Essays · Movies

Before ‘The Visit’ There Was ‘The Attic’: Hollywood’s History of Evil Grannies

We chart the history of ‘Flowers in the Attic,’ 1987’s film adaptation of a notorious taboo love story.
Flowers In Attic
Pocket Books
By  · Published on September 11th, 2015

For as much as our society fears the process of growing old, you’d think there would be more horror movies about the elderly. This isn’t to say that the elderly should be treated as an alien or frightening population; that kind of sentiment runs the gamut from ageist at best to hateful at worst. But ignorance – a lack of understanding or empathy for a population of people – has always been the horror film’s calling card. Hollywood has gotten so good at capitalizing on the fears of half-formed teenage brains that it’s almost impossible to believe that some bold studio executive hasn’t pitched the idea of a killer geriatric. Despite the occasional slip – a brief box office flirtation with The Skeleton Key or Apt Pupil – old age remains a relatively untouched aspect of the genre.

And that what makes today’s release of The Visit so enticing. It doesn’t matter if you’re a lifelong fan of M. Night Shyamalan or one of his largest detractors, Shyamalan’s new film promises to tap into an aspect of the horror genre that has mostly gone unnoticed until now. Has there ever been another movie about young siblings who spend a summer with their grandparents, only to find that they have a dark and puritanical side? Where the siblings are locked into their rooms and live in perpetual fear of their grandmother’s next visit? Where an underlying tension between the parents and the grandparents makes it hard for the children to ever feel truly safe? And, plot points be damned, one that is aimed towards the widest possible mainstream audience?

Well, yes, actually.

In 1987, New World Pictures released a film adaptation of the V.C. Andrews bestseller Flowers in the Attic into theaters. In the book, we are introduced to the Dollangangers, a family whose idyllic lifestyle is upended by the death of their beloved father. Forced to pick between abject poverty and a reluctant homecoming, Corrine Dollanganger chooses to return to her parents’ estate in the hope of reconciling with her father before his death, thereby ensuring the financial independence of her four children. They are promptly greeted by Corrine’s mother Olivia – a devoutly religious woman – who tells the children that they must stay locked in a separate wing of the household and be seen by no one. As days turn into months – and puberty hits Cathy and Chris, the two oldest siblings, with a vengeance – the children begin to doubt that they will ever escape from their grandparents’ house.

Despite The Washington Post’s assertion that Flowers in the Attic “may well be the worst book” its critic had ever read, sales were astronomical. The first release – a paperback edition – stayed on the New York Times bestsellers list for over fourteen weeks. By the time the film adaptation was released, Flowers in the Attic had sold over four million copies worldwide and V.C. Andrews had written four sequels. The gothic horror setting – as well as the forbidden incestuous relationship between the two main characters and the evil machinations of the parents and grandparents – helped make the book a personal favorite among babysitters everywhere. Years later, Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn would write a 2012 piece for NPR explaining her enduring love for Flowers in the Attic, arguing that it was the perfect modern fairytale, complete with both an evil witch and innocent children, and a big influence on her own writing. Part romance, part horror, and complete success, Flowers in the Attic was an obvious choice for a Hollywood adaptation.

Albeit not an easy one to make. Initially, the film’s producers had targeted Wes Craven as a potential director for the project, even going so far as to commission a draft of a Flowers in the Attic screenplay from him. Coming off the 1984 success of The Nightmare on Elm Street, Craven would have been a particularly fitting pick for the film. He had already made a name for himself as a director who could create uncomfortable family structures (The Hills Have Eyes) and utilize fantasy as both an escape and a prison for his protagonists (Elm Street). Sadly, though, it was not to be. The alleged sticking point between Craven and the producers was the issue of incest. Craven wanted to include the sex scene between Cathy and Chris from the book – altering it significantly from the book to ensure that it was an entirely consensual act – while producers wanted to remove the implication of incest entirely.

Ultimately, the choice was made to go with relative unknown Jeffrey Bloom, a low-budget horror director who immediately found his control of the film undermined. In conversations with a V.C. Andrews website, Bloom claims that he tried to remain as faithful to the book as possible, but watched as his producers stripped him of final cut and changed both the film’s ending and Bloom’s choice of composer. The remaining film strayed too far from the source material for fans and included too much of the novel’s pulpy core for critics. Contemporary reviews were less than kind; the Los Angeles Times referred to the film as “a real turnoff,” while the Baltimore Sun simply referred to the film as “dead, dead, dead.” Slapped with a PG-13 rating meant to achieve the broadest possible appeal – but gutted of all the risqué content that made the book so popular – Flowers in the Attic opened strong and quickly faded, finishing alongside cult horror films like Prince of Darkness and Hellraiser near the bottom of the year’s grosses.

And while it might be easy to write Flowers in the Attic off as a mediocre book turned into an even worse film, that isn’t quite the case. Perhaps by design, perhaps by accident, Bloom’s film plays less like a gothic horror film and more like a traditional melodrama. There are, of course, a few attempts to make the manor itself a foreboding structure – complete with cobwebs and spires silhouetted by bolts of lightning – but Flowers in the Attic can never quite escape the fact that the Dollangangers are here (mostly) of their own free will. Their grandmother may lock them in each night, and the windows on the attic doors may be barred, but ultimately the children choose to remain captive in their grandparents’ home. While most characters in a melodrama are deeply unhappy with their circumstances – unable to change their environment or company – they are also singularly repressed, prevented by circumstance from acting out their true nature on those who keep them from their goals. Instead, they turn against their environment. No character in the genre’s history – and certainly none of the children in Flowers in the Attic – could possibly be too passive-aggressive for the purpose of the melodrama.

No actress is better chosen to play the role of the evil grandmother than Louise Fletcher, who had previously won an Academy Award for playing Nurse Ratched in the 1975 adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Despite the neutering of the film’s incestuous subplot, there are still plenty of campy and suggestive scenes present in Flowers in the Attic. Melodrama or no, Fletcher’s cold intensity gives the entire production a much-needed layer of steel and sells a few important scenes of domestic violence. When Grandmother picks up the youngest daughter by her head, or backhands one of the boys to the ground, we catch a glimpse of the Misery-esque horror story that is lurking beneath the film’s surface. Fletcher’s Grandmother is a woman for whom death and purification are one and the same.

It may be a stretch to argue that Flowers in the Attic is a good movie, but the film’s checkered history – and its dalliances with both gothic horror and melodrama – make it a fun choice for people who are intrigued by The Visit but would prefer not to leave their own homes. Early reviews for Shyamalan’s The Visit have indicated that its best feature is its unwillingness to take itself seriously, to blend thrills and laughs in equal amounts. It may not be long before Flowers in the Attic is only the second-best PG-13 horror-thriller about children trapped in their grandmother’s, but I, for one, won’t let it go down without a fight.

Related Topics: ,

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)