Last week, in celebration of Mother's Day, I offered up my annual list of Bad Movie Moms. There are some movie depictions of bad motherhood that need more than just a paragraph or two, but require a column all to themselves. In compiling my list this year, I came across two such films, Flowers In the Attic (1987) and Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot! (1992). After careful consideration, I determined that if I were to sit through the latter a second time, I'd probably want to shoot myself (I might -- repeat, might -- consider it next year), so I opted for the former. I have to confess I hadn't watched it in over 20 years, but I recalled it featuring not one, but two awful moms, and that I gave it a one-star rating after viewing it. (I should explain: back in the '80's when our family had HBO, I used to watch as many movies as I could, then keep track of them in a notebook, assigning star ratings to them. I'm aware of how geeky that is, which is why I no longer do it.)
So I viewed it again, and it all came back to me, much like a bad lunch coming back up. This picture's not so much creepy as it is "cringy." It's based on a book, the first in a series following the same characters, by V.C. Andrews. I've never read it, or any of her work. Perhaps someone who has can tell me how best to rate the quality of her writing: A-Passable, B-Mediocre, C-Terrible or D-"Sweet Lordy Gordy, How Did the Editors Refrain From Gouging Out Their Eyes After the First Three Pages?" Ms. Andrews passed away before the movie was released into theaters, but was on the set during production, and even makes a cameo appearance as a servant washing an upstairs window. She was reportedly pleased with the script and the casting of Kristy Swanson* in the lead role, both of which makes me think whatever illness she succumbed to impaired her mental judgement.
This is the story of the Dollangangers, a family so blindingly blonde and Aryan they make the Von Trapps seem like Sly & the Family Stone. The mother, Corinne (Victoria Tenant), teens Cathy (Swanson), Christopher** (Jeb Stuart), and five-year-old twins Carrie and Cory, all lead a happy, idyllic life, while the dad, Christopher, Sr.(Marshall Colt) goes to work. Each time the father comes home, the kids greet him by hiding behind the couch, jumping up and yelling, "Surprise!"
Cathy is especially close to her father, who considers her his favorite, and, away from the other kids, gives her a Very Special Gift, a ceramic ballerina. We in the audience begin taking bets as to who's going to the smash the thing. Since we see Corinne peering in with envy, she's our first candidate.
On the dad's 36th birthday, the kids ready themselves, arguing about how many candles to put on the cake, when they hear a car outside and assume position behind the couch. But instead, two policemen greet Corinne, and inform her and the kids that the father's been killed in an auto accident. This really ruins the birthday party, and that's the least of their trouble, because they eventually begin running out of money and have to sell off their possessions, eventually losing their house. At no time does Corinne try to look for a job. Perhaps she's not qualified to do anything useful, which gives her a lot in common with the actress playing her.
The family packs up and hops on a bus. Corinne informs them they're going to her parents' home, a stately mansion known as Foxworth Hall. We learn that she comes from a wealthy family, but is estranged from her parents, because, she explains, many years ago, she did something that displeased her father, and was disinherited. But on the bright side, he's now so old and decrepit, he's likely to kick the bucket, and her plan is to win back his love and put her back in the will before he croaks. I can see no flaw in this plan. No, none at all.
Cathy is a bit more skeptical. She also feels her mother should have prepared the kids better for death. "She never allowed us to have a dog, or a kitten...if we had a pet and it died, we would have learned something about that." Yes, good parenting is giving your child a pet in the hopes it will die eventually. Hey, if she was really looking out for those kids, she'd have gotten them a cute, fluffy kitten, clubbed it over the head with a mallet in front of them, and explained, "Life is short. Get used to it."
Finally, they all arrive at Foxworth Hall, a place so creepy and forboding, little Cory observes, "Witches in there, Mama. Witches and monsters." Maybe not, but the grounds do have a bunch of noisy hell hounds and a creepy butler named John. The children meet their grandmother, who's identified in the credits as "Grandmother", but I've learned is actually named Olivia, because V.C. Andrews ran out of "C" names, I guess. It may be said that Louise Fletcher***, who plays Olivia, displays the only thing approaching competence in this movie, though she's stuck playing a psycho biddy so cold and heartless she makes Nurse Ratched seem warm and cuddly.
