Small town frights are anything but trivial in Spiral by writers Colin Minihan and John Poliquin. An anxiety soaked tale of hate.
Spiral is the kind of humble film that sneaks up on you. You don’t expect it to be as watchable or as textured as it is. It is exactly the kind of complex storytelling and moralistic signposting that horror capitalizes on so well. There are few things scarier than the evil within people. Spiral weave ancient mythologies with real-world terror to create something unexpected. Hommage is paid to many different subgenres without delving too deep into any. The end result is an utterly satisfying movie with a nihilistic truth bomb in the end.
Voyeuristic movies like Rear Window and psychological thrillers like Rosemary’s Baby work because they are so relatable. Everyone has felt that paranoia and embarrassed fascination with what is happening just over the fence. The Burb’s is funny because neighborhoods, especially suburbs, can become places for gossip, speculation, and entertainment. Spiral is a queer horror story that is more than the sum of its parts. More than love or fear, it’s about exploitation and human nature. Neither is pretty. There are things to be afraid of that lurk just outside our doors, and sometimes inside the walls of the place, we should feel the safest. Just because we are spiraling out of control doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be.
Editor’s Note: This entirely spoiler-free review of Spiral is tough to do because there is so much to dissect. Come back Thursday for the full explained piece. Until then, know Shudder’s latest is worth your time and will exceed your expectations.
Malik, Jeffrey Bower-Chapman from Lifetime’s original series Unreal (which if you haven’t seen it, run don’t walk) and Aaron, Ari Cohen from It Chapter Two are a married couple raising Aaron’s teenage daughter together. They have moved to a small town where strange things begin happening immediately. The problem is that only Malik sees them, and he is hardly a reliable witness. His neighbors seem friendly enough, but not everyone in town is happy to see them. Aaron thinks it’s all in his head, but as he begins to unravel, they both learn some things you can never outrun.
A nostalgic trip down the President Clinton era is the backdrop, but it could just as easily be 2020 minus the clunky computers, dot matrix printers, and spandex biker shorts. The script rings true no matter what the setting. Smart production design makes the most of appropriately aged set pieces, and direction by Kurtis David Harder rings every nuanced emotion from his actors. In particular, Lochlyn Munroe(Marshall), who does quiet menace well, and Bower-Chapman are standouts.
The film focuses almost exclusively on Malik(Bower-Chapman), who is our POV for everything that happens. The camera loves him. He brings a matured party boi vibe to his emotive Malik. Malik wants to live life loud and proud in rebellion. Past trauma has made him even more determined to be true to himself, even in an era that wasn’t always as accepting of change. Aaron, on the other hand, is more tied to his traditional ways, and without the past weighing him down, he is more trusting of the neighbors even when he shouldn’t be.
He is a kept man. He is younger than Aaron and hasn’t established much of a career yet. As a result, he is insecure and Aaron holds all the power. That isn’t a problem until doubt begins to creep in about what is happening around him and potentially to him. He hides trouble instead of discussing it with Aaron out of desperation to hold on to normalcy. That has disastrous effects. It’s a point of view traditionally told from May/December straight relationships but it is used to good effect here.
Malik clearly loves his adoptive daughter and husband. He also is profoundly affected by a traumatic event in his past. The violent encounter introduced in hazy quick cuts doles out information slowly. You don’t know exactly what happened initially only that it was painful and Malik believes in standing strong in spite of it. Like the film itself, these early flashbacks are nightmarish scatter shots of something unexplained but horrible. His husband Aaron presents more outwardly cis and hasn’t seen as much of the overt bigotry Malik has. As a result, he is a little quicker to trust people and explain away passive-aggressive behaviors. Comments like, “That’s so great, we don’t have anyone like you in town.” aren’t as obviously hateful as slurs are just as problematic.
Malik becomes increasingly concerned and confused as the film progresses. Movies, where the protagonist is as confused as Malik, can often be muddled messes. More stunt storytelling than cohesive throughlines, they rely on the twist rather than a methodical character arch. Spiral has both a twist ending you won’t exactly see coming and a tight conclusion. That is primarily due to the excellent performance by Bower-Chapman, who is believably distraught and deeply sympathetic even when things completely go off the rails in the third act.
There will undoubtedly be comparisons to Jordan Peele’s Get Out who so terrifyingly described the feeling of racism in the Sunken Place. Spiral does a similar thing here with the mechanics of PTSD and manipulation. It doesn’t ever try to usurp one prejudice for another however, just point out that humans are very flawed. While Spiral doesn’t achieve quite as many dynamic shifts as Get Out, particularly in the final act, it is cut from the same cloth. Harrowing plot beats that rush at you in a nightscape of dread and distrust are driven home with nails of apprehension and barely disguised condescension. Spiral is an unsettling look at society.
Spiral will suprise you. Just when you think you have it all figured out, things careen off into completely unexpected places. Not all the loose ends tie together, but enough do to make this one of the best new movies to hit Shudder since Z. The best parts are an interesting mix of realism and supernatural witchery that will leave you guessing. The ending doesn’t stray from the formula and is just as enigmatic. Equal parts bleak and hopeful, it’s like life itself. Resolute and depraved, joyful and sad, gorgeous, and grotesque. Spiral is the most inventive takes on queer horror to date and will translate for years to come. Catch this great film on September 17th, 2020, on Shudder.
As the Managing Editor for Signal Horizon, I love watching and writing about genre entertainment. I grew up with old-school slashers, but my real passion is television and all things weird and ambiguous. My work can be found here and Travel Weird, where I am the Editor in Chief.