For those who want a little Stockholm Syndrome with their “Flowers in the Attic,” CBS offers Sunday night movie “Family Sins.” Based on the true story of Frances Burt, a Rhode Island woman whose cruelty to her foster children knew no bounds, the made-for details the most appalling abuse imaginable: beatings with electrical cords, forcing kids to shoplift and then hitting them when they get caught, withholding food for minor infractions. Though it’s only a skin-deep treatment of the subject — those interested in a Ph.D-level exploration of deviant psychology need not apply — salacious nature of the plot will keep auds hooked.
Burt is fictionalized as Brenda Geck, a New Hampshire housewife whose generous, church-going, upright-citizen demeanor belies a role as the head, more or less, of her own crime family.
Played by a blowsy Kirstie Alley, Geck’s vile nature is inherent in both broad strokes and little details. It sounds hopelessly over the top, but Alley gives a touch of dark humor to the proceedings to make it bearable. After maliciously being teased by Geck for being fat, foster daughter Marie (Deanna Milligan) reveals she’s pregnant. Alley’s shrill sneer as she wonders if the rapist was either her husband or her son sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
Marie eventually escapes and tells the media of her imprisonment, resulting in the filing of about a billion criminal charges against Geck and her family. The beatings, the insurance fraud arsons, the mental abuse is dealt with briskly — a viewer doesn’t have much time to ponder the most recent atrocity before a new one is revealed. Without the time for reflection, the tone of Graeme Clifford’s (“The Last Don”) made-for is breezy, even if the subject matter is the absolute opposite.
Performances are solid throughout, with Kathleen Wilhoite (she’s had recurring parts on “ER,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Mad About You” and “L.A. Law”) a standout as Marie’s simple mother who is locked in the Geck’s basement for 20 years — and is thankful for the kindness the torturers have shown her over the decades.
The big question, of course, is why Geck became such a monster. No motive is ever given beyond an offhand reference to financial gain and the traditional “we may never know what drove this woman to commit these deeds” explanatory platitude for psychos.
Camerawork and editing is creative, with flashbacks given a different tone depending on the age and demeanor of the narrator. Scenes of the initial raid on the Geck house are shown via a hand-held camera. Calgary setting is appropriately Anywhere, North America.