Olivia leads the children to an upstairs room, explaining that they're to stay there at all times. She also instructs them to never speak, or even whimper, without her permission, then exits, locking the children inside. There are bars on the windows. The next morning, she brings them breakfast, then asks if the children know why their mother left 17 years ago, and when they inform her they don't she explains: "Your mother's marriage was unholy! A sacrilege! An abomination in the eyes of the Lord! She did not fall from Grace. She leapt -- into the arms of a man whose veins pulsed with the same blood as hers! Not a stranger, but her own uncle! And you, the children, are the devil's spawn! Evil from the moment of conception!" I'm guessing at this moment, that "World's Best Grandma" mug they were planning on giving her, won't go over well.
This shocking back story is a lot for the kids, and us, to absorb, and it's never addressed in any meaningful way in the movie. We can't imagine how or why it would happen, and the writers don't seem to give a shit about telling us anything. (I'm sure the book it's based on offers a perfectly ridiculous explanation.) Olivia concludes by telling them their grandfather must never know they exist.
Meanwhile, downstairs, Corinne takes her first step towards reconciliation with her father, a creepily ancient man (he looks like he could be her grandfather) with long fingernails, who lies in bed withering away, unable to rise. She stands before him and lowers her blouse. Her mother reaches for a whip. The camera, mercifully, cuts away to an exterior shot of the house and we hear the sound of a whip.
(Did I happen to mention that this is movie got a PG-13 rating? I guess someone decided a depiction of incest and sadomasochism was perfectly acceptable fare for kids in middle school.)
The next day, Granny brings Mum up to see the kiddies, who greet her excitedly. Olivia admonishes them to stop screaming. Little Carrie marches up to her, looks up, and starts screaming (Yay!). Olivia picks the child up by her ears and starts shaking her (Boo!) Cory rushes over and bites Olivia's leg (Yay times double infinity!) Olivia kicks Cory across the room (Boo times triple infinity!) Then she instructs Corinne to remove her blouse, to show off her whip marks. "Seventeen lashes -- one for each year she lived in sin. So you understand me: I will give you food and shelter. But never kindness or love. For it is impossible to feel anything but disgust for what is unwholesome." Apparently, Olivia's definition of "wholesome" includes staging a mother-daughter S&M show for her husband's amusement. After she leaves, Christopher tends to Corinne's wounds, and she vows that the kids won't have to stay locked up for too much longer, and repeats her plan to win back her father's approval.
The next day, Olivia brings them breakfast, which this time includes a plate of suspiciously large sugar cookies. She also brings them a list of rules that must be really, really important, though not to the filmmakers, since we never find out exactly what those rules are. She also shows them a secret door leading to the attic, to give them more space and remind us what the title of this movie is. The kids grab some of the food (Cory takes all the cookies) and go upstairs to explore. They find a room strewn with thick layers of obviously fake cobwebs, and boxes of old clothes, books, and antique junk. It's a child's dream -- if they were trapped in a tiny room with absolutely nothing for a month. Christopher finds a dancer's barre for Cathy, and sets it up -- although it's not clear where she'd be able to get in any dance practice with all the crap cluttering up the place -- while Cory finds and domesticates a rat. But they soon make the attic a bit more homey, decorating it with paper flowers, because the title Rats in the Attic tested poorly with focus groups.
It takes a special kind of stage mother to see a casting notice in Variety that reads, "Wanted: 6-year old boy to wear Christopher Atkins wig and fondle rats" and immediately draw a big fat circle around it with her El Marko.
With Corinne's visits growing less and less frequent as the months go by, Christopher and Cathy assume the role of surrogate parents to the twins. Carrie misses being outside, where the grass is, and Cathy explains Dad took the grass up to Heaven (Huh?). Cory misses ice cream, and Christopher explains that the Bible says there's a time for everything, including a time for eating ice cream (Huh?) Later that evening, when the twins are sleeping, Christopher and Cathy express concern about where their mother might be -- what if she's been locked up, like they are? When they go back into the room, they find the twins sleeping in the same bed (earlier, Olivia instructed that the boys had to share one bed and the girls the other). Rather than wake Carrie, Cathy and Christopher sleep in the same bed. The next morning, Olivia enters, catching them, and smashes Cathy's ceramic ballerina. This, they decide, is the last straw, and Christopher and Cathy try to escape by sawing through a bar on one of the windows and climbing onto the roof. They attract the attention of the hell hounds, and nearly attract the attention of the groundskeeper, but manage to sneak back inside.
