At her 70th birthday party, vibrant former ballet dancer Judith Albright (Barbara Hershey) suffers a mild stroke. Intent on not being a burden to her daughter and her teenage grandson, she agrees to move into a nursing home — located in a Gothic mansion that just so happens to be hiding a very disturbing secret. One of four “Welcome to the Blumhouse” films arriving on Amazon just in time for Halloween, The Manor digs into dark supernatural places, but it also digs into the dark recesses of the human mind, as Judith begins to question whether the malevolent goings-on she thinks she’s witnessing are real, or are actually a side effect of her age and her illness.
Hollywood veteran Hershey is fantastic, and the film is written and directed with spooky flair by up-and-coming director Axell Carolyn, whose other credits include the “Romance of Certain Old Clothes” episode (aka the gorgeous black-and-white episode) of The Haunting of Bly Manor, the “Dead and Breakfast” segment of Creepshow, and the 2013 feature Soulmate. At a recent press event, Gizmodo got a chance to speak over video chat with both Hershey and Carolyn about The Manor.
The film takes on horrors revolving around ageing, but both actor and writer-director zeroed in on a more specific aspect of that theme. “It’s about the horrors of how people are treated who are ageing,” Hershey explained. “I wanted to be involved because I love the character. I thought it kind of broke down a lot of the cliched images in Hollywood about older people — and [the fact] that she’s very young at heart and in spirit, and is feisty and angry and swears and is funny and full of life, I thought that was really great.”
Carolyn agreed — “it’s about the way that we treat people over a certain age. To me, that is the real horror” — and said that she based the story on “my own fears and my own anxieties, and then going to visit loved ones in nursing homes. Those environments that are very striking and [they bring up] things that I needed to somehow process, and I like to process those things through supernatural stories, so it just felt like a natural way of dealing with it.”
Carolyn, who’s spent her career so far working in her favourite genre (Hershey called her “an encyclopaedia of horror”), didn’t write the film with any particular actor in mind but said she was excited when Hershey’s name came up. “I’m sure every horror fan is a huge fan of Black Swan and The Entity and Insidious. She is just so iconic. When you watch her in The Entity, it’s phenomenal in the way she’s doing the job of two different characters and she makes you believe in everything that happens, just because she’s so grounded and she deals with everything like it’s a drama,” Carolyn said. “She brings a lot of truth to what she does. And she did the same here, I think. She was very, very dedicated to understanding what I meant with every line and then discussing if she was in agreement with it — discussing the themes and making sure that the themes came out the way that she was hoping. And that we agreed on what we were trying to say about old age, and about all those elements that she was very, very serious about. And I think that really pays off on screen.”
Carolyn has a vast amount of horror knowledge to draw on, and she said she aimed to make The Manor feel “a little bit outside of the real world… a little bit more like a fairytale, like the Sleepy Hollow kind of approach.” But there was one movie in particular that inspired the tone of The Manor. “I was very inspired by Rosemary’s Baby … it has supernatural elements, but it’s also a movie where the scariest parts are the gaslighting and the chipping away at her control over her life. And I felt like that was very relevant for [The Manor], the fact that you can have people who are very well-meaning around you, and they still don’t know how to protect you or how to listen to you. And you are placed in an environment where, for your own protection, you can’t escape. You can’t get out. There’s certain things that you can’t have, like your phone. Things are being chipped away from you and the control over your life is slowly slipping away. And I thought that was really scary.”
As Judith struggles with the drastic change in her living situation, she starts to question whether or not the experiences she’s having are real or imagined, particularly when the nursing home starts to come alive in sinister ways at night. “At first she absolutely believes what’s going on is happening, and then after a while, she has to consider that maybe this is what dementia feels like, you know, maybe this is what going crazy feels like,” Hershey said. “And that, I think, is more horrific to her than any vision or any creature — the idea that it’s her and her self-esteem. She’s down at that point … she thinks, ‘Well, maybe I shouldn’t be believed.’ Maybe it’s true. That’s really an awful thing to come to. My mother had dementia, and I remember her pain was huge about what she was witnessing and feeling, which was very real to her, but not being believed was her biggest pain. I’ll never forget that, and so I used all of that.”
Without spoiling The Manor’s twists and turns, the movie does end up having a supernatural element — and it leads Judith to make a very surprising choice in act three. “I understand why she does it. And yes, it surprised me,” Hershey said. “I had lots of discussions with Axelle about what that ending actually is saying. I think what she wants is to leave the audience with the question of what would they do? Would they make the same choice? Because you see what the choice produces. And it was a really interesting ending, I thought, and a satisfying one, because you do get to explore that choice with Judith, but it’s a provocative choice, definitely.”
Carolyn is aware that the ending of The Manor will probably surprise most viewers. “I’m hoping it’ll start a little bit of a conversation. I’m hoping that people will wonder why she made that choice and whether they would do the same and kind of what would push her in that direction. Even though I wanted people to be surprised, obviously, I also think that it’s the only happy ending we can have for something like this. That was the only way that we could get out of this without being very depressing,” the writer-director said. “But also it felt truthful to who [Judith] is. She’s rebellious and she’s always going to be kind of looking for her own way to do things, and she’s not taking the accepted reality and accepting the truth of things. Given the chance to do something, it’s a little bit of a fuck you, it’s a little bit of like, well, you’ve pushed me to do this in some ways and I’m fully prepared for people to hate that. But at least I hope that they’ll see that it’s consistent with who she is, that they won’t be too taken aback by the character choice.”
And yes, we had to ask Carolyn about another horror movie set in a nursing home: 2002’s Bubba Ho-Tep, directed by Don Coscarelli. (Hershey hasn’t seen it… yes, we asked her, too.) Carolyn, who called it “kind of a masterpiece,” said she watched it when it was released but hasn’t revisited it a long time. “I kind of stayed away from it once I had written my script and was making my movie, because I didn’t want to be — there’s a point where you just have to make your own thing. [But] it’s exactly the kind of thing that I love where you take a concept that’s supernatural or a little bit bonkers, and then you make something that’s very deeply relevant and emotional and has those awesome characters that you kind of fall in love with. And it’s a very, very different film from The Manor, but we both aspire to do similar things, I think, in different ways. It would be a great double bill, actually.”
The Manor arrives on Amazon Prime starting October 8.