For personal reasons, The Manor may have been one of those “too soon” movie choices for me to watch on a cold, dark October night. The story of a family dropping their elderly mother off at a nursing home because of her looming health issues, sent a chill of very recent recognition through me. When Judith Albright (Barbara Hershey) checks into her new home, a “manor” that is now an assisted living facility, her skate-punk grandson (Nicholas Alexander), looks around in shock at the vacant and wheelchair-bound and says pleadingly, “You don’t belong here.” Judith, still spry but having recently suffered a stroke, squares her shoulders to make the best of it. She doesn’t want her family have to deal with her looming health problems.
Judith is indeed zestful and gorgeous: her long silver hair, former dancer’s gait, and yes her Barbara Hershey Hollywood genetics, make her seem years younger than all of her new neighbors and her delirious and emotionally paralyzed roommate. But she finds new pals in a trio of buddies who seem to be holding onto their youthful outlook: Roland, Trish, and Ruth (Bruce Davison, Jill Larson, and Fran Bennett, all having a grand time). They cackle while playing bridge (which they admit is a cliché), smoke pot, and welcome sharing the flask that Judith brings to tea time.
But there is something weird, and yes, sinister going on at The Manor. When Judith cheeks the sedative given to all the residents before bed, she finds terrifying things happening at night. Is that a shape in the room with her? A man? A monster? Maybe her terrified roommate isn’t crazy. And should people die so regularly in a nursing home? Something not right is going on at The Manor, even when the staff and her new buddies brush off her stories. Then things get much worse: The Manor’s doctor dismisses Judith’s night terrors as hallucinations and bad dreams, and she suddenly finds herself with a dementia diagnosis, with her family retreating and her freedoms taken away.
The interesting thing is that if you take away the supernatural vibes and the monsters that go bump in the night, The Manor would still come across as a horror movie, especially for the boomer generation. At one point, Judith says in defiance, “Oh, fuck this!” And who wouldn’t, when surrounded by peers that seem to have given up, and a staff that treats you like a child?
In our culture, eternal youth is coveted, idealized, and longed for while older people disappear from pop culture and the media. Illness, aging, and death are not discussed, and old folks often disappear from society behind closed doors. So when the mystery of The Manor is slowly revealed, it is perhaps not so surprising. What is more telling, perhaps, is how seductive such a fucked-up deal with darkness can be when reality is already pretty shitty. This dark twist makes The Manor unexpectedly relatable.