Corinne finally visits again, and scolds Cathy and Christopher for attempting to escape. She then gives them a choice: 'We can just pack up and leave, right now, or we can just wait, a little longer, until the will reading. That is, once your grandfather's dead." Cathy insists they forget about the money, but Christopher, stupidly, sides with Corinne, and pressures Cathy to agree.
Corinne continues to visit her creepy father, who seems to take a "special" interest in her (while Olivia looks on with envy). The movie stops short of showing exactly how much of her father's love Corinne is trying to win back, but I think the amount is, "Just enough to make the audience throw up."
Meanwhile, upstairs, the director takes advantage of the fact that he's got an 18-year-old playing a 14-year-old by lingering on Kristy Swanson's body while she takes a bubble bath.
Christopher walks in for one of their usual bathtub chats, and the two are interrupted by Olivia, who assumes more is going on than a PG-13 movie will show us. Christopher lays into her, telling her she's hoping to catch them doing something improper. "Look at you in your black dress, your fancy jewels, your pinched face. We're not afraid of you! We laugh at you! Do you hear that? We laugh!" (He might have added, "Be gone, before someone drops a house on you!")
There's a superfluous "false alarm" moment where Cory seems to have disappeared. Christopher, Cathy, and Carrie race through the attic, shouting "Cory" over and over (19 times. I counted.) Cory is just huddled in a corner of the attic, playing with his new pet rat, Fred.
Olivia returns, and strikes Cathy, crying, "You are a sinner!" She knocks Cathy to the ground, bolts the door to the room, leaving Christopher in the attic. As Christopher pounds on the door, Olivia reaches for a pair of scissors, approaching Cathy menacingly, and...cuts off her hair. The horror! Finally, she leaves and Christopher enters the room. He finds locks of hair strewn about the floor. Cathy is on the bed sobbing -- probably because for the rest of the movie, she'll have to wear the least convincing wig since Irene Dunn in the final 10 minutes of Cimarron. (No explanation is given for the absence of the twins during this entire episode. Maybe they were on the roof throwing cookies to the hell hounds.)
Olivia stops feeding the children for a couple weeks. They become pale and weak. Cory becomes sickly. Christopher cuts his arm to feed Cory his blood. I think at this point, I was tempted to take the DVD out and fling it across the room.
Christopher removes the hinges from the door, and pushes it open, giving him and Cathy just enough room to squeeze out (Is this even possible? And how would they get back in?) They sneak downstairs and investigate the house like they're Mystery Incorporated (you'd think they'd look for food, but no), and discover their mother's room, which looks nauseatingly opulent. They then find their grandfather's room. They approach the bed, and lean in closer. The grandfather wakes, and grabs Cathy, saying "I always loved you the best, Corinne!" Needless to say, they're freaked out by this and race back upstairs, narrowly avoiding detection from the butler. They're also too freaked to to ponder the grandfather's words, which implied Corinne has siblings. (This is either a giant plot hole, or just crappy writing. Or both.)
The next morning, the breakfast tray is being prepared again, and before the plate of sugar cookies is added, we see someone sprinkling an extra ingredient on them. I bet that extra ingredient is Love. Corinne finally visits the kids again, bearing presents for each. She seems ecstatic, and cheerfully oblivious to how sickly they've become, praising Cathy's new haircut. She has great news -- her father loves her again and there's going to be a party re-introducing her to society. (You'd think finding just the right card to announce the coming out of a 40-year old incestuous debutante would be tough, but Hallmark comes through for them.)
Sadly, Cathy insists on harshing her mother's buzz: "Look at us, Mother! Do we look like you with your rosy cheeks and bright eyes? Do you know or even care that grandmother stopped feeding us for a week?"
