Fans of V.C. Andrews’ best-selling potboiler “Flowers in the Attic” have been waiting more than 30 years for a faithful screen adaptation. They’ll get that, but not much more from this lackluster Lifetime production toplining precocious “Mad Men” scene-stealer Kiernan Shipka in her first leading role. Lacking either the Gothic atmosphere that could have transformed trashy material into something truly chilling or an over-the-top camp factor that would’ve ensured a lowbrow guilty pleasure, “Flowers” has to rely on a mix of nostalgia and curiosity to draw in viewers, or risk seeing plans for an already-in-development sequel wither on the vine.
An instant sensation when it was published in 1979, Andrews’ exploration of an extremely dysfunctional family proved especially popular with young adults. In today’s terms, the scandalous pulp falls somewhere between the chaste courting of the “Twilight” saga and the sexually explicit romance of “Fifty Shades of Grey.”
What makes “Flowers” unique is a series of twists and turns so lurid and ludicrous they’d feel right at home in a Lars von Trier joint. While screenwriter Kayla Alpert (“Confessions of a Shopaholic”) preserves most of the details, director Deborah Chow (“The High Cost of Living”) treats the story like the stuff of daytime soap opera.
Heroine Cathy Dollanganger (Shipka) is barely even a teen when the story begins and her seemingly picture-perfect life in 1950s suburbia is shattered by the death of her father. Cathy’s mother, Corrine (Heather Graham), has no idea how to keep her family afloat, and informs Cathy and oldest sibling Christopher (Mason Dye) that they’ll all be moving in with a grandmother the kids never knew existed.
That’s just the first thread in a lifetime of secrets and lies that’s about to unravel — for one, their last name isn’t even Dollanganger, it’s Foxworth, and Corrine’s family is filthy rich, with a palatial mansion to prove it.
Excitement about their new home turns to horror when Corrine and her Bible-toting mother Olivia (Ellen Burstyn) inform Cathy, Christopher and younger twin siblings Cory and Carrie that they’ll be confined to a single bedroom. An adjacent attic is the only other room they’re permitted to enter. The reason, Corrine claims, is so she can win back her father’s love before introducing him to the children she believes he’ll disapprove of.
While Cathy has her doubts about the plan, Christopher sides with his mother and insists they won’t be shut-ins for long. But things only deteriorate from there as Corrine starts abandoning them for long stretches of time and Olivia reveals herself as a pious monster, constantly tormenting the children about their “wicked” sexual desires and punishing them for imaginary sins that slowly become a reality.
And that’s where “Flowers” really earns its infamous reputation. A cheesy, low-budget 1987 film adaptation starring Kristy Swanson and Louise Fletcher satisfied no one by straying too far from the novel, so Lifetime deserves at least some credit for actually going all the way with the — wait for it — incestuous love affair between Cathy and Christopher. (Although an encounter that plays as rape on the page is altered to consensual, and discreetly off-camera, sex for the screen.)
What those who have never read or even heard of the book will make of this nutty taboo-busting is tough to fathom, though there’s a good chance they’ll be too bored to even reach that point.
For such a tawdry drama, “Flowers” is an unbearably stiff production. Chow’s flat direction does little to elevate the action beyond the level of staged reading. It’s hard to fault the actors, although Graham seems unfortunately miscast in a role that requires a degree of coldblooded cunning she’s simply too sweet to pull off. Shipka radiates natural intelligence and poise, and has proven on “Mad Men” she’s one of the sharpest young actresses around, but feels generally adrift here, faring best when pitted against cast standout Burstyn.
Burstyn could play this kind of psychologically damaged villain in her sleep, and she effectively demonstrates as much by turning a cliched Bible-thumper (“God sees what evil you do behind my back!”) into the film’s most fully rounded character. Relative newcomer Dye (“Secret Diary of an American Cheerleader”) starts off as a bland himbo in the CW mold but shows a bit more color as Christopher’s naivete gives way to desperation and lustful thoughts.
The problem is “Flowers in the Attic” always sounds like it’s more fun, or at least more kooky, than it actually plays onscreen. Maybe fans will have to wait another three decades for a production that’s faithful not only to the letter but also the spirit of Andrews’ writing.