After the sudden, unexpected death of their father, the four Dollanganger children — teenagers Christopher Jr and Cathy and 5-year-old twins Cory and Carrie — find themselves penniless and forced to travel with their mother Corinne to live with her wealthy parents (whom the children believed were deceased) in Virginia. Corinne informs her children that there has been tension between herself and her parents for many years, but does not get into too much detail , simply says they had disowned her for something she had done of which they disapproved. The children trust her, though Cathy is skeptical.
They arrive at the mansion and meet the butler, John and Corinne's cold mother Olivia, a religious fanatic. Olivia takes the group into her home, and escort them to a large bedroom of the mansion, with bars on the windows - blocking out fresh air and sunshine. It is on their first day there that the grandmother reveals the shocking truth: Corinne and her husband were really half- uncle and niece, making their love incestuous and their children the product of incest. She also tells them that the Grandfather will never know of their existence in order to spare him from the 'final agony and shame'.
When Corrine finally returns to the children that night, Olivia forces her to show the children that she has been savagely whipped as punishment for her incestuous relationship. As Chris and Cathy treats her wounds, Corinne admits to the children that she and their father were uncle and niece; the children do not say anything but seem to accept it. Corinne tells the children that their confinement will only be for a short time: her father is deathly ill, and once she is able to convince him to secure her inheritance, they will be free when he dies. Corrine then tells them about the large attic via a secret stairway through the closet and all of its contents.
The next day, Olivia gives them their food along with a list of rules the children are to follow and obey as long as they live in the manor. Once she leaves, the children get ready to explore the attic but not before Olivia reminds them that they cannot be seen. They descend into the dusty, cobweb infested attic and see all the treasures (wardrobes full of old clothes, room ornaments, trunks, etc). Cathy and Chris then find access to a little sunlight and fresh air - through more barred windows.
From here, the plot focuses on the children's ordeal as shut-ins and their clashes with the ultra-religious grandmother, who loathes the children due to their incestuous conception. The children struggle to survive, even as their mother's visits quickly taper off. In particular, Olivia becomes obsessed with Chris and Cathy, out of the warped belief that they have become lovers. Discovering them sleeping in the same bed one morning, the grandmother smashes Cathy's ballerina music box, the last gift she received from her by her deceased father. After Olivia later discovers the two innocently talking while Cathy is bathing, she calls them sinners. Chris manages to chase her out, but Olivia later ambushes Cathy in the bedroom, locks Chris in the closet preceding the attic, and hacks off Cathy's hair with a pair of scissors. She then starves them for a week, and Chris is forced to feed Cory his own blood so he doesn't die of starvation.
Months pass and the children become sick, especially the younger ones. Chris and Cathy eventually figure out how to remove the hinges from their locked door on a few occasions to sneak out of their room, and discover that their mother has been living a life of luxury as well as dating a young lawyer, Bart Winslow. She does eventually come to visit them again, and they confront her about ignoring and leaving them to suffer. Corinne is very defensive and acts insulted, cries that they are cruel to think that she is deliberately neglecting them or enjoying life while they are locked up, then storms out.
Shortly after, Cory becomes deathly ill. The children ask Olivia and Corinne to take Cory to the hospital, which they do, but later Corinne returns to inform them Cory has died, leaving the children devastated. The scene cuts to a groundskeeper digging four graves on the outskirts of the property - confirming that the grandmother and Corrine are trying to kill them. It isn't long before they suspect that Olivia has been poisoning them when their pet mouse is found dead after eating part of a cookie. Chris researches and concludes that Cory and the mouse were killed via arsenic poisoning, mixed in the sugar on the cookies they are served with their meals. The remaining siblings decide to leave the attic once and for all.
Chris sneaks out to steal money before they escape and discovers that their mother is planning to wed Bart Winslow at the mansion the next morning. Though upset, he suggests to Cathy they dress in fancy clothes from the attic, and use the wedding as a cover to sneak out of the house.
On their last day in the mansion, Olivia secretly enters their bedroom the next day, hoping to catch them once more doing something "evil", Chris takes her by surprise and beats her unconscious with a bedpost. As they flee down the hall, Cathy decides they should reveal themselves to their grandfather (they had come across him sleeping in his room once before while out and investigating their mother's absence). However, when they enter his room, they find it empty, with the bed dismantled: their grandfather has been dead for months. They then find a copy of the invitation to Corrine and Bart's wedding and a copy of the Grandfather's will, which reveals a clause: if it is ever proven Corinne had children from her first marriage, she will be disinherited and lose the fortune. They realize that Corinne locked them in the attic with the intention to kill them all so she can fully secure her inheritance (It may be possible that Corrine may have also orchestrated the car crash that killed their father - setting the events of the film in motion).
