Director Kurtis David Harder, producer of Harpoon and What Keeps You Alive, has crafted a film whose title, Spiral, is symbolic of the endless cycle of hate that plagues the world and America in particular.
Set in 1995, the film follows same-sex interracial couple Malik (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman) and Aaron (Ari Cohen) who, along with Aaron’s teenage daughter Kayla (Jennifer Laporte), are moving out of the big city and into a small town; however, Malik is haunted by trauma in his past, as the film opens with a flashback of Malik seeing his ex-boyfriend’s murder. This hate crime is seen in flashes throughout Spiral, but despite the violence, Malik speaks of the bravery that comes with living your life loud and proud and he isn’t afraid to show off his man in this new very white, very straight neighborhood. A wonderful dynamic is created, and while they are hit with messages about the traditional family unit and looked upon as aliens, the film explores how this family is no different than any other. The relationship between Malik and Kayla in particular is really touching. Kayla is a child of a messy divorce and feels abandoned by her mother, but she has formed a friendship with her dad’s new beau and doesn’t mind having Malik lovingly calling her “booger.”
The genre that this family lives in creates a tone shift that’s jarring and results in the most frightening horror film of the year. If you have any gay friends, you’ll know that they have a positive, upbeat aura about them that seems impossible to break, but as Malik, Aaron, and Kayla try to settle into small-town life, this aura is broken by the high-pitched sounds that could only be heard in a traditional genre score. The horror genre almost feels like it can’t possibly apply to this particular dynamic. Or perhaps, we just don’t want it to. But no matter how horrific the narrative gets, it’s reminiscent of the horrors that LGBTQ+ people face every day.
Spiral’s cinematography and editing are cleverly used, producing some really great shots. One shot that sticks to mind is of an American flag that’s edited in between two scenes—a message that this family doesn’t fit into ’90s American suburbia. And they certainly don’t, as it becomes clear that this neighborhood is in the vein of other horror films like Get Out and Satanic Panic. It’s another group of crazy white folks partaking in messed-up rituals. In Spiral’s case, they conduct a ritual sacrifice against anyone who is a minority and Malik discovers that there have been gay couples murdered going back decades. Many of the film’s horrific scenes are done without showing the audience who’s responsible. For example, Malik comes home to find a slur painted inside their home, and he paints over it. Bowyer-Chapman delivers a standout performance as someone taking on these horrors alone. He refuses to involve his family, but when it starts to affect them, too, like blood of dead animals seeping through their ceiling, Aaron explains away any negative connotation against their neighbors.
Ultimately, Spiral is Malik’s story and any of the scenes without him feel unnecessary because all the horror comes from his experiences. Much of the scare factor derives from his hallucinations caused by the neighbours switching his medication. But this also leads to some cheap jump scares which aren’t needed in a film that is already as frightening as it is. There may not be lots of gore or a villain in a mask, but Spiral’s message is scarier. As the script points out, people say that the world is a different place, but it isn’t. It’s the same as it always was, but now people are just better at hiding their prejudice. It’s frightening to think that the old ways of thinking will never die, but Spiral also presents some conflicting messages. The film goes from praising being loud and proud to saying how being loud and proud is dangerous. Maybe this thought fit in 1995, but telling a gay 2019 audience that they should be scared to be loud and proud is foolish.
Spiral effectively showcases the horrors of many relevant themes, but you can’t help but feel uneasy, and by its end, you wonder if you actually liked the film. There’s something messed up going on in every town, but Spiral’s execution of that undertone warrants much contemplation.
Movie Score: 3/5