2014 / NR

Director: Stewart Thorndike

Writer: Stewart Thorndike

Stars: Gaby Hoffman, Kim Allen, Ashlie Atkinson

*This review contains some mild spoilers throughout.

Lyle has been described by its director, Stewart Thorndike (born Megan Stewart Thorndike), as “Rosemary’s Baby with lesbians.” The comparison is apt – the film follows many of the same beats as the Polanski classic, compressed to a taut 65 minutes – but the perspective is its own, and a wholly modern one at that. Shot in a mere five days on a shoestring budget, the film takes a stylish, bare bones approach to exposing both the horror and power of motherhood.

The film opens with Leah (the always impressive Gaby Hoffmann) and June (Ingrid Jungermann) walking through a spacious townhouse with the landlady, Karen (Rebecca Street). Leah can’t seem to believe their luck – the house is far better than what she thought they could afford – and in her happiness she admits to Karen that she’s pregnant for her second time with another girl (the first being the titular daughter Lyle), something she hadn’t even divulged yet to June. Strangely, June absorbs the news stone faced, and grimly says they’ll take the house.

Soon after moving in, Leah Skypes with a friend and laments her feelings that June seems to be growing distant from her and Lyle. While Leah is talking, Lyle wanders off screen, and so we only hear the tragic, guttural cries as Leah discovers that the toddler has fallen from an open window to her death. The scene is just the first example of Thorndike’s restrained, unsettling brand of horror, and a glimpse of things to come.

From there, the film follows a narrative deceptively similar to Rosemary’s Baby – as Leah’s second pregnancy progresses, she grows increasingly paranoid that someone is trying to harm her baby, though she can’t explain why. The person she suspects of being behind the nebulous plot is the peculiar landlady (reminiscent of Rosemary’s odd, busybody neighbors), an older woman obsessed with babies, who inexplicably claims to be pregnant during Leah’s time in the building.

What makes Lyle most interesting, though, is the often-subtle ways it deviates from its source material. Although June is aggravatingly similar to Rosemary’s husband in her apathy regarding Leah’s concerns – she’s too busy with her blossoming career to worry about Leah’s spiraling mental health – the playing field is a bit more level this time around. Evidence of Leah’s autonomy abounds, including the setup of a birth pool in the couple’s living room. The couple sees a therapist together in order to handle their grief over losing Lyle, and when the therapist suggests that Leah take medication to alleviate her anxiety, the couple presents a united front in declining. Furthermore, that refusal is accepted and taken in stride by the (also female) therapist, who is willing to explore other options.

This all stands in stark contrast to the paternalistic way everyone in Rosemary’s life treated her, from her husband to her doctor. When Rosemary complained of pain during pregnancy – to a doctor her husband insisted she see, against her own wishes – the doctor waved it off, without bothering to provide an explanation or care. When Rosemary finally voiced her fears to another doctor, he called her husband and threatened to put her in a mental institution, the specter of “hysteria” looming tall over all diagnoses of women’s ailments. Although things have not changed entirely, Leah’s worries are not so readily brushed off (except by June, whose motives are clear from the beginning). Other people in her life are at least willing to listen and discuss Leah’s fears, a habit totally absent from Rosemary’s world.

Most notably, though, Hoffmann’s Leah is an entirely different character than Farrow’s Rosemary: while Rosemary was meek and fragile (traits largely forced upon her and encouraged by society), Leah is a much more independent force to be reckoned with. Unfortunately for her, she still has to deal with a gaslighting partner intent on making her doubt herself, but Leah’s instincts are strong, and she is strong enough to follow them to the brink. The climactic scene is breathtaking in both its force and terror.

Lyle is perhaps a bit too short to delve as fully or satisfyingly into these themes as it could, but it is a delightfully dark, smart film nonetheless. In the end, it is revealed that June’s pact with the devil deviates from the one in Rosemary’s Baby on one important point – in lieu of a male child, June is forced to give up two female children in exchange for success. Seems like there’s a barb in there somewhere about women and equality, doesn’t it?

Claire Holland is a freelance writer and author of Razor Apple, a blog devoted to horror movies and horror culture with a feminist bent. You can follow her on twitter @ClaireCWrites.