Stewart Thorndike is making horror films for women

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A few years ago, Stewart Thorndike was depressed. She couldn’t get the funding she wanted to make her all-female horror film, and was about to give up. But when she saw how women creators were taking to the web for their own projects, she was inspired—specifically her ex-girlfriend Ingrid Jungermann‘s successful series The Slope.

“I thought, ‘I should just do what she’s doing. She does exactly what she wants to do and she’s making it on her own terms with whatever resources she can find,'” Stewart said.

Stewart Thorndike
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Stewart’s horror film, Lyle, was made on a much smaller budget than originally planned, but looks more polished and is certainly better written and acted than most in the horror genre in recent history. Starring Gaby Hoffmann as Leah, a pregnant mother who moves into a Brooklyn apartment with her partner (Ingrid Jungermann) and subsequently finds her sanity in question when her daughter falls out of a window and dies. Comparisons to Rosemary’s Baby are apt, but it’s a completely different piece outside of some plot similarities.

“I had like five grand and asked Gaby if she’d do it,” Stewart said. “I had talked to her about doing it as a feature for 80 grand, and I was like ‘Why do I think I’ll find 80 grand if I can’t find a million’” So I thought, let’s just do it for five grand in my living room if we have to. And she was like ‘OK, let’s do it.'”

Gaby Hoffmann was first a child star in films like Uncle Buck and Now and Then but took several years off from acting before reemerging in Sundance darling Crystal Fairy & the Magical Cactus and starring in Lyle. Since then she’s had a career renaissance of sorts, appearing in Girls, Louie and the upcoming Jill Soloway show Transparent.

“I wasn’t very aware of how famous or not famous she was or she was becoming,” Stewart said of Gaby. “I just remember seeing her for the first time at a tiny friends’s screening and thinking, ‘Oh she’s got something, I want to work with her one day.’ So I wrote the part with her in mind and gambled that she would want to do it. She didn’t have any of those parts at the time, although I guess she already shot Crystal Fairy. We didn’t really talk bout what she was doing. It wasn’t a calculated move on my part. I just wanted to work with her. She has something I was attracted to. She’s really cool and really game and it’s a testament to her that she’d want to work on this very scrappy project.

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“And she hates horror,” Stewart added with a laugh.

Gaby is intense in the role, expertly creating creepiness in scenes by herself that might otherwise feel forced with less accomplished actors. Leah and June (Jungermann) may be a lesbian couple, but their sexuality is a non-issue. Instead, their relationship is fraught with the same kinds of issues any male-female or male-male couple might have, and when their daughter passes, they go through the same grieving process any human would.

Stewart said she doesn’t ever have any kind of “social or political agenda,” but her work is largely about queer women.

“I think it just happens naturally. I’m not a very, like, moral filmmaker. It’s not my entry point,” she said. “I’m just kind of compelled and have these stories. I sort of write what turns me on. But at the same time you couldn’t make me put a man in there if I didn’t want to. I guess I’m note interested in women’s stories and I’m drawn to them and that’s always what I’ve written. I have one story bout a guy but it wasn’t out of any kind of intellectual or ethical, social desire.”

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While Lyle was originally written as a feature and then shot as a web series, Stewart had an interesting trajectory with the eventual delivery of the finished product.

“I thought that was kind of cool to make a horror web series because everybody’s making comedies,” Stewart said. “I still think it’s cool but somehow when I watched it it felt kind of disjointed, like you kind of want to stay immersed in the experience instead of breaking it up. It turned out better than I could have dreamed of. I thought it was working a lot better with the budget we had so we shot a couple more days. We sort of cobbled it together which is why it’s a 60 minute short feature.”

Since then, the film has had a premiere at Outfest and Stewart has fielded unsolicited requests for distribution and screenings that surprised but delighted her.

Lyle is now available in its entirety at lylemovie.com, but is only available for free watching one more week. The idea, Stewart said, is for viewers to enjoy the low-budget work and donate to her next project, another horror film called Putney.

“Again it’s all ladies — gay women,” Stewart said. “And it’s about three women who go to the country to find this thing they used to have, to reconnect and one of them brings along an uninvited guest who may or may not be crazy and the dynamic shifts and they’re all in the woods and everything’s going wrong. They’re not exactly in the woods, they’re in an abandoned Residence Inn type hotel in the middle of nowhere. And one of them is very inspired by this TED Talk.”

The main character, named Lucy Nodd, is inspired by a video much like Brene Brown‘s TED Talk, Stewart said. “She’s trying to reconnect with her girlfriend of four years and their estranged best friend so she’s trying to be as vulnerable as she can be, which is really hard for her and then she creates—she brings everybody on this trip and things are starting to go wrong an instead of connecting with her loved ones, she keeps retreating and watching this TED talk over and over again.”

Fundraising for Putney ends in one week, and Stewart hopes to shoot in upstate New York sometime next spring. Like Lyle, she wrote the film with a very specific actress in mind for the lead, though she won’t say who. (“I’m talking to her now. I think she’ll do it.”)

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As for the kinds of horror films she’s inspired by, Stewart cites classics like The Exorcist, The Fly and The Innocents, but also enjoys “stylish” horror films of late like House of the Devil, The Blair Witch Project and the first Paranormal Activity. But as an out woman in the genre, she doesn’t feel she has a lot of peers, which could be one reason it’s assumed that horror fans tend to be men.

“My theory is men have taken horror over so completely and they’ve dumbed it down in a way that decided only young teenage boys want it, so it’s being branded in this weird way,” Stewart said. “It’s not so much that women don’t like horror, there’s an association with horror that has been kind of taken over but it doesn’t need to be that way. We can rebrand it.”

Visit lylemovie.com to watch Lyle and find out more about Putney.

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