Based on the popular series of novels by Virginia C. Andrews, this is a weird cross between a soapy TV movie and a latter-day gothic. It opens with portentous narration from grownup heroine Cathy (Clare Peck) who relates the tragic events that befell her family and saw “my childhood lost, my innocence shattered and all our dreams destroyed.” Yikes! After their father dies in a tragic accident, fair-haired siblings Cathy (Kristy Swanson), Chris (Jeb Stuart Adams), Carrie (Lindsay Parker) and Cory (Ben Ryan Ganger) accompany their mother Corrine (Victoria Tennant) back to her parents’ spooky mansion, Foxworth Hall. Estranged from her parents for many years, Corrine hopes to win back the love of her dying father (Nathan Davis) and secure a place in his will.
To that end she submits to being stripped and whipped - seventeen lashes for each year she lived in sin with the man, her parents claim, was really her uncle! Olivia Foxworth (Louise Fletcher) doesn’t exactly welcome her grandchildren with open arms, hurling abuse and slapping them around. Eventually she bullies Corrine into shutting them away in the attic. There, over the course of a year, the kids grow sickly and pale while Corrine lives the high life, back in her parents’ good graces. Slowly it dawns on Cathy and Chris that mother might not have their best interests at heart.
Written in 1979, but set during the 1950s, Andrews’ novel and its sequels mark a modern take on gothic melodrama, with wicked relatives, abused children and shock-horror traces of torture, murder and incest. A period adaptation, maybe even in eerie black and white, might have been better bet since, although the books enjoy quite a fan-following, almost everyone denounces this movie as a camp embarrassment. Originally, Wes Craven was set to direct and even drafted a script before the project was passed on to writer-director Jeffrey Bloom. His eclectic career includes heartwarming animal comedy, Dog Pound Shuffle (1975) starring Ron Moody and David Soul, and the offbeat monster movie Blood Beach (1981), but mostly a lot scripts written for television.
Unwisely relocating the story to the 1980s, Bloom replicates the florid dialogue that probably sounds better on the printed page and delivers a bland, TV movie look to match the sappiness of his teenage leads. While the younger kids are tooth-rottingly cute, Adams and Swanson are stilted and dull. Bloom opts for soap opera hysterics right from the moment Cathy reacts to her daddy’s death with anguished, slow-motion: “Nooo!!!” Thereafter it becomes increasingly hard not to giggle through such would-be shocking scenes as when granny dangles one unfortunate moppet by her head or knocks Cathy out cold and shears off all her lovely blonde hair. Missing from the movie any semblance of incestuous tension between Cathy and Chris, which was a major component of the book. The film condenses the children’s imprisonment from three years to two and, aside from greed, there is little to explain Corrine’s disdain for her children. In the absence of genuinely compelling drama, one can at least savour events going into high camp overdrive, when the kids gatecrash their mother’s wedding and a blonde, pasty-faced Kristy Swanson taunts her with arsenic-laced cookie. “Eat the cookie, momma!”