The Manor - New Release Review
Director: Axelle Carolyn
Starring: Barbara Hershey, Bruce Davison, Stacey Travis, Ciera Payton, Jill Larson and Mark Steger. Written by: Axelle Carolyn
Produced by: Jason Blum, Richard J Bosner, Lisa Bruce, Jeremy Gold and Sandy King
Cinematography by: Andrés Sánchez
Original Score by: Christopher Drake
After suffering a mild stroke, Judith Albright reluctantly moves into a historic nursing home where she becomes convinced a supernatural force is killing the residents.
I wasn’t expecting much from this Amazon Original production and while it didn’t necessarily wow me, I did enjoy it and was thoroughly impressed by the ending. With a title like ‘The Manor’, I thought this was going to be your run-of-the-mill haunted house tale (which I adore) but what I got was an honest look at the fears and anxieties of getting older and losing your body and mind to a degenerative disease, in this case dementia, through the lens of folk horror.
‘The Manor’ opens with our protagonist Judith celebrating her 70th birthday. Played by the beautiful Barbara Hershey, we’re immediately shown that Judith is not your average grandma. Her 1960s hippie spirit is alive and well, her aging body may have hindered her ability to dance as she did in her youth but not her passion, and she is very close with her grandson Josh, a horror-loving skater kid who returns his grandmother’s affection without embarrassment. That in itself is refreshing – our protagonist is an older woman, in possession of all her mental capabilities, (roles for older women tend to not be so kind in Hollywood) and she has a genuinely positive relationship with her grandson. They’re like friends and I loved that dynamic between them.
When Judith has a mild stroke, she is sent to the Manor, an assisted living facility outside of town. Surrounded by trees, this deceptively peaceful old house is shot beautifully by cinematographer Andrés Sánchez, whose use of dark tinted colours creates a sinister ambience. It quickly becomes clear that Judith does not belong here. Her roommate Annette is frail and mentally unstable, and the Manor’s other residents need more physical help than she does. This aspect of the story was brilliant as it not only sets up what is to come from the film’s climax, but it taps into many people’s real, genuine fears – getting old. We can’t stop it, we’re all heading down that road, and it’s scary. If this wasn’t a horror film, it easily could have been a rather sad drama about the horrors of old age.
Judith quickly befriends the only three other residents who seem to be as vibrant as she is – Roland, Trish, and Ruth. These three keep Judith in the land of the living, so to speak, making her terrifying encounters at night in her bedroom with a mysterious figure not only scarier, but more jarring when we see the contrast between how Judith is at night (filmed with cold blue tones and the camera looking down on her to highlight her frailty and helplessness) as opposed to the deceptively warm light of the daylight scenes where the three play cards. The more Judith sees the terrifying figure at night, the more convinced she becomes that something sinister is going on. Her friends warn her that any sign of illness is a death sentence at the Manor – “the only way you’re getting out of here is in a box”, one of her friends tell her – and their observations soon come true. After Judith falls because of the strange creature frightening her, she gets diagnosed with early on-set dementia. Judith knows she is in full possession of her mental capacity, but this desire to hold on to the life you knew before your diagnosis and sometimes straight up denial are legitimate signs of dementia. We know she doesn’t have dementia. Judith knows she doesn’t have dementia. But no-one believes her. That is horrifying, both in the world of the film and real life. Once she is diagnosed, all her worries about the strange creature haunting the rooms at night are dismissed as hallucinations, as are her convictions that there is a sinister conspiracy involving the systematic murder of the residents is going on inside the Manor.
Judith confides in Josh, who initially doesn’t believe her because he’s been told by his rather emotionally unavailable mother that Judith’s behaviour is the result of her diagnosis. But when Judith is found by Josh and his mother after she briefly escapes from the Manor and sees a 40 year old photograph of her three friends, looking exactly as they do now, Josh tracks down the photograph and researches a strange symbol Trish has on her arm. Josh sneaks into the Manor and assures his grandma that he believes her, much to her and our relief, and reveals the symbol is some kind of pagan Tree of Life. In a tension filled scene where Judith and Josh sneak into Roland’s room to find evidence and hide under his bed, the pair discover that Roland has not only hidden Judith’s proof that there is a conspiracy, but that he has a lock of her hair; creepy and witchy.
Judith and Josh witness Roland climb down the side of the building, head first in a manner similar to Count Dracula, and they follow him to the woods to an enormous tree Judith’s only friend on the staff, Liesal, showed her at the start of the film. In a rather gruesome scene, Judith and Josh discover that Roland, Trish, and Ruth have been sacrificing the lives of their fellow residents to a pagan god through witchcraft rituals in exchange for returning to their youth at night. The production design here is absolutely brilliant – the tree does indeed feel old and otherworldly, and the pagan god creature is like a living tree.
In a clever twist where Roland becomes the next sacrifice instead of Judith, Judith is offered a choice by Ruth and Trish – burn the tree down to stop any more residents dying or join them and be young again. When Josh begs his grandma not to leave him alone, Judith accepts their offer. I was not expecting this at all! I fully expected Judith to burn the tree down and sacrifice her chance at youth to do the right thing. But instead, Judith does what she has to do to avoid being stuck in a broken body with a decaying mind. The film ends with young Trish, Ruth and Judith at a campfire at the tree, a youthful Judith dancing as she did many years ago.
This ending is brilliant as it not only goes where you don’t expect it to, but it also leaves us with a question – would you sacrifice the lives of the elderly, who already have broken bodies and minds, as a mercy to prevent yourself from going the same way?
Overall, nothing particularly ground-breaking in terms of cinematic technique, but a bloody brilliant story with a surprising ending.
- Victoria Brown