KILLINGS, daily columns and blog —

2014 columns, Television

The mother of all TV incest? Lifetime’s Flowers in the Attic

by Stephanie Van Schilt , January 30, 2014Leave a comment

I went to see David Sedaris speak the other night. He discussed his penchant for collecting filthy t-shirt slogans, including one which read: ‘Beer with no alcohol is like going down on your sister. It feels right, but it’s wrong.’

The audience were there to laugh, and they did – the joke and the guy and the notion of collecting t-shirt slogans was funny and gross. But after the snorts came the obligatory squirm, because incest is one of the oldest and most referenced cultural taboos that reliably incites revulsion. Only child or otherwise, it’s an uncomfortable topic that generally leaves a bad taste (sorry).

You can claw your eyes out like Oedipus, but there’s no escape from incest in pop culture. Last week the telemovie reboot of V.C. Andrews’ 1979 cult novel Flowers in the Attic aired on the Lifetime channel. It’s unsurprising that the American cable network dedicated to soaps, melodrama and televisual theatrics produced the mother (yep) of all contemporary incest texts for the small screen.

After the sudden and tragic death of their father (Chad Willett), the four Dollanger siblings – two blonde boys and two blonde girls – are relocated to Foxworth Hall, their mother Corrine’s (Heather Graham) familial home. Up until her husband’s death, Corrine had been ostracised for marrying her half-uncle and bearing the aforementioned children to him. Now, she is determined to reclaim a spot in her wealthy, terminally ill father’s will. In order to do so, she enlists the help of her evil mother (Ellen Burstyn) to hide her incestuous spawn in an attic.

Imprisoned for years, the children are subject to abuse, neglect, and starvation. The story unfolds from the perspective of the eldest daughter Cathy, played by wunderkind starlet Kiernan Shipka, best known as sassy Sally Draper in Mad Men. Adolescent siblings Cathy and Christopher (Mason Dye) learn the truth about their parents’ incestuous past, and eventually enter into a romantic and sexual relationship themselves.

The Lifetime telemovie does not evade the incestuous storyline as the campy 1987 film adaptation did, but nor does it reach the horrific neo-gothic heights of the original novel. While the telemovie is aesthetically pleasing, the torture the children suffer is not as gruesome as Andrews’ descriptions; beyond some overwrought narration, their inner turmoil is absent and sense of general neglect dulled via the Vaseline lens of a stilting soap opera framework.

The whippings and malnourishment are also tempered for the television viewership, and the budding, bottled tensions between the siblings are not as primal as in the book. Dye’s portrayal of Chris’ growing sexuality is somewhat potent but sadly Shipka’s Cathy is less convincing during her integral transition into womanhood. It’s still implied they do it on the dirty mattress though.

Incest is an eternal taboo and it seems its resurgence – think Bates Motel, Boardwalk Empire, Bored to Death, Game of Thrones, Dexter, Six Feet Under, Arrested Development, Sons of Anarchy, etc. – is utilised to push the few boundaries that remain in an otherwise desensitised ‘civilised’ society. In a good program, this tension can develop characters and propel narratives while raising questions of moral relativity.

Where love blossoms is no one’s fault – and for Cathy and Chris, trapped in the attic, it’s impossible for us to understand their burdens. We empathise with their clouded teen minds mingling with adolescent lust, but the added imprisonment and constant cruelty is alien to most – so who are we to judge what they cling to in order to survive? Their romance adds to the direness of their situation.

In a recent episode from season three of Girls, Richard E Grant’s character spouted, ‘Take time to reflect on the issues that your daddy had with his daddy, and his daddy, and his daddy before him and every daddy that’s been going on before that daddy!’ Where the original Flowers in the Attic book reflected on this, rather traumatically, for mummys and daddys and siblings, the Lifetime telemovie fails.

Stephanie Van Schilt is Deputy Editor at The Lifted Brow and a freelance writer. She tweets @steph_adele

ACO logo




9781863957434

Kill Your Darlings

What We’re Reading: Readings staff share their June picks

Looking for a book recommendation? Staff from Readings bookshop share what they’ve been reading this month. Read more »

lisa-gorton_the-life-of-houses

James Tierney

A Novel of Longer Exhalations: Lisa Gorton’s The Life of Houses

It’s sometimes said that each book teaches you how to read it. That each way of telling a story needs to not only beguile anew but needs to tutor the reader in the ways to best attend its pages. Read more »

9781743316337

Danielle Binks

Finding Books for Young Readers: The Reading Children’s Book Prize

James Patterson once said, ‘There’s no such thing as a kid who hates reading. There are kids who love reading and kids who are reading the wrong books.’ So how do we get the right books into the hands of budding bibliophiles? Well, the Readings Children’s Book Prize Shortlist is a great place to start. Read more »

clouds-of-sila-maria-1

Rebecca Shaw

The curse of the ‘gal pals’

As a well-known humourless, angry, hairy arm-pitted, feminist lesbian, I encounter daily issues that I can place on a scale from things that mildly irritate me all the way to things that completely offend me. Read more »

