★★★ / ★★★★
Stewart Thorndike’s debut picture is obviously inspired by Roman Polanski’s horror classic “Rosemary’s Baby.” Like that film, this one is patient, more interested in building suspense rather than delivering thrills, and quite unsettling when all is revealed. But unlike that film, the writer-director, clearly skillful when it comes to establishing pacing and possessing a keen eye for making ordinary objects look sinister, is able to tell his story—about a pregnant woman who suspects that the manager (Rebecca Street) in the building intends to kill her baby—in just one hour. It is so impressive, that by the end of it I wondered why most pictures these days need to be at least eighty minutes. “Lyle” values our time.
And our intelligence. There is not one jump scare to be had here. No CGI monster or demon that appears from the dark. (No practical one either.) There are, however, shots of people looking at the very pregnant Leah just a little bit longer than they should. As if they admire her, hoping to touch her, taste her. Leah is played with terrific gusto and magnetism by Gaby Hoffman. Not only is she required to portray the raw physicality of pregnancy, she must convince us that her character’s every waking hour of grief and depression from having lost her firstborn is another weight on her shoulders. It is critical that we question her mental state at times. That perhaps she is only imagining that a person, or persons, is out to get her.
Additional pressure: Leah feels that her partner, June (Ingrid Jungermann), who works for a record company, is beginning to grow distant the more they become financially successful. Jungermann does a good job as the cooler of the two heads. Her June must be the anchor of their family, in a traditional sense, during a most tumultuous pregnancy. The performer is correct to leave the possibility that her character might be up to something menacing. (She works long hours. When questioned about it, it is ignored.) In a story like this, in order to be truly effective, we must suspect everyone. Because when we do, we watch a little more closely and we are engaged to read between the lines.
Suspense is not simply reliant on who is up to what (if any) or whoever is involved, real or imagined. I enjoyed the daring of the dialogue, particularly when characters say the painfully awkward things during the most inappropriate times. The therapy sessions (Ashlie Atkinson playing the marriage counselor) are firecrackers because it is the time and place where Leah and June feel they can express thoughts and feelings they tend to hide or cover up while at home. It is suggested to Leah that she is such in a deep state of grief that perhaps she has started to imagine things in order to cope. She’s not convinced this is at all the case. Are we?
“Lyle” is a true psychological horror in that it is able to a lot with sounds. Rapid, baby-like footsteps can be heard when it is only Leah and her firstborn in the house… while the toddler is in the same room as our heroine, sitting in one spot. Muffled exchanges can be heard in the walls. Leah opens the front door and catches the building manager, who is at least sixty years old, pretending to be pregnant and lactating. Really bizarre happenings. Familiar elements are there yet it still makes you wonder how all the creepy pieces will fit together. Or will they? It depends on perspective.