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Spiral Review

September 16, 2020 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
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Spiral Review  

Directed by: Kurtis David Harder
Written by: Colin Minihan & John Poliquin

Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman – Malik
Ari Cohen – Aaron
Jennifer Laporte – Kayla
Ty Wood – Tyler
Chandra West – Tiffany
Lochlyn Munro – Marshal

Running Time: 87 minutes
Not Rated

Socially conscious horror films are by no means a new thing; quite the opposite. Fright flicks that touch on deeper themes about society have been around since film has been a thing, with the genre often allowing filmmakers a camouflage to hide their messages under metaphor when it wasn’t safe to discuss them openly. That’s resulted in great films like Rosemary’s Baby, Videodrome, Night of the Living Dead and others who have a lot more to say than the genre ever gets credit for.

That said, in the past few years the genre has seen a real revival in films that aren’t afraid to be very upfront about their messages. The latest addition to that lineup is Spiral. The film – which, it must be said, is not the upcoming Saw movie with a very similar name – is set to release on Shudder on Thursday and brings the horror of hatred to the genre in a way that hasn’t often been seen before.

The film stars Bowyer-Chapman and Cohen as Malik and Aaron, a couple moving to a small community in 1995 with their 16 year-old daughter Kayla from Aaron’s previous marriage. Malik is a ghostwriter with a traumatic incident from his past in Chicago involving a hate crime, while Aaron is the wealthier of the two and works out of the home. That leaves Malik, who is more femme of the two (and thus more overtly gay to straight eyes), to tend to the house and act as the more present parent to Kayla.

From the start, Malik realizes something’s up in this town. There’s the man he sees standing outside their home staring at them. There’s also the fact that when neighbor Tiffany stops by, she assumes that Malik is the gardener – and when corrected on that, she replies that they don’t have “a lot” of people like them. The phrase is said to both of them but is clearly directed at Malik, which makes it ambiguous whether she means queer people or people of color. Oh, and there’s also the fact that someone breaks into their home one day and spray paints a homophobic slur across their wall…you know, those little details.

Malik is immediately on edge, but he hides the worst of it from Aaron who has grown up in a more sheltered and privileged world where he hasn’t had to deal with this kind of thing the way Malik has. Before long, it starts to become clear to Malik that it’s not just your garden-variety homophobia. He witnesses the neighbors gather in a home doing a strange sort of ritual and starts to uncover worrying evidence that the tone has a dangerous past for queer couples. But a few placating phrases from their neighbors has Aaron convinced nothing’s wrong; is it just Malik’s PTSD from his past? Or is there something deeper going on here?

On its surface, Spiral seems to be a rote affair: a fairly straight-forward horror film with a gay twist. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, to be fair. Queer horror has pretty strong roots, all the way back to Dracula’s Daughter and This Old Dark House in the 1930s. But there’s also something deeper going on here that the script from Colin Minihan and John Poliquin nimbly plays with. Yes, bigotry and hate are bad; we don’t need a film to tell us that (and if we do, we’re already lost to reason).

But the story thankfully wants to go deeper than that shallow observation. Spiral explores how deeply the wounds inflicted by bigotry can reach, how not all oppression takes the form of gay bashing or slurs, and how even within the queer community there can be deep divisions. Malik is separated from Aaron in multiple ways; he suffered a hate crime, he’s a person of color, and his gayness is more in your face than Aaron. In short, he’s representative of the “less acceptable” gay man, while Aaron’s need to be seen as “normal” makes him act as one of “the good gays.”

That division is a very real one, and Harder uses the film to show how the tactics of hatred have changed. The 1990s setting exacerbates the matter, but the very apparent fact is that little has changed in some ways. When the notion is presented that it’s a more enlightened time and gay people don’t have to worry about the violence they used to have to face, it’s hard not to forget that this film is set before the murder of Matthew Shepard.

But while there’s a lot of “message” in this film, the roots of why it works are found in the characters and performances. There are a lot of socially conscious films out there that fall on their face because they forget what makes a film good in the first place. Spiral is not one of those films, and it has a strong argument to make for a future headlining career for Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman. Bowyer-Chapman dominates the story as Malik, appearing in almost every scene, and he sells is instantly. He has immediate and real chemistry with all of the characters; Malik’s relationship with Aaron feels real, and his father-daughter dynamic with Kayla is the heart of the film.

He’s surrounded by a capable supporting cast too. Credit to Cohen here, who is playing a difficult role in the guy who have to love at first before his actions take a turn toward the infuriating. Jennifer Laporte is believable as the teenage Kayla as well, portraying the conflict between loving her dads and being conflicted over being pulled away from the life she knew. Chandra West plays the too-perfect neighbor very well, with just enough off-kilter to her that we have cause to suspect her.

The only misstep among the cast is not the performance, but in the casting. Throughout the film, there’s cause to wonder if Malik’s past trauma issues are affecting him, and the script certainly does its work to try and make that ambiguous. But the second any Riverdale viewer sees Lochlyn Munro on screen as Tiffany’s husband Marshal, those bets are off. Munro played the epitome of a monster underneath a milquetoast exterior on that show, and it’s hard not to see him as that here. Monro is good in the role but casting to type here hurts the effectiveness of the gaslighting that Malik is going through.

This is also a horror film of course, and horror films can’t usually survive on suspense along. Harder keeps the film on that road for a good portion of the film, letting the unsettling tone simmer slowly. He plays with the tropes of horror: the creepy old man, a ghost girl, the creepy spiral motif. But when it’s time for the horror to come into play, he doesn’t hold back. Spiral doesn’t have a massive budget but it makes the most of it, largely confined to one horrifically shocking scene. No, the horror here is less cosmic monster and more of the garden variety monster. In the end, they’re often much scarier.

The final score: review Good
The 411
Kurtis David Harder’s Spiral is a film that some may bypass as another socially conscious horror film following in the footsteps of Get Out or slow-burn indy horror like Hereditary or The Babadook. That would be unfortunate, as it’s a film with a lot of its own things to say. Anchored by a stellar performance from Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman, it leans into the terror created by those who may not even hate the Other themselves, but will demonize them for their own purposes. This isn’t a film that will satisfy people who prefer their horror heavy on the gore and light on the mood, but those more accepting of the reverse will find themselves in for an effectively unnerving horror experience.

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Spiral, Jeremy Thomas