‘Flowers in the Attic’ review: All the nonsense with none of the sex

It seems that everyone I’ve talked to about Lifetime’s “Flowers in the Attic” (premieres Sat. Jan. 18 at 8:00 p.m.) has some memory, good or bad, of the V.C. Andrews’ Dollanganger trilogy. If they read the books, they had one of two reactions. They either ripped through them, binging on the glorious trashiness of it all, or they just read the incest parts — and rolled their eyes at the purple prose. No one is ever going to call “Flowers in the Attic” good literature. Weird, yes, creepy, definitely, but good? Only in the sense that guilty pleasure, so-bad-they’re-good kind of way. If you watch anything on Bravo now, you probably have a soft spot for “Flowers in the Attic.”

The problem with Lifetime’s take on “Flowers in the Attic” is pretty simple. I know there’s a school of thought that says the crappier the source material, the better the film. This only works if the bones of the story create an intriguing springboard for a writer and director to pile on better, weightier ideas. “Flowers in the Attic” is such a batcrap crazy idea — kids locked in an attic while their self-involved mother claims to be angling for an inheritance but is really trying to kill her spawn with poisoned donuts — that there’s really no stable ground from which a smart filmmaker might work. No, this is just pure, unadulterated crazy. The only logical direction in which to go from such a gleefully stupid concept is camp. But instead of embracing the lunacy of it all, Lifetime decided to play it straight. So straight, in fact, that the one reason any self-respecting middle school student picked up the book — the creepy, incestuous sex scenes — is gone. That’s right, gone.

When I say they didn’t make the cut, I’m not saying they’re poor sex scenes or fully-clothed sex scenes. No, I mean nothing, nada, zilch, bupkus. Though Ellen Burstyn’s puritanical grandma character stomps around and seemingly smells hormonal rutting in every corner (though hey, if it bugs her so much, put the girls in one room and the boys in another — who cares what the maids say? Logi, schmogic), the two times when we’re supposed to infer that the deed was done are edited down to a G-worthy kiss. Not even a hot kiss. Just slightly more impassioned than what you may want to give your real-life brother or sister at Thanksgiving this year. 

Yeah. Still interested? Didn’t think so.

It’s not that I think loads of people are going to be devastated that they didn’t get to see some underage sexy time. Okay, some people will, maybe a lot of people, and we’re just not going to think about that too much. The real problem is that this element was kind of a big part of the books. Cathy and Christopher longed for one another, felt intensely guilty about it, then gave in to their desires, then embraced their desires, and merrily got it on as they went. Well, not entirely merrily. There’s some sex that doesn’t seem all that consensual, which is a whole other can of worms. But God knows there wasn’t a lot else for these characters to do in the attic for years on end other than make paper flowers and eat poisoned donuts (yum!).

While Cathy and Christopher (played by a grim Kiernan Shipka and Mason Dye) make some allusions to their physical relationship, they don’t seem all that tempted by one another. If Cathy and Christopher didn’t flat out tell one another they were both committed to their incest-a-thon, I would assume they got bored with the kissing and decided to watch TV on the crappy black-and-white set their mom gave them instead.

Without the sex, we’re left with a story that’s all kinds of stupid and worse, dull. Heather Graham does her best with a caricature of a woman instead of a character and wrestles with face-palming dialogue like, “Love doesn’t always come when you want. Sometimes it comes… AGAINST YOUR WILL.” As for Burstyn, she seems to realize that, as a one-note meanie, she gets to chew the scenery like a weevil in a cotton field. Ultimately, you long for her to show up even if she’s bringing a switch to beat the kids or some poisoned donuts, just to liven things up. 

As horrifying as the concept of a mother willfully killing her children in order to start over with a new man is, this isn’t Corrine’s story — it’s Cathy and Christopher’s, the two most boring people in the room. And, yes, it’s a room (or, let’s be generous, it’s a room with an attic add-on or a two bedroom by realtor standards), making this movie as claustrophobic for the viewers as it is for the kids stuck there. Despite some retro fun at the beginning, which suggests the movie is going to be just as stilted and poorly written as we expect, there’s no fun once we make it to the Foxworths. The poisoned donuts can’t come soon enough. And guess what? Lifetime’s already committed to the sequel, “Petals in the Wind.” Can’t wait to see how they PG that one up. Or, really, I can wait. Never mind. 

Will you be watching “Flowers in the Attic”?