The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team Fangrrls comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. Today, we're examining a tension-filled film about parental loss, Lyle.
For her first feature, writer/director Stewart Thorndike made a film that only barely hits the "feature" mark. At just 65 minutes in length, Lyle is an ambitious, tense, Rosemary's Baby-inspired horror that delivers far more than its brief runtime would imply.
Leah (Gaby Hoffmann) and June (Ingrid Jungermann) move into a seemingly perfect — aren't they always? — Brooklyn brownstone with their toddler daughter, Lyle. Despite its size, natural light, and perfectly vintage crown molding, the pregnant Leah has a vague sense that something is off, not the least of which is the strange and overly friendly building manager, Karen (Rebecca Street). Shortly after moving in, a tragic accident and an open window change everything.
The film then shifts to seven months later, near the end of Leah's pregnancy, as Leah and June attend grief counseling. We learn that June has become incredibly successful as a music producer and that Leah has long blamed the creepy Karen for Lyle's death, with June and their therapist dismissing the fears as unhealthy coping. Leah befriends a neighbor, a popular model, who lets Leah talk about her theories about what happened to Lyle, and confirms them—leading to a public showdown with Karen. But is Karen a killer, or just a strange, sad woman? And if she's merely the latter, what happened to Lyle?
Knowing that a child would die early on in this film, I watched with dread, ready to skip ahead and apologize later. But the way Thorndike presents this scene is devastating without showing a thing, or even the screams that would accompany such an unthinkable parental loss, thanks to a very clever use of Skype, buffering, and only the most minimal off-screen implications of sheer horror.
This early scene sets a tone that is both chilling and respectful. The film does not use grief as an exploitative trope as other films might, relegating the grieving mother to this hysterical shrew judged harshly by the rest of the characters. Rather, Hoffmann imbues her role with a kind of grief bubbling just below the surface, masked by smiles and small talk, faking her way through grief counseling to convince her partner — and herself — that she is doing all right. That she is coping correctly and healthily. Maternal instinct is not used as an overwrought superpower, but a quiet resolve.
It's hard not to credit Thorndike and her heavily female crew and nearly entirely female cast for Lyle's absence of objectification, and the lived-in, natural relationship between Leah and June. Their relationship is neither for the male gaze nor for any gaze. It just is. Their distance, their comfort, even the one hinting of sex between the two, showing only their forearms, it's natural in a way a relationship between women onscreen is rarely if ever allowed to be, certainly not when a film is helmed by a male filmmaker, no matter how well-intentioned. Also, this may be the first film I've ever seen that is about a pregnancy but lacks any body horror or a traumatic and brutal birthing scene. In fact, the scene in which Leah gives birth turns that trope on its head in one of my favorite climaxes I've seen in years in any film, let alone a horror movie.
While the whole cast shines—from Jungermann's detached darkness to Street's delicious weirdness—this is Hoffmann's movie, and she is spectacular in it. Her eyes convey the deepest depths of parental pain and terror.
To watch Lyle was a visceral experience, nauseatingly tense. And while its length left me wanting more, I was more than happy with what I got.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.