By ROCCO T. THOMPSON
A malevolent force preys upon the residents of a sleepy nursing home in THE MANOR, a gothic tale of terror with a modern twist from writer/director Axelle Carolyn (Tales of Halloween).
When a mild stroke diminishes her ability to care for herself, Judith Albright (Barbara Hershey) moves to Golden Sun Manor, an assisted living facility with a sterling reputation. But despite the best efforts of the staff, and a budding friendship with fellow senior Roland (Bruce Davison), strange occurrences and nightmarish visions convince Judith that a sinister presence is haunting the massive estate. As residents begin to die mysteriously, Judith’s frantic warnings are dismissed as fantasy. Even her devoted grandson Josh (Nicholas Alexander) thinks her fears are the result of dementia, not demons. With no one willing to believe her, Judith must either escape the confines of the manor, or fall victim to the evil that dwells within it.
Best known for her work on episodes of celebrated horror series’ such as The Haunting of Bly Manor and Creepshow, THE MANOR is part of Amazon Prime‘s Welcome to the Blumhouse film series, and marks Carolyn’s first feature-length effort since 2013’s Soulmate. RUE MORGUE sat down with the writer/director to discuss the personal nature of the film, what it was like working with a genre icon like Barbara Hershey, and the advice John Carpenter offered her during the shoot.
The Manor is obviously deeply personal to you. Can you tell us a bit about the seed that it germinated from?
It was inspired by general fears that I’ve always had that crystallized [when] my granddad moved into a nursing home, and visiting him there and seeing how the environment was affecting him and changing the way that he was and [how] the way that he was treated was changing his independence and agency. Then, seeing my dad go through dementia, and also end up in a nursing home at a very young age, and how quickly he changed. All those things are really hard to watch and very affecting. And I think that, to me, the best way to process things like that is always through supernatural stories. I guess, you write what’s in your head. It’s a script that was very easy to start writing, because it was so present in my head. And that was quite a while ago, we shot the movie two years ago already. It took a while to get it made, so those concerns evolved from being more about dementia originally into my concerns about the way that we treat older people. Especially older women, the way that we seem to think that, over a certain age, a woman has lost her usefulness. I wanted to [create] a really positive role model, someone I aspire to be, who would be of that age.
In addition to all of that the casting of Barbara Hershey is interesting, because she’s obviously know for being very glamorous and very beautiful. Do you think that added an extra layer to the film?
Well, here’s the thing, it feels like when you watch movies about older people, and especially horror movies, there’s this whole tradition of, what they’ve horribly called hagsploitation – What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? up to The Taking of Deborah Logan. [Both of which] I love, but there’s a way of depicting women of a certain age that’s always hinting towards the grotesque and the scary. It’s very profoundly wrong at the end of the day, so, I wanted to do something that had older characters but presented in a very positive image. Like, if I turned out to be someone like Judith at that age, I would love that. I told Barbara very clearly, “I wrote the character that I want to be at that age.” I want to be funny. I want to be charismatic. I want to be cool. I want to be liked by younger people, not because I’m related to them, but because I’m generally still fun. I want to be strong and not take shit from people and all those things that she has. I think that Barbara really embodies [that] and took to heart, she really liked that idea, she played with that and went along with it.
Did you write it with her in mind?
I didn’t write with anyone specific in mind. If anything, the language was maybe inspired by Lin Shaye, but I didn’t feel like she was necessarily going to play it. I wasn’t writing Lin, but I am very good friends with Lin, [and] I’ve spent a lot of time absorbing the language that she uses. She swears a lot, which, funnily, was one of the concerns that people had when they read the script! I had examples in mind of the kind of person she would be, but I didn’t have an actor in mind. Barbara, she has such an ability to be gorgeous but also bring out that scarier side of her, and here she really brought the more vulnerable side, I think. It’s probably a side I haven’t seen in other genre movies that she’s made for sure.
She says that the swearing is part of what drew her to it, by the way!
That’s awesome. Fuck, yeah!
The film obviously takes its cues from Gothic horror. Why was that the right template for the story you were trying to tell?
I don’t even control that. It’s what I love. It’s what I like to be surrounded with. I grew up on Hammer movies. Any day of the week, I would watch a Hammer movie. My comfort movie is Sleepy Hollow. [Those are] the kind of visuals that I like to put on screen. But I also feel like there’s a world where you can make this movie and make it very real life scary, and affecting. You can only make movies that reflect who you are. You don’t even have a choice, actually. Even if you were trying to make something that’s not true to who you are, that would never happen. I think I wanted this to be a mystery. I wanted this to be supernatural and intriguing and visually interesting and have a slight, almost fairytale quality to it, and that’s the aspect that fits with Gothic horror.
