Spoiler alert: The following story includes a discussion of the ending of Amazon Studios’ “Welcome to the Blumhouse” installment “The Manor.” There will be another warning before that section.
Axelle Carolyn’s “The Manor” is the rare horror movie to feature a protagonist over the age of 60. The film stars Oscar nominee Barbara Hershey as Judith Albright, a woman who recently suffered a mild stroke and is moved into a nursing home whose residents are being targeted by a supernatural force.
The gothic horror, written and directed by Carolyn, is one of four films released in the second installment of Amazon Studios and Blumhouse Television’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” anthology, now streaming on Prime Video.
“It was a really hard script to find a home for because we’re talking about ageism,” said Carolyn. “It’s incredibly difficult to get a movie made if your lead is a woman in her 70s. A lot of places really liked the script but then wanted us to replace it with a mental institution or change it somehow so that we would get away from the subject matter.”
“The Manor,” along with the other three films in this slate of Blumhouse films — “Madres,” “Black as Night” and “Bingo Hell” — was made on a shoestring budget as part of the production company’s mission to uplift emerging filmmakers from diverse backgrounds.
“I like that they’re supporting and giving young filmmakers like Axelle a chance,” said Hershey. “That’s something that they’re doing with their ever-growing power and I applaud that.”
“It started out much more of a drama, but you kind of have to fit into a certain model with the movies we’re making here,” said Carolyn. “There’s certain expectations that are placed on it that the movie kind of has to conform to. I’ve done a lot of independent films; I have not worked on anything that could be considered studio level, so that was my first experience navigating diplomacy and the different expectations that companies might have for your movie. It was a learning curve, but I’m very grateful I got to make this movie without changing the nature of it.”
The Times caught up with Carolyn and Hershey to discuss ageism, society’s mistreatment of the elderly and exactly what makes a nursing home so scary.
What made you want to write a horror film centered around an older woman? Where did the initial seed of the idea come from?
Axelle Carolyn: A bunch of different elements. The first was seeing people in my family end up in nursing homes. I think going into a nursing home and seeing the reality of aging — you confront your own mortality in some ways. And the way that I tend to channel difficult emotions — because I’m such a horror fan and because that’s the way that I write — is to come up with supernatural stories.
The other thing is that we always seem to treat older people in movies and media in general like they’re a different type of person. Like suddenly they turn into these crumpet-making, cookie-baking, cute little people who are not [like] who we are right now. I wanted to have a character [who was] amazing, charismatic, sexy, badass and funny [like] most of the women of a certain age [that I know]. If we had better role models, it would make it a lot easier to see yourself in their place.
Of all the -isms, ageism often goes unchecked in our society today. Why do you think that is?
AC: I’m not sure, but I think it’s particularly true for women. We always seem to praise very, very young women, and you can see it in Hollywood [how] over the age of 35, it becomes much harder [for women] to get certain roles. There are definitely barriers that are placed on women as they get older. And I can’t speak to where it comes from, but it definitely has to change, especially in a society where we remain healthy and happy for much longer.
Barbara Hershey: I think probably all of the -isms are born of fear. If we could see role models around us who, as they age, are healthy, vital, sexual, interesting, evolved, curious and very much alive, then it’s not such a fearsome thing. It’s one of the things that attracted me to the script and this character; [Judith] embodied all of those things. It’s sadly rare and was a welcome thing to get to play.
I’m always shocked that film doesn’t embrace the truth of what it is to get older, which is where we’re all going anyway. You look at a show like “Game of Thrones” where they have characters of all ages and the audience loved all of them. I think young people are capable of loving older characters and vice versa. We’re all human beings. The quicker we get rid of the -isms, the better off we’ll all be.
AC: I was reading a really interesting [article] recently saying that one of the reasons it’s so difficult to convince people that they need to save for their retirement is that there is somehow a mental block when it comes to imagining yourself when you get over retirement age. And it’s true, when I try to picture myself, I have no idea what kind of person I will be. There was a study saying that it’s almost like we treat our own older selves like strangers.
Barbara, what attracted you to this character and to this story?
