THE MANOR (2021)
After suffering a mild stroke, an old woman reluctantly moves into a historic nursing home where she becomes convinced a supernatural force is killing the residents.
The Manor is a cheap and cheerful horror film from Blumhouse for Amazon Prime Video. I was attracted to it by its simple title, and although it’s a generic horror mystery it’s surprisingly effective, especially considering its limited set of locations and SFX because of its low budget. This might be because the nature of the plot requires its characters to be aged from up from the usual Blumhouse fare, such as Truth or Dare (2018). This means the cast is largely elderly—a rarity in horror, especially of the disposable kind, which tends to exploit the younger demographic by cramming in sexy twenty-somethings. The actors here feel relatively real and have the charisma that comes with that. They’re not just kids fresh out of high school or college, making their way in Los Angeles for the first time and landing gigs in quickie horror films for their looks and marketability. I’m not sure how intentional the relative thematic strength of The Manor is, or if it’s just a byproduct of its use of a care home for its setting and issues around dementia, care quality, and elder abuse… but, in any case, that stuff is there and gives the film a relevance that makes it worth watching.
The plot sees Judith Albright (Barbara Hershey, a veteran of westerns and comedies) go to a care home designed and furnished in a Gothic style. Her resentful daughter, Barbara (Katie A. Keane), looks on as Judith’s freedoms are stripped away from her, convinced by the staff that her mother’s suffering from rapidly progressive dementia. Meanwhile, her 17-year-old son Josh (Nicholas Alexander) tries to support his beloved grandma, with whom he shares a warmer relationship than he does with his widowed mother. But as time passes even he starts to doubt her, after she starts talking about strange men crawling across her bedroom ceiling at night, with tree branches coming out of their mouths…
Hershey’s great as Albright, projecting a wise and sprightly charm that’s rare in scream-queens-for-hire. Bruce Davison, Jill Larson, and Fran Bennett play a trio of residents who take Albright under their wing, and in one rather touching scene reminiscent of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), advise her to not show any signs of weakness, or else the staff will seize the opportunity to sedate and imprison her until she dies. The theme of elder abuse is the most upsetting in The Manor. The film takes an extremely dim and possibly unfair view of care homes for the elderly, viewing staff as guards rather than healthcare professionals, who bully, infantilise, intimidate, and even abuse their charges. Hershey creates some laughter and relatability in how she reacts to the smiling contempt of her jailers, telling a director that she’d rather poke her eye out than sit through a children’s recital arranged for the old people’s “entertainment”.
At times I was reminded of the bizarrely cruel nurse played by Ben Stiller in Happy Gilmore (1996), who tells Adam Sandler’s grandma that either she goes to sleep or he will put her to sleep. Thankfully, the staff in The Manor stop short of forcing residents to sew wallets in a sweatshop. The staff members aren’t all that developed as characters, but they fit useful stereotypes: the Nurse Ratched type, the good one who suspects the truth, etc. The Manor itself isn’t distinctive as a place given that it names the film, but it’s functional. It also seems to be a lot more well-appointed than the grotty seaside home I once worked in for a day. The old psychological trope of a protagonist not being believed when told that people are trying to kill them is one I’ve grown incredibly wary of, though it works to the film’s advantage in this setting because it challenges how quickly we medicalise and dismiss elderly people, reducing them to children because children are weak and easy to control.
The plot moves at a fair clip, helped by its simplicity and focus, not needing to work through several dragged-out kill scenes as in many more teen-oriented horrors. It ends with a decent and well-managed twist, modest but respectable, and stays true to the characters—for the most part. Hershey’s last decision in the plot feels like it’s more for the sake of having a final twist, than one that a wise and compassionate woman like her would really make, but it’s fine. It doesn’t destroy her character and is a nice twist on the morality of the situation. The filmmaking makes use of various allusions to classic genre imagery and ideas, my favourite being one to Jonathan Harker witnessing Count Dracula crawl down a sheer castle wall.
The Manor couldn’t compete in a multiplex, but it wasn’t produced to. I rate it as “good” rather than merely “above average”, because I think it’s worth praising workmanlike efficiency as well as cinematic innovation. Films like The Manor keep the industry going, just as Danielle Steele keeps the publishing industry afloat, by generating enough market share that larger and more ambitious projects are made possible. The reduced resources, time included, mean that The Manor’s story of old age, sacrifice, and abandonment doesn’t achieve the memorability of a Rosemary’s Baby (1968) or The Exorcist (1973) or even a Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988), but you want an afternoon’s diversion? A digestive between larger helpings of horror? You’ve got it.
USA | 2021 | 81 MINUTES | COLOUR | ENGLISH
writer & director: Axelle Carolyn.
starring: Barbara Hershey, Bruce Davison, Stacey Travis, Ciera Payton, Jill Larson & Mark Steger.