I very much didn’t want this to be a depressing movie. I didn’t want people to feel like, “Oh, I’m not going to watch that because I’m going to feel bad about myself, or I’m going to feel scared about other people I love.” I wanted this to be kind of there’s those themes and they’re there for you to think about if you want to, but here’s a ride you’re hopefully going to enjoy. Again, I feel like Gothic horror is the best way to navigate those waters and keep that, reminding people that this is a fantasy. This is fine.
Were there any specific films that you turned to for inspiration?
The biggest one was Rosemary’s Baby, which I feel is such a bullshit answer because every filmmaker at some point will tell you, “Oh, wait a minute, this is my Rosemary’s Baby.” [Laughs] I like the pacing. I like the fact that it’s character-based. Those were very big influences. Despite the supernatural [elements], what’s scariest is the agency being taken away from your character. It’s the world around her closing on her and people not trusting her. And sometimes [people] do that for your own good and generally mean well. That’s not so much the case of Rosemary’s Baby, but just to hear, in the case of an elderly person, even the people who love them treat them differently and don’t necessarily know how to deal with what they’re talking about, and how isolating that has to be…all those things seem like the scariest side of it.
So, you said THE MANOR was shot two years ago. Did you work in tandem on this with your recent television projects?
Kind of. I shot this, and then I did the director’s cut, and then I went to Vancouver to do Bly Manor as I was still editing. So, while I was prepping, I would prep during the day and then go back at night and speak with my editor, and see what he’d been doing and what adjustments he’d gone through. Then after Bly, the world shut down, and it took a little bit of time to get the movie back on track. But we didn’t have that much of a break. I think we had a week to figure out how we were going to edit remotely and that was that. Post was really hard because I did color and sound on an iPad. So, I hope it looks good! [Laughs] I mean, I hope you can see it on the big screen at some point and that it still holds up. Then Creepshow was a few months later and American Horror Story was this year. I’ve worked and waited my whole life to get the chance to make that much horror in so little time!
It’s a really fantastic run, and it’s really cool that even though you did shoot this two years ago, you’ve had this build-up and people are just now getting to see a full-length feature from you.
I was going to say, I hope that it still reflects how I feel about all those topics and everything because people change, and I change. Sometimes you look back at your work and you think you would make things differently. But sometimes when it’s something that’s deeper, like, “Would I still feel the same about these choices?” I was thinking of the ending in particular. Yeah, I would still feel the same about these choices, absolutely.
So, let’s talk about the ending! Apparently, people on set were a little divided about it, Barbara liked the ending, but she doesn’t know how it’ll be received. What’s do you think the audience response will be?
I think that we also debated whether she would make the same decision [as her character], and that’s for her to answer, but I think our views diverged on that. On set, some crew member came up to me and was like, “I wouldn’t do that.” And I’m like, “You’re 22. Fuck off. Of course, you wouldn’t.” [Laughs] It’s just to me, it seemed like it was the only thing that was true to myself, to where I’m at, to what I feel about aging gracefully, and to the character. She’s a rebel. She doesn’t do what she’s told. She loves her grandson, and she feels like this is partly for him as well. I mean, we did a lot of finessing to make it something that doesn’t turn people off completely at the end, so it doesn’t feel like she’s suddenly becoming someone else. So, it feels consistent. I’m hoping it does. I’m hoping that even if people disagree with what she’s doing, it doesn’t seem like it completely comes out of nowhere for the character. I’m hoping that they still feel like this is something that we’ve planted that from the beginning.
I know you’re acquainted with John Carpenter. Did he have any advice for you?
Yes, he told me to sit a lot! That was his advice. Sandy King is just a fierce tiger of a woman who would defend [any] filmmaker, tooth and claw, and I adore her. This one day in prep, we had a really hard day, a lot of stuff fell apart, and I called her and I was like, “Look, I’m just… phew, I don’t know how to process this.” And she was just like, “Come on [over].” Then, here I am, trying to feel better about the movie, while John was watching basketball. I was like, “Hey, do you have advice for me? I’m about to start shooting.” And he’s like, “Sit a lot. Your back will hurt.” [Laughs] And he’s right. I love that he said that because it gives me permission. There’s a lot of filmmakers who go, “I never sit on set. I’m always busy, y’all.” And I’m like, “No, my back hurts.” [Laughs] These are long days.
THE MANOR is available now, exclusively on Amazon Prime.