Lyle (2014) is a Brooklyn-based film imbued in paranoia, grief and horror. The story begins with June, a pregnant Leah and their toddler, Lyle, touring the apartment of a brownstone in Brooklyn, New York. It’s a film with a hopeful beginning as the couple moves into their new home and playfully argues over rooms in the apartment. However, this romantic tale quickly descends into tragedy when Lyle falls out of the family’s brownstone window and dies on impact.
Prior to its production, director Stewart Thorndike and then-girlfriend, Ingrid Jungermann, had an argument about having children. In an interview with IndieWire, Thorndike recalls having a suspicious idea moments after the fight: Jungermann was a bad person for not wanting to have kids. The notion sparked the creation of Lyle, what Thorndike describes as “the lesbian version” of Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968).
Much like Polanski’s film, Lyle utilizes Leah’s distress as a point of psychological contention. Forty-six years after the release of Rosemary’s Baby, Thorndike forces audiences to ask a similar question: Is she delusional or is a Satanic cult really working against her?
When asked what her perspective brings to the horror genre with its deliberately female/LGBT focus, Thorndike responded, “Maybe Lyle’s contribution to LGBT stuff is that it normalizes it. They just happen to be gay – it’s not the storyline.” However, details that are present in Lyle and absent in Rosemary’s Baby, specifically gender non-conforming characters and pioneering film choices, differentiate the horrific elements of Thorndike’s film in contrast to Polanski’s.
While Polanski creates a world where the line between reality and dream is so incredibly blurred that the viewers understanding of reality becomes unstable, in Lyle’s diegesis the blurring of heterosexual cis-gender roles becomes the point of instability. During her grieving period, Leah begins to suspect evil within the brownstone. The property consists of a barren building manager (Karen), a model (Taylor) who confesses to having a “mistake” when asked about her past pregnancy, and a career-driven and distant June. These are the driving forces behind Leah’s paranoia, and they surround her (see brownstone blueprint): a landlady who wants children so badly that she is even seen faking a baby bump, and a model and wife who are so motivated by their careers that they reject the traditional roles associated with motherhood altogether. Leah – an attentive stay-at-home mother and homemaker – is the only character who fits the archetype of a ‘traditional’ woman/wife and the one person the viewer is encouraged to identify with. Whereas, the other characters refuse to subscribe to conventional cis-gender roles and, therefore, become suspects of foul play in Lyle’s death.
Within the first eleven minutes of the film Thorndike portrays the death of a child through a Skype session between Leah and her friend, Threes. While this isn’t necessarily a choice dependent on the gender or sexual preference of the director, it is an ingenious direction that is non-exploitative. In other words, the death on Skype is as tasteful as it is terrifying. The inventive use of computer buffering builds temporal suspense and, at the moment of Leah’s recognition of Lyle’s death, the image and sound become disjointed. The choice to fragment the audio and visuals symbolizes the nonlinear and surreal, disorganized panic of an actual traumatic event.
In the following scene Thorndike depicts a seven month leap in the narrative with visuals from within Leah’s womb, a scene that matches the cleverness of the Skype session. The embryo’s development is paired with a voice over of the couple’s grief counselor explaining the emotional toll of a mother who has lost her child. This is certainly a film choice that affirms SYFYWire’s claim that Lyle is “the Rosemary’s Baby that was written for Rosemary.” Leah is not Rosemary, the victim of a pregnancy, but instead an active body that fights back as she healthily grows life from within. The distinction between a passive Rosemary and an active Leah certainly foreshadows the difference between the two films’ endings.
It is also important to acknowledge that Lyle was originally distributed online and for free, unlike Rosemary’s Baby – a 33.4 million USD box office hit. While it’s certainly not the same as watching a horror movie on the silver screen, there is an intimacy to watching Lyle on the computer that makes the film even creepier. For example, the Skype session is viewed on the same device spectators use to engage in their own Skype sessions. And when Leah begins to dig deeper into what her therapist invalidates as paranoid theories stirred by grief, it is almost as if Leah has taken over the viewer’s computer. The spectator’s laptop screen or desktop then switches to a Google page to research Karen, the quirky landlady. It is an eerie moment when Leah stumbles upon her own brownstone address in a list of Brooklyn death houses on what is now a sort of shared computer screen.
These films, without a doubt, share a lot of the same elements. For one, early on in the narrative the viewer is forced to turn their genre dial from romance to horror. Both Leah and Rosemary have their counselor and doctor link their current pregnancies to a kind of psychosis, and both women are married to partners who value their careers over family. Nevertheless, the world Thorndike has created is one that has turned Polanski’s upside down, if not inverted it. The building and brownstone Rosemary and Leah move into are both childless, but the starring couple is now gay. In turn, Leah’s pregnancy is not a rape that leaves her questioning the trust she has in her marriage (as it is for Rosemary), but an active decision presumably done via artificial insemination. Another difference can be spotted in the sex of the babies. The babies Leah carries are always girls. In Rosemary’s world her body is always being invaded by men, from the muddled rape scene to her being pregnant with a boy. However, Leah’s inability to have the boy June so badly covets is eventually what brings her closer to understanding and therefore actively fighting off the Satanic cult that’s after her. Lyle, then, is as much a queering of Rosemary’s Baby as it is a modernization of it.
By Brooke Sonenreich
B. Sonenreich is a film critic from Miami, Florida. She has a BA in creative writing with a minor in film studies from Florida State University. She is currently a Master’s candidate in the Moving Image Studies program at Georgia State University. She loves the horror film genre and has a penchant for watching The Shining over and over again. You can find her on Twitter @BSonenreich or Instagram @brookenreich.