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December 31, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Axelle Carolyn
Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “The Manor” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: A retired dance teacher checks herself into a manor facility for senior citizens and finds out that mysterious and deadly things are happening in this facility.
Culture Audience: “The Manor” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Barbara Hershey and formulaic stories about nursing homes from hell.
“The Manor” starts off as an intriguing movie showing parallels between a horror story and people’s fear of aging and diseases. But the movie is ruined by a campy ending, which has a big decision that will leave viewers divided. One of the problems with “The Manor” is that it tries to frontload the movie with too much in the first two-thirds of the film, and then rushes to explain everything in the last third of the film. Not everything is adequately explained by the end of the movie, which badly mishandles depictions of Parkinson’s disease.
“The Manor” is part of Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series partnership with Prime Video to showcase horror/thriller movies directed by women and people of color. Written and directed by Axelle Carolyn, “The Manor” should be commended for at least trying to do something different in a horror movie, by having the protagonist/lead character as a woman who’s in her 70s. It’s also rare for a horror movie to be set in a nursing home.
However, this concept could have been treated with better attention to details over the health issues that are crucial to the plot. “The Manor” has some genuinely creepy cinematography, and the visual effects are adequate. But there are too many moments that stretch the bounds of credibility, even for a fictional horror movie. One of the biggest flaws of “The Manor” is the mind-boggling, sloppy inconsistency in depicting how the main character has Parkinson’s disease.
At the opening scene of “The Manor,” retired dance teacher Judith Albright (played by Barbara Hershey) is celebrating her 70th birthday at an outdoor party. Judith is a widow whose dance specialty was ballet. Everyone seems to be good cheer. Among the party attendees are Judith’s widowed daughter Barbara (played by Katie Amanda Keane) and Barbara’s 17-year-old son Josh (played by Nicholas Alexander), who has a close relationship with Judith. Suddenly, Judith collapses at the party.
The movie then fast-forwards to six months later. Judith is shown checking voluntarily into Golden Sun Manor Nursing Home, which is a large estate on a sprawling property near a wooded area in an unnamed U.S. city. (“The Manor” was actually filmed in Los Angeles.) It’s revealed that Judith has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and might be showing signs of dementia. Josh doesn’t think Judith belongs in a nursing home, but his mother Barbara thinks it’s the best decision for Judith because Barbara can’t or won’t be responsible for taking care of Judith.
For someone who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, Judith is unrealistically nimble and in firm control of her muscles and motor skills. She’s never seen shaking uncontrollably, and she has no problems speaking. “The Manor” would have been more believable if the movie just didn’t even have Parkinson’s disease as one of Judith’s health problems and just made her someone who might be showing signs of dementia.
The dementia part of the movie is why Judith is constantly doubted when she describes her terrifying visions and suspicions that people are being harmed at the nursing home. Judith’s suspicions start when she begins to see a strange creature lurking at night in the room that Judith shares with a wheelchair-using woman named Annette (played by Nancy Linehan Charles), who has Alzheimer’s disease.
Annette rarely talks, but when she does, it’s often incoherent rambling. During one of the few times that Annette can speak clearly, she shouts out a warning to Judith: “Don’t you see? He’s watching us sleep!” It’s enough to confirm to Judith that Annette can see this ominous creature too. But who’s going to believe two people with faulty memories and diminished abilities to distinguish between reality and fantasy?
And just to make sure that Judith will feel more helpless, she’s told when she checks into the nursing home that the residents aren’t allowed to have cell phones. The excuse is that cell phones aren’t allowed, in order to have “peace and quiet” in the building. It’s just a horror movie’s way to prevent characters in distress to be unable to use a cell phone to call for help.
Judith acts surprised by this “no cell phones” rule, but the stern nursing home director Ms. Benson (played by Stacey Travis) reminds Judith that this rule was in the contract that Judith signed. Judith’s only real lifeline to the outside world is her grandson Josh, who visits her on a regular basis. Eventually, Judith tells Josh about her horrifying suspicions about the nursing home.
At one point, Judith is officially diagnosed with dementia by the resident physician Dr. Geoghegan (played by Andrew Tinpo Lee), who tells Barbara that Judith is required to have constant supervision because of her dementia. It means that the nursing home’s staff will have more control over her life. The two staffers whom Judith is in contact with the most are a friendly attendant named Liesel (played by Ciera Payton) and a no-nonsense manager named Elizabeth (played by Shelley Robertson), who always seems to be on the lookout for residents doing something wrong.
Elizabeth and a registered nurse named Gary (played by Devin Kawaoka) are the two staffers most likely to use physical force to subdue a resident or to force a resident to do something that the resident doesn’t want to do. At one point, Judith witnesses Gary overpowering a frightened resident named Imogen (played by Cissy Wellman), who lives across the hall from Judith. As Imogen is forced back into her room, Imogen screams, “I want to go home!”
It’s not the last disturbing thing that Judith will see in this nursing home. And at different points in the movie, Imogen tries to give signals to other people that she wants to escape. Meanwhile, Judith balks at any attempt to get Judith to take medication that will sedate her.
Judith’s new living situation is brightened by the fact that she makes three new friends in the nursing home: Trish (played by Jill Larson) and Ruth (played by Fran Bennett) are talkative roommates. Roland (played by Bruce Davison) is a widower who seems immediately attracted to Judith. The four of them often sit together for meals, and talk about their lives, including a lot of reminiscing about their youth.
Judith confides in her new friends that her relationship with Barbara has some tension. Judith explains that after Barbara’s husband/Josh’s father died, Barbara had a hard time coping, and Judith found herself helping take care of Josh. As a result, Judith and Josh grew closer emotionally, but Barbara has some resentment over this closeness. “He keeps me young,” Judith says proudly about Josh. “He’s the light of my life.”
Judith is allowed to walk outside on the nursing home property, as long as a staffer is with her. During one of Judith’s first tours of the outdoor area, Ciera takes her to a picture-perfect part of the woods that she says is a popular spot for young local trespassers to gather at night and party. “The Manor” is not subtle at all in showing that there’s a tree in this part of the woods that’s “special,” because there’s an almost-blinding white glow around the tree, every time it’s shown in the movie.
Despite the seemingly picturesque surroundings, too many odd and unsettling things are happening to Judith for her to think that the nursing home is a safe place. And when Judith suddenly starts acting like a senior citizen Nancy Drew by snooping around in rooms where she’s not supposed to be, her Parkinson’s disease is all but forgotten. She’s able to quickly crawl underneath a bed to hide from someone, she makes lightning-fast deductions like a seasoned detective, and she vigorously fights back against staffers who try to subdue her.
It all just leads to a shoddily filmed conclusion that’s not earned or believable. Hershey does her best to play a role that gives her a lot of screen time to show some acting range. However, she’s a talented actress who deserved a much better showcase than what is essentially a substandard horror movie that makes an insulting mockery of real health problems faced by people with Parkinson’s disease.
Prime Video premiered “The Manor” on October 8, 2021.