“Madres,” a new film directed by Ryan Zaragoza, claims to be “inspired by true events,” like many paranormal thrillers before it. But unlike many of those films, this one isn’t borrowing from urban legends or famous ghost stories — it’s drawing on verifiable atrocities committed against Latina women. “The Manor,” which Amazon is releasing alongside “Madres” as part of their “Welcome to the Blumhouse” series of horror films, also tells a story of marginalized womanhood, albeit with a septuagenarian protagonist. Though vastly different in setting, both films offer refreshingly rare protagonists, yielding spirited — if occasionally middling — results.
“Madres” takes place in the 1970s, as the mother-to-be Diana (Ariana Guerra) moves to a migrant community with her husband, Beto (Tenoch Huerta). A passionate investigative journalist, Diana is loath to leave her native Los Angeles, but she uncovers a wealth of new material when it appears a sinister force is harming the town’s pregnant Latina women. The ensuing investigation catalyzes social tensions between Diana, a light-skinned Mexican American, and her darker-skinned husband that are almost more fascinating than the mystery itself. A subdued score and some by-the-book camerawork can make this urgent story drag, but what it lacks in sting it makes up for with an original script (by Marcella Ochoa and Mario Miscione) and a ferociously pregnant protagonist who would make the “Fargo” character Marge Gunderson proud.
Set at a present-day nursing home, “The Manor,” written and directed by Axelle Carolyn, focuses on the intersection between sexism and ageism. After the protagonist Judith (a fantastic Barbara Hershey) moves into assisted living following a stroke, she suspects the staff are up to something nefarious. Naturally nobody believes her, and her mental competency is soon up for debate. With the help of her goth grandson Josh (Nicholas Alexander), Judith must unravel a deranged conspiracy before it claims her life.
Uncommon is the film that centers on grandmother-grandson relationships, let alone one that shows a relationship like Judith and Josh’s. Josh clearly worships his take-no-crap grandma, and the two bond over the macabre: He texts her “Psycho” references, she quizzes him on horror trivia in the parlor of the old folks’ home. At one point, Judith admonishes Josh for swearing and he counters that she cusses all the time. This is delightfully true — Judith drops expletives like she’s one of the kids in “Stranger Things.”
Despite some flat cinematography and borderline goofy special effects, “The Manor” gives us a distinctive 70-year-old woman as its protagonist and a twisty ending sure to polarize. It and “Madres” are both a bit half-baked, but their foundations are inventive enough to distract from some sloppy construction.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 23 minutes. Watch on Amazon.
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 21 minutes. Watch on Amazon.