The children crash the wedding ceremony and expose their mother's crimes to the guests and the groom; Corinne refuses to acknowledge the children as her own or admit to poisoning Cory. Cathy offers her an arsenic-coated cookie as a wedding present, and in fury tries to force her mother to eat it, chasing her out to a balcony. After a brief struggle, Corinne falls and dies when her veil is caught on a trellis, strangling her to death.
The film ends with the children leaving Foxworth Hall as the Grandmother looks on from the window with scorn and defeat; Cathy narrates that they did manage to survive all by themselves: she got a job to help with Chris' medical school tuition before resuming ballet and Carrie grew up, but was "never truly healthy". Although they put the past behind them, Cathy wonders aloud if the grandmother is still alive, and anticipating Cathy's eventual return ... hinting that Cathy will get her revenge.
Differences between 1979 Book and 1987 Movie Edit
- In the book, Cathy wears a heart shaped promise ring given to her by her father. She receives it when she is seven and eventually wears it on a thin chain after she outgrows it. In the movie, Cathy receives a small ring and a ballerina music box before her father is killed in the car crash. The grandmother later smashes it as punishment when she finds the boys and girls sleeping in the same beds (Chris and Cathy in one; the twins in the other.) Throughout the rest of the film, Chris glues the music box back together and Cathy takes it with her when the three surviving children leave Foxworth Hall.
- In the book, the Grandmother gives the Dollanganger Children a total of twenty-two written rules (i.e. standing at attention when she enters a room, not make eye contact nor speak to her, etc) and forbids them from bringing up Christopher Sr’s name. In the movie, she gives them a list, but the rules on it are unknown.
- In the conclusion, the surviving Dollanganger Children (Cathy, Christopher, and Carrie) simply walk out with luggage using the wooden key they made and make their way to the train station, with their Grandmother looking out from a distance as they travel to Charlottesville. The movie shows they escape during Corrine’s wedding by knocking the grandmother unconscious with a bedpost and confront Corrine at her wedding with her (Corrine’s) crimes toward them. Cathy offers her a cookie covered in arsenic as a wedding present, and in fury tries to force her mother to eat it, chasing her out to a balcony. After a brief struggle, Corinne falls to her own death when her veil is caught on a trellis, hanging her. The surviving children then walk out the door with only the clothes on their backs, Cathy's repaired music box and Carrie's doll.
- Corrine shows some grief in the book over Cory’s death (evidenced by red-rimmed eyes and makeup smudges). The movie however shows her emotionless over his death.
- The arsenic is served on powdered doughnuts in the book; the movie shows arsenic coated cookies – both of which kill Cory.
- The tarring of Cathy's hair is not shown in the movie; while Cathy is taking a bath, the grandmother discovers the two siblings innocently talking, and she calls them sinners. Chris manages to chase her out, but Olivia later ambushes Cathy in the bedroom, locks Chris and the twins in the closet preceding the attic, and beats Cathy before hacking off her (Cathy’s) hair with a pair of scissors. Cathy's hair remains short for the rest of the movie.
- The incestuous relationship between Cathy and Chris is not shown in this movie.
- There is no wooden key made in the movie; the children secretly remove the hinges on their locked door on a few occasions to sneak out of their room. This is how they find out about Corrine’s luxurious life and Bart Winslow.
- The pet mouse is not named Mickey; it’s Fred.
- The book takes place over a period of over three years (1957-1960); the movie takes place in the 1980s and the children are imprisoned for one year.
- Corrine appears to show jealousy toward Chris Sr’s fatherly love for Cathy (possibly due to her own upbringing). From this information, it may be plausible that Corrine might have orchestrated the fatal car crash that killed him, putting the plan to gain her inheritance in motion.
- The movie depicts the grandmother as a co-conspirator in the poisoning. The book depicts her with a soft side (though rarely shown) toward the children in the book (i.e. providing a small plant for their attic garden) and is reluctant to serve the arsenic coated doughnuts (though it still makes her an accessory to the poisoning). She even agrees with Cathy that Cory must go to a hospital (though he wasn't taken to one).
- In the book, the codicil in the grandfather's will barres Corrine from ever having children lest she be disinherited. This also happens in the movie, but only mentions having children in her first marriage.