. Grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) hates the very sight of them, and immediately packs them off to a remote room in a remote wing, where they are ordered to follow a list of don’ts longer than the credits for Star Wars.
They are to remain absolutely invisible – nonpersons – and without the company of Corrine. She will remain below stairs, trying to win forgiveness from her dying father (forgiveness for what?) and hoping to be reinstated in his will. She assures her children this will only be a matter of days.