DVDanger: If There Be Thorns

Dear Lifetime, we need to talk

Oh, Lifetime. You have become my Moby Dick. From hell's heart I stab at thee, and yet here we are, rope-wrapped in a death grip to the bottom of the ocean.

A regular, all-American family in If There be Thorns. Nothing to see here, move along, move along.

Look, I get it. You do pulpy schmaltz with a sleazy twist. You're like bad Fifties dime store novellas with an IMDB page. Angsty teens, illicit office liaisons, unofficial biopics pulled from TMZ's Twitter feed, and more plucked-from-the-headlines salacious crimes than a whole season of Law & Order: SVU. But remember that moment, earlier this year, when you hired Will Ferrell and Kristin Wiig to make a movie for you, and no one knew if you were kidding or serious? It was like the Turing Test for TV networks: Had you finally become self aware?

Quick answer: No.

Let's cut to the chase. It's the Dollanganger books, the Seventies literary phenomenon of a bizarre family and their even more bizarre antics. The 50 Shades of Grey of their time. Weird 40 years ago, and they haven't got any less weird now. Yes, the Dollanganger books, the series written initially by V.C. Andrews and, once she died, by her ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman. Still, 1981's If There be Thorns is all her fault, and now, dear Lifetime, you have decided that you needed to adapt it for television.

And why not? You inflicted the first two in the series on us, starting with the impossibly awful Flowers in the Attic. Do we need explain it? Yes, I suppose so. Four rich children are locked in the attic of their family's rambling New England mansion, because their insane grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) is disappointed that her daughter (Heather Graham) ran off with her second cousin. Left to their own devices, they make paper flowers, the older kids try to make the younger ones more comfortable while they deal with their own budding sexuality and, oh dear God this is a teen incest story, isn't it?

The second volume, Petals on the Wind, adds ballet fetishism to the already tawdry equation (and wow, was that big in the Seventies). And you adapted that as well.

So now we're on to volume three, and the psycho-sexual high Gothic that became New York en pointe eroticism is now Mayberry meets de Sade. The remaining kids from the original four – Catherine (Rachael Carpani) and Christopher (Jason Lewis) – are now living in an idyllic small town with her two kids from her previous two husbands (trust me, a lot happened in Petals on the Wind). Everything seems to be idyllic: even though they ran away from home as teenagers with no money, no ID, and no visible means of support, somehow they got married, she became a professional ballerina turned ballet instructor, and he's now a practicing doctor. Apparently student loans were really easy to get back then, and they've done marvelously with fake driving licenses, so that's all fine.

Until granny turns up. Dun-dun-duh!

Yes, Heather Graham is the only cast member who can't escape this vortex (Burstyn had the good grace to burst into flames in the last outing), and she returns as Corrine, the monstrous pastiche of a mother. She decides to move in next door to her own kids in the neighboring abandoned mansion under the genius disguise of … wearing a scarf over her face. Well, whatever works. How she finds her wayward spawn is never really established, but she is determined to turn their youngest child against them by … well, this is never really established, but it seems to either entail turning young, frail Bart into Daniel Plainview from There Will Be Blood. Or having him be possessed by his previously unmentioned great-grandfather. Hey, you never know until you try.

What's strangest at this point is, from a narrative point of view, the incestuous plotline has become little more than a social faux pas that Catherine and Christopher are mildly concerned about their kids discovering. In fact, it seems the only real sin being committed is a remarkable cocktail of raw tedium and overacting. There is only one moment of redemption, in the form of loyal family retainer John Amos (Mackenzie Gray). Sent by Corrine to seduce Bart Jr. into the family tradition of proselytizing lunacy, he finally succumbs to exasperation and decides he's going to burn them all in the family barn.

Ah, John Amos. The last great hero in a dismal world.

At this point in Lifetime's adaptations of the Virginia Andrews' Dollanganger books, Heather Graham decided it was time to hide her face. And maybe fire her agent.

Meanwhile Corrine's primary motivation seems to be that she doesn't have a waxed mustache to twirl. Graham actively spoofed her button-down but wild-eyed persona in Horns. Yet here it's unclear whether she's mocking herself through pantomime extremes, or no one explained the joke to her. As for the rest of the family, there's a glint of "get me out of here" in their performances, but it's barely even car crash enough to be interesting.

Now ask yourself, Lifetime, aren't you supposed to teach us some kind of moral lesson? Aren't all those interchangeable fables that you specialize in intended to instill some wisdom (generally that sleeping with your secretary/gardener/bank manager is a bad idea)? Contrast that with zero-budget high school thriller All American Bully, which takes a fairly bleak look at the foibles of the modern teen.

This 2011 microbudget indie seems like it will owe a debt to Mazes and Monsters, the infamous 1982 made-for-TV movie in which Tom Hanks is driven to madness by the satanic menace of roleplaying games.

It starts prosaically enough. "Aren't you getting a bit old to be playing with fairies and stuff?" asks of his supposedly school-age son Devon (Alexander Fraser): a reasonable question, because his offspring appears to have a severe case of the Luke-Perry-in-Beverly-Hills-90210). In fact, the roleplayers are the heroes this time around, as Devon sits in his basement with his not-girlfriend Becky (Alicia Rose) and nerdier pal Garret (Darren Hicks), playing video games, talking about social media sites (really: no names, just "all the social media." Because screenshots cost money, and they don't have any), and evading school bully John (Daren Ackerman). His harassment isn't random, and it quickly turns out that he and Devon have some long, deep history together. How deep it is gets revealed in a torrent of redneck slurs and bigotry, rained down on the innocent threesome. And then, to coin a phrase that would make the oddly prim Dollanganger family squirm, shit gets dark.

This may be backyard drama as cinema, but at least it's trying. All American Bully poses the very real question as to whether we are all to blame in the cycle of abuse and bullying. And then says, resoundingly, "No, we're not all equal." While some people are victims, and some victims in turn become victimizers, some people are instigators, and they are the worst of the lot.

At the end of the day, this is an oddly aspirational after-school special, getting bleaker and more amoral by the moment until reaching a disturbing pinnacle of Funny Games proportions. No, it doesn't really have the creative, directorial or acting chops to carry it off, but trust me, this is scarcely a very special episode of Little Wonder.

And here's why I mention this film. It may be cheap, and the acting may vary from "am-dram production of Our Town" to "lumber by the yard," but at least it's trying to say something about the terrible burden of living with mental and physical abuse. Whereas you have a franchise to protect: A disturbing, directionless franchise that resurrects a literary phenomenon that we had all prayed for years was dead.

So, congratulations, Lifetime. You have become the last great exploitation studio. And with the final, double length installment of the Dollanganger franchise already despoiling a hard drive somewhere, I guess I'm in until the bitter, stupid end.

If There Be Thorns (Lionsgate) and All American Bully (Wildeye) are available on DVD now.

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