It’s impossible to describe how ubiquitous Flowers In the Attic and the novels of V.C. Andrews was if you grew up in the early 1980’s. The 1979 novel that this film is based upon is but the first of the eight books in the Dollanganger series. But before we get into the film, let’s discuss the real story of, well, where the stories come from.
Cleo Virginia Andrews was born in Portsmouth, Virginia. As a teenager, she fell down a school stairwell, which resulting in injuries that would eventually give her crippling arthritis, leaving her in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. That said — it didn’t seem to slow her down, as she became such a successful commercial artist that she supported her family after the death of her father.
She didn’t become a writer until much later in life, completing the original draft of Flowers In the Attic at the age of 52. An editor suggested that she “spice things up,” so she made the revisions in one night. It worked — within two weeks of its release, the book topped the best-seller charts.
Her books aren’t without controversy because they don’t shy away from some of the darkest behavior in humanity. Flowers, in particular, has been removed from many high school libraries due to its depiction of incest.
There’s also the belief that the novel is based on a true story. Virginia herself admitted that “a few incidents are autobiographical, and she has also stated that her stories have been influenced by experiences of friends and family, her own dreams and memories, and even popular and literary fiction.” This quote comes from an incredibly in-depth investigation of the book, as published on The Complete V.C. Andrews site.
Even in the pitch letter, Andrews described the tale as “the fictionalized version of a true story” and “not truly fiction.” The site cited above also claims that a relative believed that Andrews had a crush on a doctor who treated her for spinal injuries that had confessed to her that “he and his siblings had been locked away in the attic for over 6 years to preserve the family wealth.”
According to the article “Her Dark Materials” on Slate, Andrews sold Flowers in the Attic to Pocket Books for just $7,500. Yet when the author died in 1986, the author — whose condition meant that she rarely did book tours or TV interviews, was the kind of celebrity who could live in after her death.
You might be tempted to look up how many books she’s written. There are more than forty books with her name on them, but she only truly wrote 39 of them.
After her death from breast cancer in 1986, writer Andrew Neiderman was hired by the Andrews family to become her voice, making him the world’s most famous ghost writer. Since then, the franchise has grown from 30 million books sold worldwide to well over one hundred million books published in 95 countries and translated into 24 languages. Her name has so much value that the IRS deemed it a taxable asset and sued her estate for $1.2 million.
If Andrew Neiderman’s seems familiar, he also wrote The Devil’s Advocate as well as Pin, which must have been his audition for being able to write books all about strange incest and the supernatural. Seriously — I’ve hyped Pin before, as I feel that it’s a movie worth seeing.
By 1987, it was time for a movie version of the film. Andrews died before it was released, but was able to meet the actors and see much of her story come to life. You can see her in a brief cameo as a maid in Foxworth Hall, cleaning the windows after Chris and Cathy attempt to escape.
At one point, Wes Craven was direct this film and had even completed a screenplay that disturbed producers with its levels of violence and incest. Obviously, they hadn’t read the source material — yet they still stole many of his ideas for their revised ending to the film. Craven was replaced by Jeffrey Bloom, who also directed Nightmares and Blood Beach.
After the death of their father, four children find themselves struggling to survive. They are teenagers Chris (Jeb Adams, son of Nick Adams) and Cathy (Kristy Swanson, The Phantom and the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and their twin siblings Cory and Carrie (Lindsay Parker, daughter of UFO drummer Andy Parker), who travel with their mother Corrine (Victoria Tennant, former wife of Steve Martin and one of the stars of Inseminoid and Aunt Lydia in the original The Handmaid’s Tale) to meet their grandparents.
The funny thing is, the kids have never met their grandparents, who never even knew that the kids existed. Corrine’s mother Olivia (Louise Fletcher, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and The Exorcist II: The Heretic) is bonkers, obsessed with religion and demanding that the children be kept in a locked room so that no one else knows that they exist and so that their grandfather Malcolm (Nathan Davis, Father Henry Kane from Poltergeist 3) never know that they are there.
Olivia also drops a bomb on the kids: their mother was disowned because their father was really her uncle and her father’s half-brother. They are the children of sin and incest, with Corinne now having to pay the price by submitting to bullwhip sessions from her mother. She has one goal: to become part of the family again and get back in her father’s good graces before he dies and leaves his fortune to her. Then, she can take the children and escape to a better life. They just have to make due, stuck in an attic.
Before you know it, Corinne has disappeared from her children’s lives and Olivia has taken over, obsessed with her belief that Chris and Cathy will become lovers. She even starves them to the point that Chris has to feed one of the twins his own blood just so he can survive. Honestly, I don’t think things work that way, but we’re living in the world of V.C. Andrews now, so you just accept these kinds of things.
While the kids are near death, their mother has been hooking up with lawyer Bart Winslow (Leonard Mann, who appeared in several spaghetti westerns, as well as The Humanoid, Cut and Run and Night School). Soon after, Cory is dead, killed by arsenic on a cookie that also kills his pet mouse. If you start to think that this movie is too dark, you are not made of the sterner stuff that it takes to be part of the Andrews universe.
Oh the twists and turns, as the kids hope to escape the home on the very same day they learn that their mother is marrying Bart. That’s when they discover one more revelation — their grandfather has been dead for months and their now rich mother will lose her inheritance if it is ever revealed that she had a first marriage or any children from it. That’s when they put it all together — their mother had been the one poisoning them.
her first marriage, even after his death, she will be disinherited and lose all of her money. They realize that Corrine was the one poisoning the cookies, not their grandmother, and their mother was trying to kill them all so no one would know of their existence and secure her inheritance.
The ending of the movie is pretty much completely different than the book. It was shot at Greystone Manor, where The Big Lebowski, The Witches of Eastwick, Death Becomes Her, Phantom of the Paradise and so many more movies have been filmed.
The director claims that after he finished the film, the producers approached him to refilm a new ending. He’d already had issues with the numerous producers and the two studios making the movie, as they’d made numerous tweaks to his script, tearing out many of the plot points and themes of the novel, including the incestuous relationship between the oldest siblings.
Their big new idea was that the siblings accidentally kill their mother, an idea that was taken from the Craven script. Bloom couldn’t change their mind, so he quit and another director finished the film.
In 2010, Bloom did reveal that after a disastrous initial test screening, nudity and scenes of incest were cut. The other reason given for the changes was that the studio wanted a PG-13 rating and not an R. Kristy Swanson also confirmed these additional scenes being cut in a 2014 interview. The biggest cut was that butler John Hall, who has a much larger role in the Andrews book, was nearly completely taken out of the film despite many of his scenes being filmed. Alex Koba, who played the role, said, “They had three different endings for that movie, and they picked the worst one, the one you’re seeing now.” To top all that off, Victoria Tennant got so upset about the ending where she was hung that she walked off the set.
The original ending finally showed up when Arrow Video released a UK blu ray of the film in 2018. Here’s to hoping that is finally released in the United States. If you’d like to see Craven’s script, here it is. In fact, the cardboard poster in the original DVD of this film has Hilary Henkin and Wes Craven credited for the script and says that it was directed by Craven. There’s also a. 1994 Virginia C. Andrews Trivia and Quiz book that has a page from the script.
BONUS: You can listen to Becca and me discuss this movie on our podcast.