You've heard the story before: A pregnant woman suspects her neighbors are part of a Satanic cult, and they want her unborn child. As her paranoia grows, so does the danger. But is she truly the victim of a demonic bargain, or just losing her sanity?
Writer-director Stewart Thorndike's psychological thriller Lyle, currently streaming for free at lylemovie.com, utilizes the tropes of classic horror films such as Rosemary's Baby to brilliant effect while simultaneously re-interpreting said tropes through a female gaze. Leah (Gaby Hoffmann, Girls) happily settles into a new apartment with her lesbian partner, until tragedy strikes -- and Leah begins to suspect much darker powers at work behind their move to the city. Everyone in the building is a suspect, from the friendly college graduate to the kooky landlady, and, ultimately, even the people Leah trusts most.
Once again, low-budget horror proves itself vastly more terrifying than any blockbuster gore-fest, using suggestion, sounds, and very clever camera techniques to build layer upon layer of dread (one scene's use of a Skype call remains viscerally haunting long after viewing). With staggering tension and a stunning payoff, Lyle is not only a testament to the power of psychological horror, but an outstanding piece of feminist critique in a genre sorely lacking diversity.
Women and Hollywood spoke with Thorndike about the dearth of women’s voices in the horror genre and her decision to release her films online for free.
W&H: Where did the idea for the film come from?
ST: The story for Lyle came to me in this one, really clear moment. I was dating Ingrid [Jungermann], who plays June, at the time and was mad at her. I wanted to have a kid, and she didn't. I was in the shower -- angry -- and I had this thought: she's bad. Then the whole story of her preventing me from having all these babies I wanted slammed into my head. I remember jumping out of the shower, jotting the whole thing down, looking at it, and thinking, Oh, I just wrote the story for Rosemary's Baby a little. But the lesbian version.
W&H: This is the first in a trilogy of feminist horror films from you. What prompted you to want to work in horror?
ST: I've always been attracted to horror. In grad school I tried to pull away from it. There's an idea that horror is cheap, that you should try and be subtle and real -- whatever that is. But I finally just let myself go back to it. I like things to be extreme. To exaggerate my ideas and themes into the biggest places. I also like how sensual horror is in a visual way. That makes it really inspiring creatively.
W&H: What do you think your perspective brings to the genre, and to Lyle in particular, with its deliberately female/LGBT-focus?
ST: Maybe Lyle's contribution to LGBT stuff is that it normalizes it. They just happen to be gay -- it's not the storyline.
I'm not a fan of many horror films that are floating around right now -- the mainstream ones, I mean. A lot of them are all about sadism, which I loath. I think if more women are making horror, we'll see brand-new scary stuff. There's a whole world of untapped stuff that is complicated and frightening and dreadful. Horror shouldn't just be running from the chainsaw.
W&H: Horror is notorious for exploitative violence against women, yet I know many women (including myself!) who are drawn to both the style and the story opportunities. In fact, many horror film festivals are either run by or feature women. What do you think about how the genre's evolving to become more inclusive, and how it might continue?
ST: The idea of women being drawn to horror makes perfect sense to me. Humans crave seeing their fears and dark sides played out and examined. It goes back to childhood -- the long-lasting kid books are often [about] kids in peril: mom or dad is gone and someone evil has taken their place, that house looks tasty but there is some kind of evil trick inside, don't trust grandma. That's all really dark stuff. And kids love it and need it. I think women do too.
W&H: How difficult was it to raise funds?
ST: Before Lyle, I had tried to make another genre film with female leads and hadn't been able to raise the money. So for Lyle, I didn't want that to happen again, so we took any resources we had and made it for next to nothing. We didn't wait for someone to give us permission or approval to make it. And in that spirit we decided to release it for free online at LYLEmovie.com to coincide with a Kickstarter for our next female-driven horror film, Putney.
W&H: What advantages and difficulties were there to releasing online, as opposed to more standard distribution? Where do you see online distribution in the future?
ST: The advantage to online distribution is that it is immediate and empowering. Our goal is to find an audience for this kind of film and see if they will help make the next one -- versus begging some guy in a meeting to believe people want to see films with women in them.
W&H: What were some of the most challenging parts of making the film?
ST: I was blessed with a great crew and cast, but I took advantage of them. I don't like not paying people. I don't like the myth that you can make movies for cheap. It's sort of like saying you can build a skyscraper for nothing -- you just have to not pay for materials and labor.
W&H: Do you have any advice for aspiring women filmmakers?
ST: My advice to female filmmakers is to find a way to feel in control of your work, even in some small way. Keep making projects no matter what -- don't wait for permission to do it.