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TV Review: Lifetime’s ‘If There Be Thorns,’ ‘Seeds of Yesterday’

With:
Heather Graham, Rachael Carpani, Jason Lewis, Mason Cook, Mackenzie Gray, Jedidiah Goodacre   /// Rachael Carpani, James Maslow, Jason Lewis, Sammi Hanratty, Anthony Konechny, Leah Gibson, Nikohl Boosheri

In the high-stakes poker tournament of original TV movies, Lifetime has a hell of a hand to play with the remaining two editions of V.C. Andrews’ Dollanganger series. The first of the franchise, “Flowers in the Attic,” packed big ratings for the net, while follow-up “Petals in the Wind” pulled in decent but not as successful numbers. Enter “If There Be Thorns” and “Seeds of Yesterday,” which promise to keep the freak flag flying, drawing fans of the books and mere voyeurs along for the ride. The motto, here, seemingly, is if you can’t do classic, go for camp.

Airing on consecutive weekends, the third and fourth installments, like many a sequel, reinforce the law of diminishing returns, as Andrews’ original American horror story falls flat in the translation of the concluding volumes. On the upside, both are seemingly made for an excellent drinking game or tie-in with the board version of Taboo.

“If There Be Thorns,” adapted by Andy Cochran and directed by Nancy Savoca, picks up as Cathy (Rachel Carpani) and Chris Sheffield (“Sex in the City’s” Jason Lewis) and their two children, Jory (Jedidiah Goodacre) and Bart (Mason Cook), try to blend in as an ordinary family. On the surface, everything seems idyllic. Chris is a respected doctor. Cathy teaches ballet. Jory is a hunky would-be dancer; but young Bart is small for his age and picked on school. His increasingly odd and secretive behavior cause his parents to reminisce about what they were like at that age.

Funny you should mention.

To recap, as children, Chris and his three younger siblings were locked in the attic of the family mansion by their religious zealot grandmother, unbeknownst to their misogynistic grandfather, so that the kids’ money-hungry mother, Corrine, could inherit the family fortune. To pass the time, Chris and sister Cathy had sex. Now they are married.

Since their imprisonment, surviving Dollanganger twin Carrie committed suicide by eating a poison donut – the same way her brother Corey died at the hands of their scheming mother. Cathy had affairs that resulted in two children: Jory, by her abusive dancer boyfriend who died in a car crash (a departure from the books); and Bart, the result of a revenge-motivated affair with her mother’s second husband. Bart’s biological father died in a fire, along with the crazy grandma, when the old homestead Foxworth Hall burnt down. Worst mother of the millennium, Corrine, was subsequently committed to an asylum.

That’s quite a bit of the past to sweep under a rug, and naturally, the dirt doesn’t stay hidden. Just as young Bart’s emotional problems are beginning to spiral, he falls under the influence of granny Corrine (reprised by Heather Graham), who secretly moves in next door with her creepy butler John Amos (Mackenzie Gray). Corrine takes Bart under her wing and starts spilling the family secrets. Is Corrine just trying to get revenge on Cathy for seducing her husband? Is Bart channeling the ghost of his misogynistic grandfather Malcolm? Will he kill or eventually fall in love with his newly adopted younger sister Cindy?

At the time of their printing in the late ’70s and early ’80s, Andrews’ books seemed to capture the imagination of generations of young adults still shaking off the rigid morals of the  ’50s and political and sexual revolution of the ’60s. Some 30-odd years later, the shock value gives way to a campy retro pastiche blurred with telenovela-like drama.

Granted, the books are not literary classics, but as translated here, these horny heroes are simply tawdry and sad, stretching the love-conquers-all theory well beyond credibility. Script bon mots such as when uncle/dad Chris proclaims, “We have a no-secrets policy in this family” can only elicit laughs.

As the self-proclaimed demon spawn, Cook (“The Goldbergs”) appears to relish the role, making a good case for villain of the year. Other performances are so wooden it’s no wonder purging fires are a recurring theme.

“Seeds of Yesterday,” adapted by Darren Stein, continues the saga in a similar vein years later as Bart (James Maslow), a student of Grandpa Malcolm’s business and moral acumen, rebuilds Foxworth Hall. The family fortune will fall to Bart when he turns 35, but until then, Chris is legal guardian. Cathy and Chris, older but still hot for each other, are reluctant to revisit the original house of horrors, but are reunited with now-famous ballet dancer Jory (Anthony Konechny) and his wife Melodie (Leah Gibson), pregnant with twins.

When grownup adopted daughter Cindy (Sammi Hanratty) joins the family at the mansion for Bart’s 25th birthday, she asks her mom, “When did Bart get so freaking hot?” The dialogue – and plot – only deteriorates from here. As Cindy and Bart’s animosity/sexual chemistry accelerates, mom Cathy warns her to not start arguments with her brother. Cindy can’t help but reply, “Something about him makes me want to get a rise out of him.” (Perfect fodder for the aforementioned drinking game.)

Andrews appears to utilize only a few plot twists throughout the whole series, with the same mistakes and misfortunes repeating, just in different decades. (We know time has passed by the dark eye circles and ugly elbow patch sweaters.)

While “Seeds” director Shawn Ku makes the best of an attractive cast, even the adulterous sex seems boring and predictable. In this family, every hug is suspicious, every line of dialogue a double entendre. By the last installment, any remaining goodwill from fans of the books will be sorely tested.

TV Review: Lifetime's 'If There Be Thorns,' 'Seeds of Yesterday'

(Movies; Lifetime, Sun. April 5 and 12, 8 p.m.)

Production: Filmed in Vancouver by A+E Studios.

Crew: Executive producers, Jane Startz, Dan Angel, Tanya Lopez, Rob Sharenow, Lisa Hamilton Daly, Charles Fries, Jocelyn Freid; producers, Rick D. Arredondo, Harvey Kahn, directors, Nancy Savoca, Shawn Ku; writers, Andrew Cochran, Darren Stein; based on the books by V.C. Andrews; camera, James Liston; production designers, Richard Paris, Linda Del Rosario; editors, Mark Shearer, Lisa Jane Robison; music, Douglas Pipes; casting, Fern Champion. 120 MIN.

Cast: Heather Graham, Rachael Carpani, Jason Lewis, Mason Cook, Mackenzie Gray, Jedidiah Goodacre   /// Rachael Carpani, James Maslow, Jason Lewis, Sammi Hanratty, Anthony Konechny, Leah Gibson, Nikohl Boosheri

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