BH: She embodies all of those elements that I described that I sadly don’t see in film very often. Usually as people age, they have these clichés laid on them in terms of imagery. She seemed to break the bounds of all of that. And her relationship with her grandson to me wasn’t a relationship between a grandmother and a grandson, but two human beings who are crazy about each other and laugh together and love each other. It just seemed to break all of those boundaries down, which I think is a really healthy thing and was certainly fun and fulfilling to play.
Can you talk about the themes of society’s mistreatment and exploitation of the elderly underlying the movie?
AC: I have to say, I have great respect for the work of nursing home staff; I think they’re doing an incredibly difficult job. But I think it goes back to that idea that we can’t really picture ourselves as our [elderly] selves. We also very often have trouble communicating with people whose abilities have started to diminish, in particular people who have cognitive or physical issues.
Even trained staff sometimes [struggle] to know how to help. My dad had advanced dementia when he was moved into a nursing home and I remember when we went the first time, my mom asked what do we do if he needs something. And they said, “All he has to do is press a button.” And she said, “He has dementia, he will not remember new things. So how do we do this?” The fact that a place where they specifically [serve] those kinds of patients hadn’t really thought of that, or had but hadn’t come up with a solution, [shows] there are challenges that are incredibly hard to solve.
BH: My mother also had dementia and one of the things that was difficult was that not only was she frightened about what she perceived was happening around her but she was so in pain at not being believed that these things were real. And the script dealt so directly with not being heard or believed, and it evolves with Judith questioning herself like, “Is this what dementia feels like? Is this what going crazy feels like?” All of that was really fascinating to me and wonderful to get to play with under the surface.
What do you think it is about nursing homes and assisted living facilities that make them a perfect setting for a horror story?
AC: You have vulnerable people whose abilities are starting to decline, whose own minds they sometimes have trouble trusting. And they’re stuck in a place where communication is difficult, where even people who mean well have trouble hearing and understanding and figuring out how to help. And where, for your own good, you’re locked inside. My dad had a tendency to go on walks and he’d have no idea where he was. He got lost for two days before he went to a nursing home and that was one of the defining factors. So your world gets smaller and smaller and very often if your symptoms manifest as [fear], you will be locked in the very place that you’re scared of.
The experience of not knowing how to communicate must be incredibly isolating. I remember with my dad, you could see in his eyes that he had a thought and it would be gone before he could express it. How incredibly isolating and depressing it must be. So there’s a lot of elements that thematically were very rich. And also in a horror movie we always try to justify: Why can’t she call for help? Why is her cellphone not working? Why is she not running away from this place? And all of this is kind of answered by, Well, she’s in a nursing home, there are rules [in place that limit outside contact].
Warning: A discussion of the final scene of “The Manor” follows.
Why did you decide to end the film with Judith making the choice that she does? Barbara, do you agree or disagree with your character’s decision?
BH: I thought long and hard about it, but I don’t know. You’d like to think you’d react a certain way, but when confronted with the reality of the situation, it’s hard to know what I’d choose. I know that a huge element in her choice is the voice of her grandson. I’m not sure she would have otherwise.
AC: I’m hoping that people will feel like it’s reasonably consistent with her character, who is rebellious and has a little bit of a teenage streak about her and likes to go against expectations. It’s not that she doesn’t want to get old, it’s that she resents the way doors are being slammed in her face as she is perceived differently: She can’t dance, her friends turn away from her when she can’t teach their kids to dance anymore. When she goes into a nursing home, people stop visiting, people stop giving her the same independence.
I’d lost my dad pretty recently when I wrote this and I was thinking, “If I’d had the chance to resort to some supernatural means to keep him with me, would I have done that?” Yeah, there’s an argument that perhaps I would have.
BH: But there’s a question also that in order to do that, you have to kill people. That’s a big part of it. You have to become a murderer.
AC: Fighting nature always comes at a cost.
BH: But at cost to who, that’s the question.
AC: I think that’s kind of what society is doing right now. We are sacrificing our old to make life easier for the young and we’re all kind of guilty of that to a degree. We’re all obsessed with Botox and fillers and all in that quest [for eternal youth], so it was just a provocative way of trying to get people to think about that — and what drives us to try to stay young and pursue youth at all costs.