Corinne is outraged that Cathy would have the nerve to complain about being locked in a room for months and being starved. "You are heartless. When you're ready to treat me with love, I'll be back." Then she storms out.
Cathy and Christopher decide to sneak out to watch the party. They see their mother dancing in a strapless evening gown, which seems a bold fashion choice given all those -- wait, where did those whip marks go? They seem to have healed completely.
The gentleman she's dancing with is the family lawyer, Bart Winslow, a name that seems to have come from a Soap Opera character generator.
Cory falls deathly ill. Cathy demands her mother take him to a doctor. After much hesitation, and a slap fight between the two of them, Corinne finally summons the Butler to take him downstairs. She assures them he'll be back, and then the camera cuts to a shot in the woods to show the groundskeeper digging a grave. As Corinne delivers the sad news about Cory, we see that there are three other graves being dug. While this is a moment for our tears, we can take solace in knowing Cory's in a better place --namely, far away from the set of this movie.
A few days later, Carrie makes an unfortunate discovery about Cory's pet rat, Fred. "He won't wake up!" Christopher finds a cookie in Fred's cage, like the ones Cory was eating, and realizes he must have been poisoned. After researching one of the medical books that happened to be in the attic, he deduces it was arsenic. ****
They make plans to escape.
Step 1 of their plan involves Cathy disguising herself as Daun, the Forgotten Cassidy Brother.
Christopher decides to sneak downstairs to find money, and overhears his mother and Bart discussing their wedding, which is to be held the next day. He returns upstairs. We see another tray of food being prepared, and this time the camera pulls back to reveal that the person sprinkling arsenic on the cookies is Corinne. But why are their four cookies? What a scatterbrain. We'll chalk that up to wedding day jitters.
Olivia goes upstairs to the children's room, which appears to be empty. They charge out of a closet and Christopher knocks her out with a chunk of the bed post (Yay times quadruple infinity!) They head downstairs to find their grandfather to tell him what's happened, on the assumption, I guess, that an elderly, horny, bedridden man with dementia will be able to help them. Instead, they find the room empty, and his bed dismantled. He's already dead, and they discover a copy of his will, dated two months ago. The will states that if Corinne had any children in her previous marriage, she'll be disinherited. After a year of being locked in an upstairs room wherein they were starved and poisoned, it finally dawns on them that their mother never intended for them to leave the room at all -- at least not upright.
They decide to slip out of the house, steal one of the cars belonging to a wedding guest, drive to the police station and report the abuse and murder of the brother, handing in the evidence of the poisoned cookie. OH, WAIT, no, they don't do the most sensible thing possible. What I meant to say is, they decide to crash the wedding and make a scene. Corinne pretends she doesn't even recognize them, which leads to...the best part of this entire movie, and it's only 48 seconds long.
There was to be a sequel to this -- Louise Fletcher and Kristy Swanson received copies of the script. According Swanson, it was a "sexfest" that even included Cathy and Christopher hooking up. I can't imagine why the studio passed on that.
*Kristy Swanson makes Kristen Stewart seem like Julie Christie. Yet somehow this mopey drip won a "Young Artist Award" for this role. If I'm not mistaken, that's the same accolade given to Kirk Cameron for Like Father, Like Son. She won in the category "Best Actress In a Horror or Mystery Motion Picture", and her competition included Jennifer Banks in Friday the 13th, Part VII, Paula Irvine for Phantasm II, Marie Leeds for Near Dark, Ebonie Smith for Lethal Weapon, Shawnee Smith (no relation to Ebonie) for The Blob and Brooke Theiss for Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master.
** Or, as Kristy pronounces it, "CHRIS-tuh-ffferr!"
***Still, I was hoping Olivia would be played by Inga Swenson, and that she'd greet her daughter by saying, "Corinne, Corinne, Corinne!" in a Swedish accent. Lord knows I was doing it every time I saw Corinne.
****Yes, Cory's death was caused by "a cookiefull of arsenic," and I tried, I really, really tried, to find a clever way to work in a reference to The Sweet Smell of Success. But I couldn't. I apologize for this failing.