For as long as she can remember, writer-director Axelle Carolyn has been preoccupied with the idea of getting older. “I think I’ve always been worried about aging and seeing my loved ones age and what it means and all that, ever since I was little,” she tells me on a recent phone call.
In her latest feature film, The Manor, Carolyn uses gothic horror as a tool to explore aging and ageism. The film, set for release via Amazon Prime on October 8, stars Barbara Hershey as Judith, a former dancer who moves into a nursing home following a health scare and begins to notice some unsettling occurrences.
“I’m sure everybody has had that experience, when you visit a loved one in a nursing home and feel like the very environment they’re in has affected who they are and how we look at them,” says Carolyn, mentioning the experience of seeing her college professor father in a nursing home as he dealt with illness and dementia. “It felt like such a huge disconnect with the person that I knew,” she recalls. “I think that you can’t help but be shaken by that.”
Over the years, Carolyn has carved out her own niche in horror. She made her feature-length directorial debut in 2013 with the ghost story Soulmate and followed it up with the anthology film Tales of Halloween. Since then, she has written for Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and directed episodes of The Haunting of Bly Manor, Creepshow, and American Horror Story: Double Feature. So, it makes sense that Carolyn would turn to horror to unpack the issues and emotions surrounding aging.
“I guess that my way of processing things is writing horror movies about them,” she says with a chuckle.
Carolyn also suspected that a nursing home would be a good setting for a horror story. “You can’t leave the house. People don’t give you the same freedom that you would have at home,” she explains. Despite that, The Manor was a hard sell.
“Even though a lot of people responded really well to it, they didn’t like that the protagonists were all in their seventies with the exception of the grandson, who is very much a secondary character,” says Carolyn. “A lot of places would tell me, can we change it to a mental institution and make it about younger people? Can we change it to make the grandson the main character, so that we see it through his eyes?”
None of those options were going to work with Carolyn’s vision. “I always felt very strongly that this was the story of Judith. It was the story of this woman who is going through this change and she is the one who sees weird things happen to her and experiences all these scary things,” she says. “It would have been dishonest to look at it through another protagonist’s eyes.”
What makes The Manor so riveting is that the audience sees fear through the perspective of a 70-year-old woman surrounded by people who dismiss her observations. It wasn’t an easy role to cast, Carolyn says, but the director found the perfect fit for Judith in Barbara Hershey. “She really gives grounding to a story that, at the end of the day, is supernatural,” says Carolyn.
The film was shot in Los Angeles in 2019, with a vintage house standing in as the nursing home. That’s reflective of Carolyn’s gothic horror aesthetic. “If you see my place and the kind of artwork I have on the walls and the kind of monsters that I have, it’s very much the kind of spooky castles and Universal Monsters and Hammer films from the ‘60s,” she says. “There’s always a tinge of fairy tale. It’s not completely real world.”
Of course, she wasn’t going to look to a typical nursing home setting for The Manor. “We didn’t go for a nursing home that was a cubical, sterile, white, cold environment that looks like a hospital, that looks like a lot of homes tend to be, very clean and clinical,” she says. “We went for something that looks beautiful and gothic and gorgeous and has shadows and dark spaces and shafts of light, all those aspects that I thought works well for the character.
“I’m very led by visuals, generally. I really like to craft colors and making a world that looks slightly different and choosing little objects that represent things and choosing the right house, the right tree. All those elements were very important,” Carolyn continues. “We didn’t have a ton of time in prep, so I was very lucky that we found that house. It’s just right in the center of downtown L.A.”
If you’ve seen Soulmate, which is also currently streaming on Prime, then you’ll notice the similarity in Carolyn’s films, with the emphasis on mood and supernatural elements.
“The supernatural feels very comfortable to me and it’s kind of reflected in the environments that I like to put on screen,” says Carolyn. “They are warm and inviting and places that I would like to live in.”
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