This weekend marks the much-noted 50th anniversary of “The French Connection’s” release. “The Manor” perhaps inadvertently stirs memories of another William Friedkin joint, 1990 horror “The Guardian,” which was so disliked by the director that he omitted mentioning it in his otherwise fairly comprehensive memoirs. This addition to the second “Welcome to the Blumhouse” quartet of genre features likewise offers an evil tree-entity, to perhaps less campily absurd results — which is both a good and a bad thing.
Writer-director Axelle Carolyn’s second solo feature (following 2013’s ghost story “Soulmate”) provides a welcome starring vehicle for Barbara Hershey, who hasn’t had one in some years. But the story of a new resident’s discovering sinister doings at a nursing home proves pretty tepid in terms of suspense and thrills, to the point where a few unintentional laughs might have been welcome. Completing the current “Welcome” package, “The Manor” makes its Amazon Prime bow alongside “Madres” on Oct. 8.
At her 70th birthday party, still-youthful widow Judith (Hershey) suffers a mild stroke. Three months later, she’s insisted on moving into a luxe elder-care facility, explaining “Whenever I become … diminished, I don’t want my family to see me like that.” That decision is upsetting to grandson Josh (Nicholas Alexander of “Adam”), though it seems just fine by his mom, Barbara (Katie Amanda Keane), who resents the bond forged between him and her mother after her own husband died.
At the facility, Judith is a little taken aback by some of the fine-print conditions she’d unknowingly agreed to, including a no-cellphone policy, and the fact that residents are not allowed to walk the grounds on their own. While some staff (such as Ciera Payton’s attendant Liesel) are nice, others (notably those played by Shelley Robertson and Stacey Travis) strike more Nurse Ratched-like notes of imperious control. As Judith remains in full charge of her faculties, it is disconcerting for her to be housed alongside those pretty “far gone,” like her mentally and physically feeble roommate Annette (Nancy Linehan Charles). On the upside, there are several livelier personalities present, three of whom invite her into their little social clique: Ruth (Fran Bennett), Trish (Jill Larson) and the flirtatious Roland (Bruce Davison).
Judith soon notices select residents suffering apparent night terrors, then gets a considerable scare herself upon glimpsing some kind of creature bent over Annette’s bed late one evening. She’s assured she must have been having a nightmare; when she detects more signs that something is very wrong here, she’s diagnosed as suffering dementia. That gives staff an excuse to tell relatives she shouldn’t be allowed off-site at all, once she’s terrified enough to make a run for it. Even devoted Josh comes to doubt her sanity, though eventually he too realizes there’s “some ‘Wicker Man’ magic” afoot hereabouts.
There’s an attractive visual polish to “The Manor,” its principal setting landing somewhere between vacation resort and “Dark Shadows” as shot by DP Andres Sanchez, with Tracy Dishman’s production design also a plus. But these and other factors don’t actually add up to much in the way of ominous atmospherics. The odd clumsy stab at a jump scare aside, Carolyn doesn’t demonstrate much affinity for, or interest in, building tension. Her screenplay feels a bit rushed, short on nuance and detail, yet pacing is lax.
An accomplished cast easily meets the demands made of it, but one wishes it had been given more to chew on. Even Hershey, on-screen nonstop, can’t locate much in the material to distinguish Barbara beyond her penchant for the occasional F-bomb. The character’s dance background at least provides a wink toward “Black Swan,” which provided one of this performer’s more memorable latter-day big-screen turns. But if you’re hoping Judith might tap the kind of resources Hershey once powerfully brought to challenging roles in the likes of “A World Apart,” “Shy People” or even prior horror vehicle “The Entity,” you’re out of luck.
At the same time, the veteran star seems in such fine fettle, we can’t quite believe this heroine would consign herself to a nursing home, even one without supernatural menaces. “The Manor” hardly aims to be a serious drama about mortality or senility. Still, its take on aging is annoyingly simplistic at times, ultimately resting on the tired notion that anyone would do anything to regain precious youth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the best-realized character by default here is Alexander’s teenager, who at least credibly acts his age.
In the end, “The Manor” sticks too close to the “Welcome to the Blumhouse” template to date, admirably bringing new talent and under-represented demographics (in this case seniors) to genre material — but with that material lacking real edge or excitement, despite its slick presentation. Eight films in, the series has yet to produce a standout.