By now, everybody knows the giddy grade-school taboo of Flowers In The Attic, the V.C. Andrews classic about Cathy and Chris Dollanganger being locked in their grandmother’s attic alongside their younger brother and sister for however many years it takes two teenage siblings to fall in love. From Bible-thumping grandmother to purple prose, the pulp masterpiece inspired four more books about the increasingly off-the-rails antics of Chris, Cathy, and their markedly linear family tree.
Unsurprisingly, it’s a story that’s been hard to translate. Lifetime’s recent adaptation of it tried to scale back the sex and bring naturalism to something so inherently over-the-top that it only works in the hands of Ellen Burstyn (and even then, once you add the aggressively affect-free Heather Graham, the jig is up). The sequel, Petals On The Wind, delivered steamier romance, but fell prey to a shifting cast, lackluster direction, and the many plot vagaries of being a V.C. Andrews novel in the first place.
The second two novels balanced the shenanigans of a new generation of Dollangangers against Chris’ lingering attempts to move past life in the attic and Cathy’s ongoing struggle not to give in to the same desperation that overtook her mother. It’s alternately soapy bedroom roulette and Gothic character study, a hard sell for a network trying to have its campy cake and eat it, too. Still, can’t ding Lifetime for not being completist even if the source material suggests diminishing returns. With If There Be Thorns and Seeds Of Yesterday, Lifetime seems to know that without the frisson of the forbidden between Cathy and Chris, the sequels can’t reach the camp height of their forebears; the network is quietly burning them off in two consecutive weeks. It’s strange when a TV movie runs into the problem of having insufficient incest to be interesting.
Stranger still is that If There Be Thorns benefits from the distance. Writer Andy Cochran shifts the focus to Cathy’s tween son Bart through what feels like a low-key suburban supervillain origin story, complete with Bible-thumping barn-haunters, veiled grandmothers, and some very awkward discussions about loving your family. The revolving-door cast requirements for this series is one of its most unfortunate, if only because of what feels like an ongoing and fruitless search for a believably intense Chris and Cathy. But with Rachael Carpani and Jason Lewis, director Nancy Savoca has hit upon something else: rather than looking back at the illicit passions of the past, Chris and Cathy Sheffield are a staid suburban couple whose dirty secret ends up no more scandalous than any other misguided youthful attempt to be cool.
Disgruntled Bart (a game Mason Cook) channels his best horror-movie glares as his great-grandfather’s evil influence takes him over—as will happen, in a V.C. Andrews adaptation—but Savoca’s contrast between the Gothic spiderwebs of grandma’s house and the bland McMansion of home is deliberate. In some ways this makes the film feel like a workmanlike corridor of missed opportunities: Its only truly creepy moment features Cathy making beds in the attic for adopted daughter Cindy “just in case,” which feels like the beginning of a deliciously creepy third act of Greek tragedy, except that Cindy never even enters that room and Cathy’s just-like-Mother tendencies never resurface. It’s no surprise, then, that If There Be Thorns ends up competent but flat—erring on the side of the staid is never going to help you with source material like this.
On the other hand, tweaking the source material is sometimes necessary. Seeds Of Yesterday has been positively streamlined, though there’s still a don’t-ask number of plot twists, and at moments Darren Stein’s script comes perilously close to shrugging directly at the audience; for fans of dreadful TV, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard grown-up Bart (erstwhile boybander James Maslow) explain his hatred of love to his mother: “It’s hard not to feel bitter about it when you consider my origin—you seduced my grandmother’s husband to get back at her and I was the result.” No, Cathy’s not amnesiac; the script just assumes that by now, we probably are.
This sort of institutional lassitude prevents either of these movies from having a gripping central conflict, or even a central villain to rally around. (Burstyn departed the series after Grandmother’s death, and the only reliable acting went with her.) The return of Heather Graham in If There Be Thorns is a halfhearted attempt to soften Mother’s image, to the degree Graham can attempt anything while trapped in the human suit she seems to be puppeting throughout. Even Bart’s increasingly destructive evangelism, at either age, provides only enough tension for the next plot point without embracing much context of the campy family weight he bears. Given everything stacked against them, these two movies acquit themselves fairly well, and Stein’s changes to the structure of Seeds Of Yesterday manage to provide an ending that’s both simpler and more dramatically satisfying. After all, it’s not a Dollanganger movie without some inappropriate sibling closeness somewhere, is it?
The fundamental problem remains that the plight of any second-generation Dollanganger lacks the abandonment-and-imprisonment horror—and, yes, the taboo smooching—that makes Flowers In The Attic as compelling as it is. But If There Be Thorns has just enough suburban Gothic to make that central secret into a talisman against normalcy, and Seeds Of Yesterday is an easy watch, if only because every seven minutes brings a new twist. Besides, every so often, the closed-world soap of the Dollangangers pays off with a thematic callback or Easter egg (anybody hoping for a swan bed that upped the ante from Flowers is in luck!). Though it ends less with a bang than a whimper, there’s enough here to entertain those who wanted to see the Dollangangers through to the very end.
Seeds Of Yesterday
Airs: Sunday, April 12, 8 p.m. Eastern on Lifetime