It’s a dark thing to admit, but a nursing home is the perfect setting for a horror film. If we lived in an ideal society, these long-term care institutions would be idyllic spaces where elderly people could live out their last years in comfort. Unfortunately, we don’t, and these centers — under-regulated, expensive and predatory — have a less-than-stellar reputation. Yet that doesn’t stop the protagonist of The Manor from checking herself into one.
The Manor is the latest film in Amazon’s horror film anthology series Welcome to the Blumhouse, which loosely centers each season on a theme. The first four films, which were released in October 2020, were all about love and family. The most recent four — Black as Night, Bingo Hell, Madres and The Manor — focus on institutional horrors and personal phobias.
Inventive, if a bit clumsy at times.
With its tight structure, adequate level of suspense and inventive plot, The Manor more than fulfills the requirements of a thrilling horror flick. But its clumsy and at times repetitive script, along with its beautiful but predictable cinematography, kept me from feeling fully immersed in Belgian writer-director Axelle Carolyn’s project.
After suffering a stroke during her 70th birthday party, Judith Albright (the marvelous Barbara Hershey) decides to pack her bags and move into Golden Sun Manor, a well-regarded sleepy assisted living facility. The manor-style home, with its brick-red exterior, lush interior decorations and verdant grounds, seems plucked from the 19th century. It’s the perfect place to live — aesthetically speaking, at least.
When Judith arrives with her daughter, Barbara (Katie Amanda Keane), and grandson, Josh (Nicholas Alexander), in tow, the place feels like a dream. The nurses wear cheerful grins as they greet the newcomers, some residents convene in the parlor — napping, playing cards, listening to that one guy playing the piano — and others take supervised walks on the estate. DP Andrés E. Sánchez’s ethereal visuals accentuate the idyllic image that preps us for the inevitable dark turn on the horizon.
Josh, who is extremely close to his grandmother, feels unsettled and unsure about the whole arrangement. Judith, he insists, is not like these old people; she’s sharp, animated and also his best friend. Barbara, on the other hand, seems content to let her mother, whom she views as stubborn, make her own decision. One of the most pleasantly interesting parts of Carolyn’s screenplay is how it teases out the dynamics between these three and uses Judith and Josh’s intimacy to heighten the emotional stakes. Yet the dialogue suggests an insecurity about viewers’ ability to pick up on the subtleties or draw the right conclusions.
Judith ignores Josh’s fear and tries her best to fit into her new home. She shares a room with Annette (Nancy Linehan Charles), a nervous woman with dementia, and starts to play bridge with Roland (Bruce Davison), Trish (Jill Larson) and Ruth (Fran Bennett), a tight-knit group who enjoy drinking alcohol and smoking weed when the nurses aren’t looking. Through unusually confessional conversations with these three, we learn about Judith’s past as a dancer, her dead husband and her subtle obsession with being young. “I was a dancer,” she says at one point. “My work depended on my youth.” While helpful in underscoring thematic concerns, lines like these are not necessary, especially when Carolyn makes smart directorial choices that make those themes clear, like capturing the way Judith looks longingly in the mirror, touching her face and brushing her hair.
Despite her best efforts to conform to the environment, Judith struggles to adjust. She bristles at the infantile way the nurses treat her and begins to see strange figures at night. When she confides in her new friends, however, they urge her to brush it off. They warn Judith that if the staff sense that she might be losing her mind, they will revoke the few privileges she has. Still, Judith can’t shake the feeling that all is not what it seems in the nursing home.
The Manor does an impressive job of adhering to the conventions of the genre — there are plenty of jump scares and ominous music — while also weighing in on broader themes like elder care and aging. According to press notes, Carolyn’s narrative was inspired by her experience watching her father battle dementia during the last two years of his life. Her screenplay began as a story about dementia, and one can see remnants of that in the final version of The Manor, which handles the reality of the facility’s conditions with care.
Judith is a character with a sharp sense of humor and strong intuition, and her unsettling worry that her grasp on reality might be dwindling is heightened by Hershey’s restrained performance. From her deep inhalations during every interaction with a staff member to her cutting and sarcastic delivery of jokes, she’s an engaging presence onscreen.
But fine acting and a tight, well-thought-out structure are not the only attributes of a strong horror flick. The film starts off on a strong foot and languishes a bit in the middle, as though we are waiting for it to pick up speed and embrace the antics of scary movies. When we eventually get there, in a thrilling third act, The Manor delivers.
But just as soon as Carolyn pulls you in, the script takes us out again with repetitive and well-trodden observations about the anxieties of aging. These hiccups give the film an uneven quality. Still, Carolyn is clearly a skilled director with an appetite for exploring exciting, out-of-the-ordinary themes within the genre, and that, I think, counts for a lot.