2691149967_01b38304f3_b

Rebecca Shaw

Fuck Yeah: Swearing like a lady

I had been trying to pinpoint exactly why the HBO television show Veep brings me such joy. Yes, it is a very funny, very well-written show with a great cast, but that didn’t quite go far enough in explaining the immense enjoyment it gives me. The eureuka moment finally struck when I stumbled over a compilation video of the best insults from the show. Read more »

AnneEdmonds-300dpi-sml-860x450_c

Alexandra Neill

Curse of the Comedienne: When comedy comes before gender

At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I saw only shows by women. I did this for several reasons: to support great comedians, to force myself to see more shows I knew nothing about, and because I really like comedy by ladies. I also did it because I was curious. I love comedy, but increasingly have been bothered by the obvious gender disparity. Read more »

Zombies

Michelle Roger

It’s All Just Preparation for the Zombie Apocalypse

‘She’s just another Walking Dead hanger-on,’ I hear you say. Well, yes, I am partial to a bit of walker action. And yes, I may have entertained the odd erotic daydream about a crossbow carrying, scraggy-bearded redneck – but this is not where my zombie obsession began. Come gather around people. Hear my obsessive zombie-loving origin story. Read more »

tom-cruise-jack-reacher-premiere-postponed

Chris Somerville

A lit match in a box of wet dynamite: Tom Cruise is Jack Reacher

I first watched Jack Reacher a few years ago, in a spate of insomnia. The plot is a confused mess, both needlessly intricate and incredibly simple. I’m not going to go into it, mainly because I don’t actually know why the people in this movie do anything. Read more »

Partisan

Joanna Di Mattia

To experience the world with blinkers on: Ariel Kleiman’s Partisan

Partisan beautifully evokes that complex space between childhood and adulthood, when we start to question the worldview we have inherited – when we begin to see the world through our own eyes. It is both a coming-of-age story, and an innocence-coming-undone story. Read more »

Zombies

Michelle Roger

It’s All Just Preparation for the Zombie Apocalypse

‘She’s just another Walking Dead hanger-on,’ I hear you say. Well, yes, I am partial to a bit of walker action. And yes, I may have entertained the odd erotic daydream about a crossbow carrying, scraggy-bearded redneck – but this is not where my zombie obsession began. Come gather around people. Hear my obsessive zombie-loving origin story. Read more »

OITNB2

Anwen Crawford

Still in Prison: The limitations of Orange is the New Black

No, I haven’t binge-watched the entire new season of Orange Is The New Black in one sleepless, bleary-eyed frenzy. This season, the show’s third, doesn’t lend itself to that kind of viewing. The pace is slower, the cliff-hangers missing. Read more »

kim-kardashian-selfish-cover-main

Brodie Lancaster

We Are All Kardashians

For the past five years, I have loved and been obsessed with the Kardashians. Specifically, the E! reality series that made them famous. I often feel the need to intellectualise why I like these series and the people on them – you know, because I’m not a moron, and these are shows about morons, for morons. Read more »

ss_8df8236403f5aad45eeedd33d2bd545e45435b39.1920x1080

Katie Williams

The More Things Change: Choice and consequence in Life is Strange

You can either be a benevolent hero or a monster, but few games deal with the multitudes contained by actual people. And what does it matter, anyway? There’s no such thing as regret when it comes to in-game decision-making – not when you can so easily restart the game to see what outcome will result from choosing Option B instead. Read more »

svfw crop

Katie Williams

Silicon Valley Fashion Week?: Fashion, technology, and wearability

Last week saw the inaugural Silicon Valley Fashion Week? (yes, with a question mark) unfold in San Francisco. The show promised ‘drones, robots, and mad inventions’, and tickets sold out swiftly; attendees were clearly eager to see more inventive clothing in this heartland of nerds. Read more »

AnimalCrossing copy

Katie Williams

Digging For Meaning in Utopia: Storytelling in Animal Crossing

Animal Crossing is a series of games in which – as my partner once remarked incredulously – ‘nothing ever happens.’ In its latest incarnation, Animal Crossing: New Leaf, you become the unwitting mayor of a town populated by anthropomorphic, bipedal animals. Read more »

CrawlMeBlood_20150607_261_LoRes copy

Jane Howard

Adhocracy: Lifting the curtain on the creative process

Every June long weekend I wrap myself up in several extra layers and make my way to the Waterside Worker’s Hall in Port Adelaide for Adhocracy, Vitalstatistix’s annual hothouse that brings together artists from around the country for a weekend of creative development. Read more »

Orlando #2 - THE RABBLE

Jane Howard

This Is a Story of Artistic Excellence

This is a story of the first four plays I saw at Malthouse Theatre. It’s a story that can only continue as long as support for independent artists continues; it’s a story that can only keep growing as long as support for independent artists grows. It’s a story of where artistic excellence comes from, and how we get to see it on our main stages. Read more »

AnneEdmonds-300dpi-sml-860x450_c

Alexandra Neill

Curse of the Comedienne: When comedy comes before gender

At this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, I saw only shows by women. I did this for several reasons: to support great comedians, to force myself to see more shows I knew nothing about, and because I really like comedy by ladies. I also did it because I was curious. I love comedy, but increasingly have been bothered by the obvious gender disparity. Read more »