I watched this last night for the first time in years, and I have to say it held up surprisingly well for me. There's a small-scale quality that makes it feel like an 80s TV movie (writer/director Jeffrey Bloom spent most of his career in TV), though I can't quite put my finger on what makes it so. Perhaps because it compresses the expansive novel (which I still haven't read) into a shorter time frame, seemingly a few months. Maybe it's the movie-of-the-week-level performances of the four young actors. It might also be the film's restraint in showing what the novel so frankly details, especially in an era of explicit horror films. The movie just constantly seems reigned in, both technically and in content, as if for prime time TV broadcasting. But what works somehow elevates the film and saves it from falling into camp. Composer Christopher Young is the clear MVP, his haunting score providing tremendous atmosphere (in his interview on the Arrow disc, Young claims that Jeffrey Bloom, who left the project over changes with the ending, agreed to put his name back on the movie after hearing the score). Moments like the cutting of Kristy Swanson's hair that come dangerously close to reaching Mommie Dearest
levels of camp are grounded by his music. The production design, particularly the key attic set, is also excellent and wonderful to look at.
Something that struck me last night is the coldness in the acting, which perhaps unintentionally contributes to its effectiveness. This is naturally characteristic of Louise Fletcher's grande dame performance as the fanatical and abusive grandmother. Likewise, Victoria Tennant gradually sheds her motherly kindness as she becomes more neglectful over the course of the film. But the children are another story. They are the heart of the film and should be our emotional figures of identification. Chalk it up to inexperience with such weighty material I suppose, but Swanson and Jeb Stuart Adams as the older kids are fascinatingly detached. While they go through the motions of playing surrogate parents to their younger siblings, the actors never exhibit real warmth for them or for each other. At times, they are literally posing for the camera (one shot has her sitting in the bathtub facing us while he is in crouched in a windowsill in profile). The younger child actors of course just spout their lines blankly in pancake makeup to look appropriately malnourished. It calls to mind the bizarre child performances in The Night of the Hunter
As for the incest whose absence is mourned by all fans of the book, I actually like how it's merely hinted at throughout. I don't know how much of this was in the book, but there seem to be incestuous feelings running every which way. The opening of the film has a rather creepy scene between Swanson and her dad in which he reminds her how special she is to him (with Mother secretly watching). Later, the invalid grandfather holds Swanson in a chokehold, believing her to be Tennant, reminding her that she
was always his
favorite as well! When Tennant is forced to disrobe in front of her father for a scourging, a closeup shows his eyes widen (lustfully?). There's so much perversity lying just beneath the surface, and to be honest I don't think bringing it to the forefront would do the film many favors. It adds to the film's gothic air with buried secrets always threatening to break through.
Lastly, I watched Jeffrey Bloom's original ending, which is included in rough condition as a bonus on Arrow's disc. While it was a major point of contention during production and remains controversial among V.C. Andrews fans, I have to say I prefer the final, studio-mandated ending over Bloom's.
While the violent outcome of the final version is often accused of being over the top, the original manages to be more so and quite shrill. It has a ridiculous moment of Fletcher gliding toward us, knife in hand and screaming like a banshee, complete with a last-minute Deus-ex-Machina rescue by her heretofore faithful butler that just makes no sense at all. The fate of the mother in the released ending just feels more poetically just.
So, this remains an intriguing guilty pleasure for me. I'll never claim this to be a masterpiece, and I understand why so many people find it unsatisfying. But it has its good points, and even its failures are interesting to me and contribute to its unique flavor. Bloom's small-screen aesthetic makes this somehow weirder, and I can't help thinking that had this been released for TV instead of theatrical distribution, it would have been hailed as one of the best TV horrors of the decade.