Rosemary in Brooklyn, by Craig Schroeder
Stewart Thorndike’s feature film Lyle is being billed as a “sinister ode to Rosemary’s Baby”. But the film is less an homage to Roman Polanski’s seminal classic as it is a total re-imagining. Lyle treads the same water, dodging the same nefarious characters. But a languid repurposing of a beloved film, Lyle is not. Instead, Thorndike manages to subvert the themes of Rosemary’s Baby, all the while, maintaining the same purveying feeling of dread and paranoia that soaked every frame of Polanski’s 1968 film.
Leah, played brilliantly by Gabby Hoffman, is moving into a beautiful Brooklyn neighborhood with her partner June and their young baby-girl Lyle. Leah and June live in a building with a strange mixture of women; a group of beautiful, yet distant models are always milling about the front of the building, and below them is a kooky woman who often pretends to be pregnant despite her obvious old age. When Lyle accidentally falls to her death from their upstairs window, June and a newly pregnant Leah must find a way to move on with their life; that is if Leah can figure out whether the bizarre happenings in their apartments are just a byproduct of her grief and hormones or if there is something more sinister lurking within the walls of their Brownstone.
Though horror films have seen a bit of an intellectual resurgence in the past few years—what with the likes of Ti West, Adam Wingard, E.L. Katz and numerous other thoughtful filmmakers whose films secrete dread like a leaky paint can—a female perspective in horror is still sorely lacking. Though Stewart Thorndike (don’t let the first name fool you) may be the female director the horror genre needs. At only sixty-five minutes, the film has an incredibly vast scope; not only does it work quite well as a horror film, but it is making incredibly affecting statements on what it means to be a woman, a mother and a companion. And with a cast of almost all women—the one exception being comedian, and newest Daily Show correspondent, Michael Che, playing Leah’s friend Threes—Lyle is a wonderful showcase of lesser known female actors.
Though I enjoyed the film quite a bit, it would almost certainly be a lesser achievement without the presence of Gabby Hoffman as Leah. Hoffman is an actress who has been circling the fringes of a leading role, though she’s almost always the most interesting thing happening on screen. This year alone she has not just proven her worth but stolen her scenes in Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child and in the HBO show Girls. Hoffman portrays Leah with unapologetic realism. So often characters in horror films (especially women) devolve into archetypes, but Hoffman allows herself to be the kind of vulnerable that’s needed in horror films, but without ever compromising the integrity of her character’s core personality.
The film is able to maintain a sense of dread and paranoia by allowing the audience to know as much as Leah knows (though a good bit of that dread can be attributed to Grant Greenberg’s simple though haunting cinematography). However, that dread deflates near the film’s climax, when Thorndike attempts to shine a light on the source of Leah’s torment. The monsters of reality are never as scary as the monsters of our imagination; and unfortunately for Lyle—a film that spends ninety percent of its run time creating some of the scariest monsters we can’t see—when it allows its monsters to peek out from the shadows, it leaves the audience incredulous, asking “Is this what I’ve been so scared of?!”.
Lyle is a film that I can imagine being fairly divisive, especially among devotees of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby. But tolabel Lyle as a “rip-off” or to dismiss the similarities between the two films, is to miss the point that Stewart Thorndike is working for. Thorndike relies on the audience’s familiarity with Polanski’s film, so that she may subvert any expectations the audience brings into the theater. Rosemary’s Baby is the construction scaffolding to Stewart Thorndike’s Lyle: it’s hard not to notice it, but when it’s gone the structure can stand on its own.